Monday, 21 October 2013

John Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011) RRP $20.00

Lord Norwich, famous for his epic histories of Venice and Byzantium, has taken on another daunting subject – the Papacy. The Byzantine Empire lasted, with some interruptions, about 1000 years. But there has been a Pope for twice that long – about 265 of them in direct succession from St Peter.

While lavishing 3 volumes on the rise and fall of Byzantium, Norwich limited himself to one fairly short book on an institution caught up in the main currents of Mediterranean and European history since about 60AD.

The results are somewhat modest. I expected an evocative narrative glittering with accounts of the early Christians, their rise to power under the Emperor Constantine, the hubris of the medieval popes slowly melting before the Reformation and ending with their successors’ efforts to negotiate the Enlightenment and modernism.

 But Norwich’s heart just wasn’t in it. He clearly loved Venice and was enthralled by Byzantium. But the Popes get treated like freaks in a badly-run asylum. To be fair, some of them were greedy, evil or mad. Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial (they had not been on good terms). Serguis III had his two predecessors executed. John VIII was bludgeoned to death by a relative because his attempt to poison him worked too slowly. John XII ran a brothel in the Papal Palace. Pius XII did nothing about the Holocaust. But I digress.

 Norwich tells us nothing about the stability the Papacy offered at times when western Europe seemed on the brink of collapsing, the employment opportunities if offered or the communities it supported. It is true many popes appeared more interested in power and money than saving souls. But institutions cannot be run on love alone. Wielding spiritual and political power is expensive. Norwich ignores these lessons in “realpolitik” and dwells far too often on trivia. So I was disappointed. What other area history offered so much but received so little ? This book deserves an audience. But not a very big one.



Robert Hughes, Rome, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2011)   
(RRP $25.00)

Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic famous for his account of the convict system, The Fatal Shore, died in New York last month. Rome was his last work. Sadly, it is also his worst. Anyone who has read The Fatal Shore will be familiar with Hughes' pungent wit. The man clearly loved the sound of his own voice - but what a voice !
Rome, Hughes declares, was to be a history and travelogue of a city he loved. But it is clear he spent little time there and was unfamiliar with much of its history. The first section, which covers the foundation of the City by Romulus and Remus up to the fall of the Roman Empire, seems to have been cobbled together from lecture notes and is replete with errors. In one glaring example, the Emperor Augustus is described as Julius Caeser's son (he was his grand-nephew).
The book improves significantly when Hughes reaches the Renaissance and Baroque due to his familiarity with the great artists of the time and their works. But even then, the book drains into a thinly-connected series of biographers of one painter and sculptor after another. The City itself barely gets a look in. The following chapters on modern Italy up to Berlusconi's time are schematic and not particularly interesting.
Sometimes, the Great Man throws out one of his characteristic bon mots. But not often. In fairness to Hughes, he was under in significant discomfort while completing the book, having been seriously injured in a car accident. But his editors have much to answer for. If you are unfamiliar with the history of western Europe, you may benefit from reading Rome. But if you like Robert Hughes and history, you will be disappointed.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Alan Frost,   Botany Bay: The Real Story, Black Inc (2012) (RRP $24.95)

As a child, my favourite story was The Emperor’s New Clothes. Rogues sell the hapless emperor, for a fabulous sum, a garment so fine it cannot be seen. He proudly models his new threads – only to have a little boy point out he’s buck naked.

In this modern re-telling of the tale, Alan Frost argues Botany Bay was not settled as a dumping ground for convicts. Instead, we are to believe, Britain went to great trouble and expense to ship about 160,000 criminals to the other side of the planet as part of Pitt the Younger’s vision for a British empire in the South Seas. Yet there’s not a scrap of direct evidence for it. Like the emperor, Frost is exposed.

Frost has done exceptional research. He has found many new documents about the plans to settle Botany Bay. But while Frost dispels some myths about those plans, he creates a new one.

The key government documents stress the benefits of transporting Britain’s criminals elsewhere as a deterrent to local crime. They also note the possibility of cultivating pine trees and flax here. At this time, Britain’s clout relied on its Navy. It needed pine wood for masts and flax for rope and sails. There were supplies in Norfolk Island and New Zealand. These resources certainly influenced the decision. But there’s not a word about grand imperial designs.

Frost admits his case is circumstantial. This is his second tilt at the mill, the first being Botany Bay Mirages, published in 1994. Since then his theory, and the sophistry used to support it, has grown more grandiose. We are told, for example, that convicts provided “the mode, but not the motive” for settling Botany Bay. But these things cannot be separated.

Worse, Frost blithely ignores later developments. By the mid-1810s, the British Government was concerned that Botany Bay was no longer a deterrent to crime. The royal commissioner it sent to investigate, John Bigge, recommended making it a more severe place of punishment. Bigge said nothing about a maritime empire, as it was never on the cards.

Frost’s patronising ‘you-must-be-stupid-to-disagree-with-me’ tone does him no favours. He is not an eloquent writer, but stamps up and down like a man whose suddenly realised something important is missing. Where’s that little boy when you need him ?