Decline and fall of a book on Rome 'riddled with errors'

US edition of Robert Hughes's latest work fails to address critics' complaints

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The Independent Culture

To make a mistake in a book is unfortunate. To riddle the first 200 pages of a 500-page history of Rome with howlers and then, six months later, reprint them in the US edition, looks like carelessness. But that is what has happened to the Australian writer Robert Hughes, a reviewer says.

When Rome was published here in June, reviewers said it contained so many "errors and misunderstandings" that they were surprised it hadn't been pulped. "Skip the first 200 pages," wrote Cambridge academic Mary Beard. "The first half... is little short of a disgrace – to both author and publisher. It is riddled with errors and misunderstandings that will mislead the innocent and infuriate the specialist."

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, said it displayed an "unsettling" kind of carelessness, "almost a vice, a show of unconcern and shallow understanding, an arrogance of a different kind, a lack of care of any kind."

You might have expected the mistakes to have been purged for the US edition, but some remain, according to US reviewer Michael Mewshaw.

While the opera Tosca is now correctly attributed to Puccini, not Verdi, and Clement V is now described as a French pope, not Italian, many basic errors about the city's topography and history apparently remain unaltered: the Stadio dei Marmi is located in the EUR district in the south of Rome, when it is in the north.

More surprising is that these mistakes have gone unremarked in the US, even by the British historian Simon Schama in Newsweek. The author of A History of Britain, makes no reference to the British outcry, instead lavishing this "exhilarating, rambunctious" book with nothing but praise.

Hughes, 73, a revered man of letters on the New York literary scene, has suffered health problems since a car crash in 1999. But the sheer number of factual mistakes in his latest book has left many dumbfounded.

Mewshaw, who has lived in Rome on and off for 40 years, yesterday described Hughes's mistakes as "flabbergasting". "These are not interpretative errors. These are straight factual errors," he said. "Hughes says he has never lived in the city; he has only visited for a week or two at a time. This puts him in the position of a bachelor who produces a marriage manual based on his experiences of speed dating."

The mistakes suggest Hughes may have been writing from memory: a piazza he describes as filled with cars has not been a car park for over 30 years. Last night Mr Hughes said: "I'm afraid I am unaware of this."

Most of the mistakes in the UK edition appeared in the section on antiquity, prompting Professor Beard to observe: "If a book about the history of the 20th century had as many mistakes as this one, I am tempted to think that it would have been pulped and corrected." Last night, she said: "I haven't seen the US edition, so can't really comment. I must say I had assumed the errors would have been corrected. I really hoped so. There were some great things in it, but the classical sections of the English edition were so loaded with mistakes as to be very misleading. My favourite was the idea that the emperor Antoninus Pius was a Christian."