Published: 7 July, 2011
by GERALD ISAAMAN
RETURNING fresh and fit from a holiday in some iconic place, you have a drink with friends and tell them of the delights. Then somebody says: “Do you mean you never saw…” some special building, esoteric monument, museum, painting, night club etc?
You raise your eyes and think: “Well I scoured the guide book and thought I’d covered everything, but, obviously…” and you feel like a red-faced impostor at the moment of truth. Matthew Sturgis’s fascinating and fastidious new book brings that embarrassing scene dramatically to mind. He makes you realise how cultures, fashions and interests have changed over the centuries – how what was top of the list for 18th-century travellers on the Grand Tour was dismissed by Victorian art lovers, hated in the Swinging Sixties and is now back in favour in the 21st century.
Rome is the rock of his investigation. That’s because it has been there for so long, founded by the legendary Romulus in 753BC, the eternal city that has endured so many epic moments that today make the scenarios for Hollywood blockbusters and TV soaps.
Indeed, while it remains the destination of all roads – and airlines – the media has had a sustained influence on Rome, seen by today’s travellers through the prism of Ben Hur, Roman Holiday or Angels and Demons, the Pope issuing religious rules from his Vatican balcony or star-struck lovers romantically throwing those Three Coins in a Fountain.
“Once they would have seen it through Byron’s “Childe Harold” or Madame de Stael’s novel Corrine published in 1807,” Sturgis, admired author of biographies of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert, declares with authority.
And he does so because he first went to Rome before going up to Oxford to read history in 1980, taking a battered old Baedeker dating from 1904 that he borrowed from his grandparents.
“The book might have been old but Rome, as I reasoned, was older, much older,” he writes. “The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps had all been created well before then…But, as I learnt, there is rather more to discovering a city than mere facts and dates.”
The result of his meticulous research is that he has been able to reclaim neglected or forgotten masterpieces from the past, particularly Baroque art, which was continually disparaged until the late 1920s, as well as vital medieval art now virtually lost to any attention.
“I was particularly taken by the strange ‘perspective’ drawings by Niceron in the cloister at SS Trinita dei Monti, at the top of the Spanish Steps, which had been greatly admired by Evelyn in the 17th century,” Sturgis reveals.
Yet, given that he was born and brought up in Camden Town and went to The Hall school, in Hampstead, he pays little attention to that grim room, hardly bigger than two broom cupboards, were John Keats coughed himself to death in 1821.
That said, there is a wealth of history, academic erudition and photographs of art untouched by the gaze of today’s tourist as Sturgis reveals so much that’s still precious in the heart of a mighty city that once ruled the world.
“Many of the monuments admired by the ancient Romans were shunned during the Dark Ages,” he says. “Travellers in Renaissance Rome looked at very different things from their medieval counterparts… and so it has continued to the present day – things admired by one generation are ignored or disparaged by the next.
“It was the excitement of this realisation, and the desire to trace and recover some of these varied pasts, that inspired the book.”
He has contemplated repeating his magnetic Roman adventure in other cities – Paris, Venice, Florence even his native London, where he now lives off Tottenham Court Road.
“From my study window I can see the Post Office Tower, as was, which certainly is an iconic building,” he points out. “It has been both appreciated and disparaged and is now, I think, back in vogue.”
Which politely proves his thesis, and is one reason why he will be off to Italy at the end of the summer, to the seaside.
“But I will hope to spend a couple of days in Rome on the way,” he insists.
• When in Rome: 2000 Years of Roman Sightseeing. By Matthew Sturgis. Frances Lincoln, £20