In the center of old Rome, only a few blocks from the convent where we’ll be staying, stands the world’s greatest ancient building. The Pantheon, or “temple to all the gods”, has been here since the year 126 when an original structure was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian after a fire. It still looks nearly exactly as it did in all it’s glory, one of the only buildings in Rome to have that distinction. Today you can just wander in, and instantly you are back in time. Most people don’t even realize the very marble beneath their feet is original. Much of ancient Rome would also look so grand had it been designated a Catholic church as the Pantheon was in the 7th century. That saved the Pantheon from becoming a quarry, as much of Rome’s marble (especially in places like the Circus Maximus and Coliseum) was removed from what was then seen as a ruin and used in the building of churches such as St. Peters.
Aside from being nearly perfectly preserved, the Pantheon is one of Rome’s greatest architectural achievements and a tremendously influential building in throughout history. It’s shape has been studied and copied for centuries, the most important being Brunelleschi’s Dome (the big red one) in Florence. You enter the Pantheon through a series of enormous columns made from solid pieces of Egyptian granite, carved and transported across the sea to be installed here. Inside the enormous bronze doors is the vast interior. The space is exactly as tall as it is wide (142 feet), with niches carved out on all sides for statues of the gods. Today, mass is held in the Pantheon and the statues of the gods are gone, replaced by the graves of famous Italians, including Italian king Victor Emmanuel and the artist Raphael. The first thing you notice inside this amazing building is the oculus, a circular opening at the top that allows light (as well as rain and pigeons) an entrance point. Abeam of sunlight moves throughout the day, illuminating the inside. Around the oculus are a series of sunken panels called coffers. Originally, these were painted and held bronze elements. They create a harmonious decoration on the ceiling, but more importantly, allowed the architects to remove excess weight without compromising structural integrity. The Pantheon is a great example of Rome’s greatest invention concrete. Earlier structures, like the Egyptian pyramids and the temples of Ancient Greece were made with solid stone. Poured concrete allowed the Romans to open up their structures and build lavish designs that would have been impossible otherwise. Their use of concrete was so sophisticated by the time the Pantheon was built, that they were able to vary its mixture, using a sturdy mixture at the base and an increasingly lighter concrete at the top. Historians still are trying to figure out how exactly the Pantheon was built. The outside offers clues about the process of pouring the concrete and possibly an abandoned earlier design.
Here’s a great clip from National Geographic about the Pantheon- check it out.