Our book today is a charmer from the coffee tables of yesteryear: it’s Rome for Ourselves by Aubrey Menen, a delightful, highly personal 1960 look at the history of the Eternal City, written by one of its most remarkable citizens at the time.
Menen was born in London in 1912, the son of an Indian father and an Irish mother. He went to University College and immediately started writing, and he didn’t stop writing until shortly before his death in 1989. His career was helped along by none other than H. G. Wells, but it would have flourished anyway: he was simply too indefatigable, writing plays, essays, a torrent of book reviews, a series of clever and very readable novels, and a nonfiction collection called Dead Man in the Silver Market that would be the next high-profile New York Review of Books reprint if there were any justice among New York’s hipsterati.
And along the way, he wrote this odd, erudite, opinionated romp through the long history of Rome – its various eras, its standout personalities, its artists, its high points and copious low points, all of it lavishly illustrated in this oversized McGraw-Hill edition. Most of the pictures are reproduced in black-and-white, and even the color ones are curiously pleasantly offset by the book’s war-ration beige pulp paper. But of course the foremost joy of the book is AubreyMenen himself, quipping left, right, and center about emperors, Medici, and popes. About the august Pax Romana, for example, he’s firmly sardonic:
The object of all empires is theft, whether it be through taxes, concessions or plain looting. Most thieves think stealing is clever, but the Romans, when their larceny began to embrace all the nations of the Mediterranean, began to feel that robbery on such a scale had a certain moral grandeur.
The exotic details of his own upbringing color so many of his anecdotes that you quickly begin to feel he’s the perfect guide to a story of great concentrations of ruling power – and such great crowds of those dependent on it. “Twenty or more years ago, I had spent some time as the guest of ruling princes,” he tells us, and how many authors can open a line like that? “This was in India, but all over the world courtiers are alike. They all suffer, with dignity, a tyrannous employer.”
He’s excellent on all the stages of Rome’s greatness, from the emperors to the medieval scholars to the Renaissance and onward (so excellent, in fact, that I’m always willing to overlook his barbarous dismissal of Canova and the easily-maligned glories of Neoclassicism), but he’s particularly shrewd about the rulers of Rome in his own day – the popes – and one in particular, the greatest of them all:
All the world saw the crowning of Pope John XXIII. Most of it thought, under the tutelage of the newspaper correspondents, that he was being crowned Pope. But popes do not need a crown. John XXIII, an hour before his crowning, had already taken his place upon the throne of St. Peter. He had already, as Supreme Pontiff and St. Peter’s successor, said Mass at the papal altar over the Apostle’s tomb. His cardinals had already twice done obeisance before him. Then, and only then, as the acknowledged Pope, did he go to the balcony of the basilica and permit a cardinal to place a crown on his head.
Even if Aubrey Menen were some day to be the object of one of these literary revivals that periodically sweep the Republic of Letters in a nine days wonder (before leaving Henry Green once again every bit as forgotten as he rightfully should be), this big wonderful Rome for Ourselves wouldn’t be a part of it – the arcana governing the production of picture books like this one usually precludes them from reprinting, alas. But if you should ever spot a copy, battered and wavy with snowmelt, at your local used bookstore, keep in mind that you once heard it very strenuously recommended!
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