The glory of the Pantheon in Rome

One of the most celebrated architectural edifices you will encounter in historical centre of Rome is the ancient Roman temple- the Pantheon. The name of the building is derived from the Greek for ‘pan+theion” which literally means “temple of all gods”.

Was it really a pagan temple in the past? It is still uncertain whether the building was actually dedicated to all gods. Livy wrote that it had been decreed that temples should be dedicated to single deities- because for example, if a building were to be struck by lightning, it would be clear which deity would be offended! Another view point is that the Green word ‘theios‘ could also mean ‘superhuman’ or even ‘excellent’. In fact if you have been to the Pantheon in Paris you will note that it pays tribute to the memories of men and women who were admired for their learning and work.

The Pantheon is built on the site of an ancient temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, an influential Roman statesman and architect, who happened to be Emperor Augustus’s son-in-law. The building was probably his private temple, but there is still uncertainty about the purpose it was used for. However Agrippa’s creation was completely destroyed with time, except for the facade.

The Latin inscription in front of the temple reads: M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT. This is an abbreviated version of “M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made when consul for the third time.” The pediment or the triangle above the inscription is blank today, but there are drill holes which suggest there was originally an emblem of some sort, in gilded bronze.

The building underwent several reconstructions and much damage. However, archaeologists believe that construction of the present building was started in 114 AD under Trajan. The building was completed in 126 AD in Emperor Hadrian’s reign. As was the trend, much of the fine marble was removed as spoils of war. Pope Urban VIII from the Barberini family tore away the bronze ceiling that lined the portico. It is said that this bronze was used to create the baldachin in St Peter’s Basilica. As the outraged citizens of Rome say: What the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis did! Nevertheless, the marble interior has largely survived the vagaries of war.

The granite Corinthian columns in the portico

As you walk into the portico of this magnificent building, you notice the large granite Corinthian columns in the portico. There are three rows of such columns. These heavy columns were shipped all the way from Egypt down the Nile River, and then transferred across the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman port of Ostia. From there, they were transported via the Tiber River to Rome. Phew!

The main building is circular and shaped like a perfect hemisphere- it is called the rotunda. A rectangular vestibule links the portico to the rotunda. A huge bronze door separates the two structures.

As you enter the rotunda, one’s jaw tends to drop when you look at the coffered dome with the large central oculus or opening. The interior of the building is deliberately made to outshine the exterior. The tall dome probably symbolizes the arched vault of the heavens. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are both 43.2 metres. The Pantheon’s dome is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Circles and squares form the unifying pattern. The dome is made up of coffers or sunken panels in five concentric rings of 28.  This may have had some symbolic meaning then.

How was it even built two thousand years ago? How is the massive weight of the large dome unsupported? It is said that the architects of this dome kept it as light as possible. On the lowest level travertine was used as it was heavy. The mid level consists of the mixture of travertine and tufa, and then tufa and brick. The lightest and most porous material of all, pumice was used on the ceiling of the dome. The dome’s thickness progressively decreases. Therefore while the interior of the ceiling looks spherical, its exterior looks slightly flattened.

Natural sunlight streams in through the oculus. It is often called the ‘Eye of the Pantheon’ and is almost 28 feet wide. It is the source of light and ventilation and keeps the dome remarkably cool. And the first question everyone asks their guide is: Is that oculus open? What happens in the Pantheon when it rains? There are holes in the flooring which quickly drain the rain away. It is remarkable that the drainage system designed centuries ago still works perfectly.

A beautiful Roman tradition of rose petal rain (La pioggia di petali di rose) can be witnessed in May each year. On Pentecost Sunday (a Hebrew holiday celebrating the harvest), after the mass, a shower of rose petals falls from the oculus into the dome. The tradition is meant to symbolize the tongues of fire- a scene from the Acts of the Apostles.

Screen grabs from the visitor’s guide videos of the Rose Rain in the Pantheon

It is amazing how this monument survived fires, lightning and the raiders of war. A major reason why the building still remains so remarkably well preserved, and protected from destruction during wars is because the Pantheon is now a church.  In 609 AD, a Byzantine emperor Phocas gave this building to Pope Boniface IV. It was converted into a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs.  Holy relics of martyrs have been placed beneath the high altar. Informally the locals call it the Santa Maria Rotonda. Today, the building continues to function as a church and Catholic mass is regularly held here.

The 18th century altar designed by Alessandro Specchi
Enshrined on the apse above the high altar is a 7th-century Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child

Two monarchs of Italy are buried in the Pantheon: Vittorio Emanuele II and his son, Umberto I.  Umberto’s Queen, Margherita, after whom the Pizza Margherita is named also lies there.The Pantheon houses the sarcophagus of several notable artists including painters Raphael and Carracci, composer Corelli and architect Peruzzi. Maria Bibbiena, Raphael’s fiancée, is buried right next to him.  The inscription on Raphael’s marble sarcophagus reads: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

The bust of Raphael (1833) by Giuseppe Fabris. Raphael is buried in the Pantheon
Behind Raphael’s tomb is the statue known as the Madonna del Sasso (Madonna of the Rock) so named because she rests one foot on a boulder

Several notable paintings adorn the building.  The Chapel of the Annunciation houses some impressive 17th century paintings of the saints by Pietro Paola Bomzi and a 15th century painting by Mellozo da Forlì called The Annunciation.

The Annunciation by Melozzo da Forlì
The Crucifix Chapel houses a 15th century crucifix in a niche in the wall

The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda, and is lined by several pricey cafes. You would do better to seek out less expensive places away from the touristy site. In the Piazza is the Fontana del Pantheon or the Fountain of the Pantheon. A six metre high obelisk is erected in the middle of the fountain. The Fountain was designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575, sculpted out of marble by Leonardo Sormani. and commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII. The original marble statues of dolphins at the base of the fountain have now however replaced by copies.

Fontana del Pantheon or the Fountain of the Pantheon

When Michelangelo saw the Pantheon, he reportedly said it was the design of angels, not of man. The spectacular design, proportions, harmony and elegance of the architecture of the Pantheon has inspired several monuments and government buildings across the world. Brunelleschi’s Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is inspired by it. As is Thomas Jefferson’s library at the University of Virginia, called the Rotunda.

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