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on 4 February 2012
"Not-For-Parents Rome" is chockablock full of information about the long history of this ancient city, and much of it is interesting. The book, however, has a distinct problem in presentation, since its often fascinating facts about the almost 3000-year-old city, its people, and its customs are thrown together all higgledy-piggledy. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason behind the order, as the table of contents illustrates (e.g. . . . the Capuchin cemetery, the Vatican, Cats, Fashion Fest . . . etc); nor is there a logical context within which to set the snippets of information. Each page contains several terse statements, which too often go unexplained, about topics that may be only vaguely related to each other.
I would say that the book's biggest problem is that the authors haven't settled on an age group, or even a gender, for their readers. From the outrageous puns (some are fun) and the 'naughty bits'--emphasis on the ancient Roman all-in-it-together public loos, and the ancient version of toilet-tissue--I would say that it was geared for boys between ten and fifteen, although I can't imagine them being the slightest bit interested in the matching handbags worn by today's smart Roman women. For that matter, would girls of that age-group really want to know that "The center of Roman fashion is a stylish stretch of road known as Via Condotti" or that "Via Veneto is also a favorite with the chic crowd."? This same section (pp. 22-23) demonstrates the slapdash nature of the book, because amidst the "dudettes and dudes" [ !! ], the authors have inserted painted costume illustrations of an "Emperor" (holding the hand of an unidentified purple-clad woman that may or may not be the empress), "Plebeian", "Slave", "Senator", and "Equestrian", without any further comment or definition.
The authors are best when they define their terms, as in the section, "Water Wonder" (pp. 54-55), in which they inform the young reader that the name of the Trevi fountain comes from the Italian, "tre vie", meaning the place where the three roads come together (An additional comment that the ancient Romans always set up fountain shrines at such places, which were perceived as dangerous, would also have been of interest). While this is one of the more informative pages, which relates that the coins thrown in the fountain are collected and given to charity, it earned a minus from me for the large inserted photo--unidentified--of a fountainhead from in front of the Pantheon across town [and even though a kid may not know the difference, I think accuracy is to be desired, especially from "Lonely Planet", which is usually so punctilious in its presentation].
The two pages about the "Bridges over the Tiber" are also informative [78-79], although the authors 'tell' rather than 'show'; in this case, they 'tell' how the Romans designed the bridges like the prow of a ship on the upstream side, to facilitate the flow of the water. However, none of the photographs of the many bridges on this page actually 'show' this phenomenon (which is very visible when the Tiber is low). They also 'tell' that the Ponte Fabrizio holds a four-faced representation of the god Janus (who usually had a double face), but then they provide only a long-shot photo, and crop the end of the bridge where the marble herm is located. In other words, the authors used stock footage, instead of walking over to the entrance of the bridge and pointing a digital camera at the god's head on its marble post, which, at eye level, is easily accessible at the bridge's entrance as one crosses towards Tiber Island.
The book contains neither maps nor the simplest chronology of emperors, and while the former is fundamental, the latter would give the reader a context for the statement that the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum was a tribute to the emperor "who had been away conquering Parthia" [p. 70]--a map showing the extent of the Roman Empire would likewise 'show' just how far off Parthia--North-east Persia--was from the Forum. Similarly, instead of drawing a large cartoon cat (Nothing against cartoon cats!) sprawled across the marble foot of the Emperor Constantine , the book could have either used the actual picture of a real cat nestled (and dwarfed) between two of the gigantic toes, or failing the use of such a photo (available at Roman souvenir stands) due to copyright, they could have stood a real kid (who would appear minuscule) next to the pedestal and Constantine's humongous foot, for scale.
The illustrations are a hodgepodge of drawings, cartoons, old engravings, and inserted photographs, many of which are too small and dark to be of practical use. And I cannot understand, when Ancient Rome is so rich in wall paintings and mosaics, why the authors have chosen, for instance, photographs of real tigers and lions and bears (oh my!) and a peacock, when the colourful ancient mosaics of these animals, such as those of the 4th century at Piazza Amerina, would--again--'show', rather than 'tell', both the artistry of the ancient Romans and the great variety of animals that they imported from the far reaches of India and Africa.
Bottom Line: Too much 'tell', not enough 'show'!
Reviewed for Vine; Amazon.com