Tag Archive: Pantheon


Following the death of Emperor Trajan, power was passed to his cousin’s son Hadrian. Trajan never designated an heir, but supposedly chose Hadrian on his deathbed. Hadrian went on to rule Rome from 117-138, bringing 20 years of peace to the empire. Hadrian is considered 1 of the 5 good emperors, even if he was far from a perfect leader. He is the first Emperor depicted wearing a full beard  (aside from Nero with his nasty neck beard). Supposedly, Hadrian wore a beard to conceal bad complexion. He also was a great admirer of all things Greek, and may have taken the look to resemble the great bearded Greek heroes. The Emperors after Hadrian all have beards, so he set quite a fashion trend in the 2nd century.

Hadrian’s basic philosophy of rule was the opposite of Trajan. Trajan loved war, and used it as a powerful political tool. Hadrian hated it, and immediately upon becoming Emperor pulled the armies Trajan had advanced east of Rome’s borders out of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq (insert modern political parallel here). Hadrian believed that Rome was big enough and turned his attention to strengthening its borders and its infrastructure. He ordered a 80 mile long wall built across Britain from sea to sea in order to keep the northern barbarians out and define the edge of the empire. It was 15 feet high, 10 feet think and marked every mile with a guard post. Hadrian’s wall took 10 years to build, and is still visible today in England. Hadrian’s biggest blunder was his war in Jerusalem. After the city was destroyed and the temple laid waste by Vespasian, Jerusalem remained a ruin for decades. Hadrian decided it would be a good idea to create a new city there, and build a huge temple to Jupiter on the spot of the Jewish temple. This brought about a second Jewish revolt and the death of many Roman soldiers there. 3 years later, half a million Jews were dead, and Hadrian built his temple anyway.

Back in Rome, Hadrian used his power to build some of the cities most enduring structures. The first was the Pantheon or “temple to all gods”, the grandest building of old Rome which still stands today. His Pantheon was a rebuilding after a fire in the original structure built 100 years before, but today when you go there you are walking almost entirely in Hadrian’s structure. Check out the previous post on the Pantheon here. The Pantheon is one of the most revolutionary buildings in the world, made of poured roman concrete and designed as an enormous open interior space equally wide and tall. There is an opening at the top which allows for light and air called the oculus. The Pantheon is a marvel of architecture and a huge inspiration to the great thinkers and architects of the Renaissance, who studied it to learn its secrets. Today, it is a virtual time-capsule to the reign of Hadrian- the only ancient Roman building to survive to today in such condition.

Hadrian also built an enormous compound for himself outside of Rome. