I’m beginning my Italian wanderings in Rome with a trip to the Pantheon. The most well-preserved of all ancient monuments here in the Eternal City, initially it was built as a Pagan temple (‘Pantheon’, in Greek, means ‘honour all gods’). Originally commissioned by Marcus Aggripa between 27 BCE and 14 CE, the structure as we know it today was completed by Emperor Hadrian.
Inside, the design of the building takes your breath away. The inside consists of intersecting arches, resting on eight piers. The rotunda is a perfect hemisphere, measuring close to 43 metres in diameter (which is exactly the maximum height of its dome). It is such that a perfect sphere could sit inside it. It is estimated to have taken 4-5 years to build the walls and about the same time again to construct the Dome.
What we see today is actually the third version of the building (the first two burned down). Amazingly, it remained standing throughout the Barbarian invasions and and in 609 CE it was transformed into a church - St. Mary of the Martyrs. Renown both for its astonishing architecture and remarkable engineering, it is by far and away the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings.
The structure itself comprises of 16 enormous columns (Corinthian) which support the Portico. Almost 12 metres high, they were transported from Egypt, at great expense. Note the inscription atop the entrance… “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT” - Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, having been consul three times made it.”) - left by Hadrian as a gesture to his predecessor.
Ah, yes...the Dome. Lined with bronze and has a diameter of almost 8 metres, making it larger than St. Peter’s Basilica. Look up and gaze in wonder at it, and the ‘eye’ in its centre - the Occulus.
This is the only means by which light can pour down into the building - there are no windows inside the Pantheon.
During the day, as light floods in it moves around the inside of the building, giving a ‘reverse sundial’ effect.
But what happens in the winter, you might ask, when rain falls? Well, because the floor was designed in slanted style (a convex design) the water drains away. A remarkable feat of engineering. (Fun fact: the structure of the building as we know it today was designed by architect Apollodorus of Damascus - who Emperor Hadrian later had executed after an argument about the final plans! That’s arbitrary power for you…)
To date, the Pantheon still boasts the world’s largest non-reinforced concrete dome. It’s also the final resting place of the extraordinary Renaissance painter, Raphael. It is free to enter (although there are often queues) and ia, a building that can be returned to again and again, marvelled at for both its sheer beauty and ingenious design. I’ll close this post with a quote by Michelangelo who, when asked to describe the Pantheon, said it was “angelic and not human design.” He could not have put it better.