Accordingly, my family and I began our recent trip to Italy with an educational visit to Rome and Pompeii and ended with a sybaritic idyll on the Amalfi Coast. The weather, food and amenities were all perfect. The only problem is that a lot of people had the same idea. August being the height of the high season, we predictably had to battle our way through hordes of fellow tourists. Yet not even overcrowding (or the political chaos in Rome) can spoil Bella Italia. You can easily get punch-drunk on its splendors, from Bernini’s sublime statues to the Amalfi Coast’s majestic cliffs.
One of the highlights was a few nights on Capri, a small isle in the Tyrrhenian Sea that has hosted pleasure seekers since the days when Emperor Tiberius built villas there. We did what tourists are supposed to do; I even lost my sunglasses in the sea while viewing the famous Blue Grotto from an overpriced rowboat. (Perhaps some future archaeologist will conclude that the Romans wore plastic shades?)
But even on Capri I could not devote myself exclusively to the enjoyment of the pellucid blue waters, the fresh seafood and the icy limoncello. The dyspeptic English novelist Graham Greene — a brilliant literary stylist who featured in my biography of the real “Quiet American,” Edward Lansdale — kept a home on Capri for decades. The address is not publicly listed (at least I didn’t find it on the Internet), but I nevertheless felt compelled to make a pilgrimage. This involved trudging the hilly streets of the town of Anacapri during the suffocating heat of the early afternoon, grumpy family in tow. I thought I had found the sacred site when an elderly Italian man told us, “The a--hole Graham Greene? He lived down there.” I never was able to identify precisely which villa was his, but I did learn what kind of reputation the novelist (who died in 1991) had among his neighbors.
On my Roman holiday my guide was a dead man of incomparable erudition and wit: the late Australian art critic Robert Hughes. I spent every free moment of my first week in Italy reading his 2011 book “Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History.” Published just a year before he died, it incomparably enriched my journey by providing the kind of historical detail and critical judgment that you search for in vain in guidebooks — or tour guides.
I used to be one of those people who read thrillers on vacation, but for some reason most thrillers no longer thrill me. Maybe because these days reality is far more unbelievable than any fiction? For whatever reason, I find it impossible to disengage my brain even on vacation and can’t understand those who do. People who sit for hours in a beach chair or an airplane seat without any reading material simply baffle me: What is going on between their ears, I wonder?
I yearn for intellectual sustenance on vacation but want, of course, to avoid tedium or boredom. I want to read something that will entertain me but also help me appreciate what I am seeing. Hughes’s book fit the bill like a refreshing Aperol spritz on a hot afternoon.
I learned that Roman armies relied on sacred chickens to foretell the outcome of battles (if they pecked with gusto at their chicken feed, this was considered an excellent omen); that the word “fornication” comes from the arches or fornices of Rome, a go-to spot for ancient prostitutes; that a third-century Christian martyr supposedly defied his pagan tormentors by telling them, as they were roasting him to death, “Turn me over, I am done on this side”; that the Romans, and their papal successors, did more damage to ancient Rome than any invaders by continually reusing materials from old buildings to construct new ones; that, until the advent of the Grand Tour in the 18th century, English travelers regarded Rome with horror as a place where (in the words of an anonymous poet) “eve’ry sentiment is lost, And Treach’ry reigns”; that the legendary Spanish Steps were, in fact, paid for with French money; that the Futurist poet Filippo Marinetti regarded pasta as the bane of modern Italians because it supposedly made them sluggish; and a great deal more besides.
Relying exclusively on printed sources has a poor reputation among professional historians for understandable reasons: too often, the result is a bad clip job. But Hughes was such a skillful and opinionated synthesizer that he made something new out of some very old sources, dating all the way back to Plutarch. I enjoyed his book all the more for having just seen the sites he described. If you visit Rome, I suggest you take Hughes with you — and wherever you go, I recommend you find an appropriate tome to add intellectual depth to your journey. Downtime needn’t be brain-dead time.