Are new books on Italian art and history simply re-framing old pictures?

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The Independent Culture

In July 2008, I sat in the early-evening sun on the terrace of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli – the palace, surrounded by exuberant fountains and cascades, built in the 1550s for Lucrezia Borgia's son Ippolito as a sort of consolation prize for his failure to win the papacy. I strained to spot the dome of St Peter's, supposedly visible across the plain that separates the Sabine Hills from Rome. But my companions, local councillors and archaeologists, had more than tourist clichés on their mind. They told me about the hysteria that had recently greeted the election over in Rome of a mayor with a neo-Fascist past, Gianni Alemanno (who's still in office).

Skinheads giving the Fascist "Roman" salute and chanting "Duce! Duce!" had swarmed over the Piazza del Campidoglio, threatening the fabric of Michelangelo's peerless urban space. Those thuggish worshippers of an idealised history seemed less than bothered about the state of its physical legacy. As always in Rome – and Italy – past and present, art and politics, inherited glory and contemporary strife, proved indivisible.

Yet my outrage (fully shared by my hosts) followed an old Roman road. English-language writers have at least since the 18th century treated Rome –and Italy as a whole – as the planet's most alluring showcase of dualism: the place where a nexus of high art and low intrigue, sublimity and squalor, vision and violence, finds its ultimate expression. By the time of the Enlightenment, a routine contrast between vanished splendour and present-day decay had taken root among Anglophone visitors and scholars. In October 1764, the historian Edward Gibbon could sit "musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter", and – as his Autobiography reports – come across "the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city". Which, over 17 years, he did.

Gibbon's heirs have been busier than ever. Prompted in part by the 150th anniversary of the modern Italian state, this summer's publishing lists bulge with Italian-themed non-fiction. David Gilmour struck early and hard with The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane), his relish for the richness snd diversity of the peninsula's cities and regions matched by deep scepticism about the frail unitary state. Now a shelf-full of other Anglophones have joined him, three of the most accomplished from Australia. What does that say? That Italy and its marvels still exert a magnetic pull on the rest of the planet; and, the further away you grow up, the fiercer that tug willl be.

One of those Italianised Aussies is the historian RJB Bosworth. His book Whispering City: Rome and its Histories offers maybe the most sophisticated and thought-provoking study of the season. From the age of Gibbon and Napoleon to that of Berlusconi and Alemanno – who now aims "to win Rome's history wars and impose one united memory on the people" – he shows how the sites and stories of the "Eternal City" have been subject to ever-changing versions and interpretations. Densely packed with anecdote and analysis, Whispering City moves almost in gazetteer style from square to square, monument to monument, explaining how – from Pantheon to Castel Sant'Angelo to Vatican to Campo dei Fiori to Colosseum – the meanings of Rome have been fought over by priests and politicians, planners and antiquarians.

"In this city," he notes, "every vista is kaleidoscopic" - and every statue tells a dozen tales. Rome's "multiple pasts jostle and heave" as liberals and Fascists, imperial nostalgists or Papal zealots, envision an ideal city. The endless chain of re-invention still endures. In 2009, Colonel Gaddafi came to Rome for a make-up meeting with Berlusconi - Italy had brutally occupied Libya after 1911 - and claimed descent from Septimius Serverus, the "African Emperor". In Rome, Bosworth eloquently argues, everyone seeks a "usable past" and strives by whatever means – from town-planning to tourist guides (which got going in the 1140s, with the Mirabili Urbis Romae) – to "cleanse" the place of unwanted or uncomfortable histories. Alemanno's violent raids on Roma camps have a long and dismal history behind them.

Bosworth concludes that Fascism – which did so much steam-cleaning of the past itself – had itself been dishonestly erased from Rome's post-war official version, even as "the ghost of the Duce" watched over athletes during the 1960s Olympics in the Foro Italico – once the Foro Mussolini. He argues that the recent anti-anti-Fascist wave that has brought those who respect Il Duce's memory in from the cold "should not be regretted" – but still finds plenty to praise in the multicultural city championed by the leftish ex-mayor, Walter Veltroni. His panorama of these history wars will sharpen every visitor's perception of how a city became a living myth.

