jerusalem cover

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Jerusalem: The Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (650pp.$35)

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, Personal History, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (498pp.$35)

On the 8th of the Jewish month of Ab in A.D. 70, the armies of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, commanded by his son and heir Titus and numbering some 60,000, were camped before the walls of Jerusalem. Inside the walls, perhaps half a million starving Jews survived the diabolical conditions and were still, mostly defiant. Before he was done, Titus and Roman legionnaires had killed, tortured, crucified, or taken to Rom half the city’s population, reduced the city itself to rubble, and invaded the Holy Temple, all to destroy the Jewish rebellion and disperse the strange cultists of Christianity.

This story and many more, some equally astounding, are compellingly told by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose previous book, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” is perhaps the finest, strangest, most penetrating book ever written about Soviet Russia. For Montefiore, the history of Jerusalem is the history of the world, the chronicle of a penurious provincial town amid the Judean hills—and later, the strategic battlefield of clashing civilizations. Home to many sects, city of many names, Jerusalem is a place of such delicacy that it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine.

In a word, Montefiore’s massive history of this both terrestrial and celestial city is magnificent. Detailed, illustrated beautifully, and told in sweeping prose organized chronologically from King David’s establishment of the city as a capital to the 1967 war, “Jerusalem” is a spectacular book for general readers. In between King David and the war is an amazing span of history, nearly 3,000 years worth, and Montefiore does justice to nearly every one. This is a book about the ages, for the ages.

Unfortunately, Australian art critic Robert Hughes’ new book about Rome has almost none of the authority, charm, wisdom or style of Montefiore’s book about Jerusalem. Billed as both a cultural and personal history, Hughes has included precious little of the former (though it is think with art history) and only a snipped of the latter, most being devoted to the author’s personal dislike of Rome’s shallow and frivolous videocracy under Berlusconi (now relegated to the sidelines). I’m happy to report that Hughes loves Italian movies of the 50s and 60s, and does a good job explaining cinema’s resurrection after World War II. But how can this be a cultural history when it disenfranchises food, style, most architecture, city and street life, poetry, music, son, kinship, sex and wine?

The book is divided into period: early Rome, Empire, Medieval, Renaissance and so on. Much of the early Roman period reads like a Cliff’s Notes, while many of the time periods are so heavily adumbrated with “art history” that the book dies a slow death page by page. Of greater interest and more lively written is the chapter covering the 18th century, neoclassicism and the Grand Tour, as well as the chapter on futurism and fascism.  One imagines Hughes burdened by the contract to write this book and employing several round-the-clock researchers to feed him batches of notes on file cards. Given Hughes’ distinguished background in art criticism and his profound and wide-ranging expertise, it is surprising that this knowledge somehow seems a burden that he offloads on his readers. There are many books about Rome. This is one book that simultaneously says too much and too little.