A stay near the Pantheon sharpens an appreciation of the ancient Romans. An eternal city converges in the surrounding neighborhood of this once pantheistic temple. Residues of lauded ages still resonate here, astutely representing Rome’s exquisite history. Here also the Renaissance idea of virtù (capacity, proficiency) is an model source and surviving standard of culture. No passage to Rome is fit to omit this mysteriously splendid continuum of cultural ascension.
Rome’s most intact ancient building is one of Europe’s most influential buildings. The Pantheon is thought to have begun as a pagan temple to perhaps Mars & Venus (warring conquest & erotic love). The precise original use is an actual mystery. However, over many subsequent generations, the site’s dedication slowly spread to include all gods within the Roman empire. Also, according to the city’s founding mythology, the Pantheon was built where Romulus is legended to have ascended into the sky to become Quirinus, one of the Archaic Triad of first Roman deities.
Since 609, the temple has been used as a Catholic church in dedication to Christian martyrs. Being converted this early into a church best explains the Pantheon’s relatively healthy survival from antiquity. Today, the tombs of Renaissance artists Raphael and Carracci, along with several Italian kings rest here. What’s more, the church is still used for daily mass.
This is the world’s largest, unsupported concrete dome; even outsizing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica across the river. These two sites though share a far more intimate relation; all the bronze originally on the Pantheon’s dome and pediment was stripped off, melted and integrated into the Baldacchino, now a majestic canopy that glorifies the St. Peter’s altar throne.
After the fall of Rome, knowledge of how to build a dome was lost for almost a millennia. Some essential structural qualities are its marvelous oculus (eye) at the dome’s apex, which lessens the downward force while also providing sunlight, as well as the dome’s smart composition of light-weight pumice and a coffered interior. This time-tested engineering feat puzzled architects until 1436, when Florence’s Duomo was precariously accomplished.
Since 27 BCE, the Roman statesman and general, Marcus Agrippa, funded the original Pantheon. First built over a public bath, two additional re-buildings of the Pantheon occurred within the empire’s duration. The temple burned in the 80 ACE fire and was rebuilt only to succumb again to fire in approximately 110 ACE. The final re-building ended around 125 ACE by Emperor Hadrian’s famous Greek architect Apollodorus. The project proved to be fatal for him as Hadrian ordered his execution over some disagreement concerning the temple’s final design. Disagreements were again to arise 1,500 years later when Pope Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to build two bell towers atop the portico. Romans perpetually ridiculed these as “donkey ears” and two centuries later, in 1883, the bell towers were demolished.
Despite millennia of cantankerous upheaval, the original marble floor remains unaltered, discounting extensive restoration efforts. At the center of the marble floor is a drain for the rain that falls through the oculus. The ancient Roman sewer system connects this drain to the Tiber river. When the river floods enough, the sewers overflow, flooding the Pantheon like a pond and its the surrounding streets up to several meters deep. One then needs a raft to enter the Pantheon, a scenario which only enhances its Romantic appeal.
What is perhaps most interesting about this temple is its perfect interior proportions. The oculus, for instance, functions as a sundial. At noon of the equinox, the sun passes through the oculus and lights up the portico entrance. A perfect, imagined sphere also fits within the dome from the floor to the oculus.
On closest inspection, however, one may notice some external disharmony. The portico columns are neither the same width nor even the same marble type. This has an important implication to the final design. The Pantheon’s portico and pediment were intended to be far larger. Yet, the Romans had problems delivering the massive Egyptian marble columns without breaking them and decided to settle on a smaller design midway through Hadrian’s final reconstruction.
This ancient structure leaves a living mark on visitors’ minds concerning Rome’s entire story. The immediate neighborhood is also within the modern city center and will not fail to please those with a sleuth’s sensitivity and an imaginative curiosity. Come to know well the most intact remnants of an ancient Roman temple, still standing and integral to knowing Rome.
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