Both a myth-monger and a myth-breaker, the art critic and historian Robert Hughes – also an Australian - has contributed a singing, swingeing blockbuster to this summer's bag of Italian goodies. His Rome grows around a spine of energetic, if derivative, historical narrative - from the early Republican legends to the "nightmare territory" of Berlusconi's "crap" TV. Yet the book's muscle and sinew lie in Hughes's supremely eloquent vignettes of churches and palaces, statues and paintings – evocations of art and place crafted with all the swagger and savour of a critic who can make his readers see, and feel, afresh.

You might expect Hughes to shine among the giants: with the sculpture of Bernini, that "marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy"; or the paintings of Caravaggio, and their "pouting pieces of rough trade" with "hair like black ice cream"; or in the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo's ceiling and its "grandest anatomical repertoire in Western art". He never disappoints, digging behind paint and stone surfaces to explain in striking detail the how of art and architecture, as ancient concrete is mixed, wet fresco painted at a gallop and a 361-ton Egyptian obelisk shifted by Sixtus V (or rather, his 900 workers) to St Peter's Square. Hughes also excels with what he calls – in relation to the under-rated 18th-century artist Pompeo Batoni – "the charm of the unfamiliar". Whether with Pomarancio's martyrdom frecoes in S. Stefano Rotondo, "a kind of Sistine Chapel for sentimental sadists", or in Borromini's Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, with its "marvel of space-shaping", he encourages you, irresistibly, to stray off the beaten tourist track.

Yet – as Hughes watchers will expect – his Rome has its idiosyncrasis and inconsistencies. Although he sweats to keep the canter through the centuries alert and alive, this rehearsal of oft-told tales sometimes tires and drifts. Too many silly errors mar the text, often in easily-checkable dates. So Hughes has Victoria crowned in 1840, the battle of El Alamein (not a "defeat of Italian forces") in 1943, and the Spanish Armada in the late 1620s. It's a poor show from his editors.

More absorbing is Hughes's see-sawing ambivalence about the lure of Rome. Time after time he scolds the fantasy of a spotless past that has closed the mind of scholars and tourists to the full historical range of the city's achievements. He quotes Shelley, one among many, who compared the "sublime and lovely contemplation" of old Italy with the "degraded, disgusting and odious" present – two centuries ago. Then you reach the final chapter in this ardent and agile tribute to the city that 50 years ago "turned art, and history, into reality" for a wide-eyed young Australian. And Hughes slips into spluttering curmudegon mode himself. In the age of Berlusconi, who has helped debase "the cultural IQ of the Italian nation", even the decadence of the Dolce Vita era (and "no film has ever fascinated me more") appears wholesome in hindsight. "Whole cultures, like individual people, do run down," the doomsayer opines, echoing disillusioned Italophiles since at least the early Middle Ages.

The mood of Fellini's 1959 film, and its sizzling, scandalous background, gives a sharp edge to Stephen Gundle's close-up study of a murder case and its murky offshoots, Dolce Vita. It turns on the lengthily investigated but still mysterious death of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, in 1953. She died, washed up on a Torvaianica beach, at a "watershed" moment of social flux, moral drift and US-style consumerism when Rome was "struggling to find a new sense of itself".

This is microcosmic history at its most effective: Gundle finds big stories in the small print, teasing out the implications for city and nation of this darkly glamorous demi-monde of starlets and playboys, gossip columnists and – paparazzi. Fellini said he took the name "Paparazzo" – the snooping snapper in La Dolce Vita – from a novel by Gissing. His real-life model, and adviser for the film, was Tazio Secchiaroli, lens-toting predator of Via Veneto's star-studded cafés and a pioneer "bandit of the stolen snap".

