Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rome's Blue Guide.

During my undergraduate degree, I was required to spend a minimum of three weeks travelling around the ancient sites of the Mediterranean. Prior to departure, the classics department recommend the purchase of the Blue Guide to Rome for anyone planning a visit to the eternal city. Sufficed to say I bought it and have been using it ever since.

Styled as a cultural guide (I dislike that term, but as far as it's useful and can be applied - this is the book for it), it's a weighty 624 pages of in depth information about all the cultural treasures of Rome. I've used it 4 or 5 times in visits to Rome, and it's been totally invaluable. So much so that my copy is now dog eared and held together by sticky tape.

The main author is Alta Macadam, who lives in Florence and has a rich history of living and working in Italy. She is supplemented, on history, art history and architecture by Nigel McGilchrist, Charles Freeman and Mark Roberts - all of whom have huge experience of Rome, academic history and Italy more generally. The result of such informed persons writing the guide means that it's general intelligence, cultural awareness and depth is unparalleled by the more popular lines of travel guides.

On matters of organisation: the guide opens with a short but scene-setting introduction, followed by a concise and relatively academic historical sketch of the city from it's foundation to it's present day state. It's top heavy with regards the classical period, but it offers a good overview of the city's history over some (almost!) 3000 years. This historical sketch also has a nice section on the Popes, which is very useful.

The following main body of the guide is divided by geographical area, each of which roughly confines to the hills of ancient Rome (an illustration opens the guide showing each area pg.5). Given the scope of the guide, organising itself geographically was the only viable option, and it works well throughout.

The content itself is marvellous. Macadam has a deep and passionate relationship with the city, and knows it inside out. The depth of cultural commentary and information is excellent, and throughout the guide the aim is not just to signpost and introduce the sites of Rome, but to give them context, a story and set them into the extravagant history of the city.

The areas covering the ancient sites are detailed and interesting - highlighting the history and significance of each monument, area or ruin. There is no "look at this, move on and look at this" style advice suitable for the modern "go to say I've been/seen" tourist, but rather really chunky pieces of information for most sites of interest to the classical visitor. Often little coloured boxes are inserted that give some historical background relevant to the area being discussed - topics include Roman Gods and worship, Obelisks and the Triumph - each of them inherently useful.

The guide is also complete with wonderful illustrations (my favourite being the Carvaggio pair that are in Santa Maria Del Popolo), but not so much as to appear a picture travel book. The images capture something of the stark majesty of the paintings themselves, and add a lovely gloss to any reading of the guide.

Extensive guides to both Ostia and Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli are to be applauded - as many guides have them simply as an addendum - whereas they're an essential part of this one, which is no less than they deserve. Centrale Montemartini, a subsidiary museum (of sorts) of the Capitoline museums, also gets much deserved page space. It's an absolutely wonderful museum, which is often overlooked.

One the flip side, though, there is very little mention of anything remotely related to the E.U.R, and one gets the impression that Macadam dislikes the suburb, and the fascist ties of Rome's past more generally so much that they fall by the way side. That's not to say that the E.U.R is not ugly - it is! - but it holds the so-called Square Colosseum, which is an interesting monument, and also the Museo Della Civiltà Romana which hosts full plaster casts of Trajan's column and also a miniature, to scale (1:250), replica of Rome under the rule of Constantine, built by Italo Gismondi. Both of these attractions are worth the journey out to the E.U.R alone, but they get frightful little mention (they're relegated to a small appendix near the end of the book).

Besides the huge amount of information for the traveller interested beyond the superficial levels, I think the real strength of the work lies in it's awareness of Rome as a truly eternal city, one with so many layers they're difficult to see all at once. In the guide Rome is, at once, the heart of a great classical empire, the home of the Popes, a medieval beacon of research and civilisation, a Papal city state and the capital of a united Italy - and she is, of course, all these things and more.

The guide itself gives the reader a flavour of Rome's embarrassingly rich cultural heritage through it's content, and this in reinforced with little snippets of information or quotes from famous visitors - Goethe, Keats and Shelly among many, many others. In essence, one gets a taste of the city, and can begin to piece together the myriad of things Rome actually is. That, to my mind, is the highest achievement any guide can aim for.

The current 2006 edition is a tad outdated, especially with regards to visiting the Forum, Palatine and Colosseum, but that's not a significant problem, nor really the fault of the author or this guide - it cannot be updated constantly. Most of the information is still relevant, but in Rome, of all cities, any visitor should be aware of the irony contained in the idea of Rome's constancy, but her ever changing face.

In summation, if you're visiting Rome and want a "cultural guide", there really is nothing that compares.


  1. Hello Derek, we publish the Blue Guides. It's an awful lot of work, and are very pleased to receive endorsements like yours which show that readers who are genuinely interested and know the subject notice how good they are. Could we at the very least replace your dog-eared copy of Rome? Tom Howells, Publisher, Blue Guides Limited via

  2. Hello Tom.

    Thanks for your comment. I've always felt that being recommended the Blue Guide was one of the best pieces of advice I've been given when it comes to travelling, and so I'm happy to continue spreading that wonderful advice in any way that I can!

    I'm of the opinion that no guide comes close to the Blue Guide in it's depth, and I think both author and publisher (that's you, I suppose) deserve great credit for the work and obvious passion that has gone into the guide.

    I really do need to sort out a replacement copy, as I try to visit Rome once per year, and my copy really is on it's last legs! I'll be looking into it before my next visit.

  3. Derek; to tide you over to the next edition of Blue Guide Rome I'd be very happy to send you (at our expense) the brand new Blue Guide Concise Rome, an updated, abridged, pocket-sized version for onsite use for readers who don't want to carry the full guide around. If of interest do say where we should send it to.