The Pantheon is literally the place of everything divine. The large cement dome and massive entry columns are recognizable, even to those who have never been to Rome. The monument sits out of proportion to the Piazza della Rotonda, where it shares space with a popular fountain, surrounded by buildings that have grown to enclose the piazza in the almost two millennia since it was built and rebuilt. The site of the Pantheon is significant in Roman history as it marks the spot where the founder of Rome, Romulus, was carried off by eagles upon his death. Although the present building is the third incarnation, completed by the Emperor Hadrian in 125 CE, it remains true to its purpose as the final resting place of icons of history.
The seemingly simple building is an architectural marvel. The dome is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. At the center-top is an opening, which provides natural light into the chamber. The recipe for the concrete has been lost over the last 2,000 years. The exposed dome is part of a complete sphere within a cylinder, in which part of the sphere is hidden within the cylinder of the walls. The full measure of the circle is 142 feet in diameter. Those familiar with the calculations of Archimedes of Syracuse will recognize his sphere-within-a-cylinder design that the brilliant mathematician thought of as his supreme accomplishment in the 2nd century BCE.
The dome of the Pantheon has become an architectural icon. The copies are made of reinforced concrete, although the proportions replicate the original. The dome of the United States capital and the Pantheon of Paris are modeled after the Pantheon of Rome.
Almost as amazing as the building’s construction is the preservation of the structure over two millennia. Pagan decoration placed in the niches of the interior during the time of Emperor Hadrian, were lost during the decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE. In 663, Byzantine Emperor Constans II arrived in Rome to plunder the city to decorate Constantinople. He stripped the Pantheon of facie marble and decorative stonework. Miraculously, the interior was left intact.
In Medieval times old buildings, such as the Roman forum and Coliseum were sources of block for modest homes in the city. During the Renaissance grand structures were built repurposing parts of local ruins. Destruction of the entire Pantheon was avoided by its consecration as a church in 609. In the Pantheon iteration as the church of Saint Mary of the Martyrs, bell towers were added and the two Egyptian columns of the sun god, Ra, brought to Rome by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century CE, were lost.
During the papacy of the Barberini family pope, Urban VIII, from 1623 to 1644, bronze, ceiling tiles in the portico of the Pantheon, overlooked by Constans, were stripped away. Poets of Rome cried that what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did. The bronze was repurposed by the sculptor Bernini, to the ceiling of St. Peter’s, where it can be visited today in the doves and angles above the altar.
Pope Pius VII made it a priority to clean up the streets of Rome when he became pontiff and city administrator in 1800. The church that marked the spot of the first pagan burial in Rome became a revered place of entombment. The two purloined Egyptian spires were rediscovered and mounted near the Pantheon. One sits in the middle of the fountain in front of the building and the other sits on top of an elephant, created by Bernini, in the east-side corridor that leads from the Piazza della Rotonda to the rear of the Pantheon and the Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
The Pantheon is the place of entombment of beloved artists and royals of Rome. Raphael has an honored and adorned tomb for the 37-year-old painter who died in 1520. Next to his sarcophagus is the burial of his fiancée who died in the plague before they could be married. The first king of the unified Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, was buried in the Pantheon in 1878. His son, King Umberto I, was buried near his father in 1900. During times of Fascism and Democracy in Italy, no additions were made to the Italian notables honored by a tomb in the Pantheon.
Movie fans will see the Pantheon in Angels and Demons. Aficionados of now classical movies will see the Pantheon in a scene in the movie Roman Holiday, when newspaperman Gregory Peck buys ice cream in a stand on the Piazza della Rotonda for the princess Audrey Hepburn, while she eludes her guardian.
Following the practice of burying notables in the Pantheon in Rome, the Pantheon in Paris was dedicated to the entombment of artists and notable humanitarians of France. Interred in the Paris Pantheon are Voltaire, Rousseau, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and the emancipator of enslaved Africans in French colonies, Victor Schoelcher. The later died in 1903, and his remains were transferred to the Pantheon in 1949.
For more on the story of Rome, the popes as city administrators of Rome, Emperor Diocletian’s Retirement Home and Archimedes Eureka Moment, see CTH, Itinerary II – Rome to Venice, Ports Rome, Split, and Syracuse. For more on Victor Schoelcher, see CTH, Itinerary VIII – Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, Port Martinique – Emancipation Before Gettysburg.
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