After these rampant Roman circuses, Peter Robb – from Melbourne – brags and swoons over its rival to the south in his Street Fight in Naples. Robb's free-form, super-charged style of cultural history dazzled critics in works such as Midnight in Sicily and his Caravaggio biography, M. Here the Hunter S Thompson of art appreciation turns his tricks in Naples.

Fiercely romantic reminiscences of his adventures among the back streets of the "Spanish Quarters" – opera-singing sailors, gentlemanly hoodlums, hookers of every kind (or gender) and all – loop back into rapturous essays on the art, thought and past of the city. He takes as his focus the 14th to 17th centuries, as the Kingdom of Naples became Spain's strategic bulwark against Islam. From Boccaccio to Michelangelo Merisi (called "Caravaggio") to Robb's hero, the heretic Giordano Bruno (incinerated by the Inquisition in 1600), he juggles low life and high culture with breathtaking verve. What he writes about Bruno's prose in his comedy, Candleman, applies just as much to this book: "learned, slangy, arcane, domestic, obscene, exalted, changing register and syntax in the space of a phrase".

His beloved, accursed city of "endless erotic movement" excites Robb to a truly bravura performance. Lightning flashes of genius, lust and cruelty surge from the background shadows of poverty and oppression – as on one of his admired school-of-Merisi canvases. Though Robb exults in bohemian paroxysms over the "ferocious proletariat" of Naples and delights in its "medieval inner-city darkness", he does at least source all his embedded quotations at the back and provide a chronology – Hughes's Rome fails on both counts. Yet there's something sentimentally Anglophone about Robb's moonstruck nostalgia for a filthily pure life of passion, revolt and creativity, untroubled by bourgeois niceties. Read Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah for a corrective from a real Neapolitan.

As relief from this full-on urban drama, let's end in the contemplative quiet of the thickly wooded but – these days, largely unpeopled - hills of Liguria, inland from the Mediterranean. All Julia Blackburn's travel books and memoirs bring an artist's touch to non-fiction story-telling. In 1999, she discovered - thanks to the intrepid hiking of her Dutch husband, Herman – an old stone house in an isolated mountain village not far from the French border. He first described this hidden corner to her as "a mixture of north Wales and the west coast of Majorca": and she liked the sound of that.

In a lyrical patchwork of fine-grained nature writing, conversations with villagers and rapturous rambles, Thin Paths recounts not only the couple's slow, tentative acclimatisation to this ancient landscape and its surviving people as she finds "a small foothold of belonging". And not only does her respectful sensitivity draw her elderly neighbours' memories down forking paths of stories. They often lead back to the sway of the cruel, semi-feudal padrone over the lives of poor mezzadri, "half-people" who "owned nothing for themselves"; or to the traumatic terrors at the finale of the Second World War, when Nazis fought partisans in the forests and on the bridges, and "we found ourselves in hell".

The intricate tracery of tracks in Thin Paths serves both as geography and metaphor. These winding routes connect history and memory, the populous past and the empty present. As a "time of illness" brings anxiety and grief not only to the veteran villagers but to the incomers, the book morphs – for all the tender beauty of its prose – into a meditation on mortality amid abundance, and on "how incomprehensible it is that someone lives and then dies". The showy rhetoric of rise and fall, of heyday and decay, that so attracts writers on Italy has no role here. Instead, solidarity and fellow-feeling unite natives and foreigners in the face of shared loss. No Italian-themed book of this season conjures up a place so scrupulously. And none can match Blackburn's in its sympathy with every human traveller through the "vast landscape" of time.

Best Italian jobs

RJB Bosworth: Whispering City: Rome and its histories (Yale, £25, 358pp)

Robert Hughes: Rome (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, 534pp)

Stephen Gundle: Dolce Vita (Canongate, £18.99, 401pp)

Peter Robb: Street Fight in Naples (Bloomsbury, £18.99, 396pp)

Julia Blackburn: Thin Paths (Jonathan Cape, £17.99, 251pp)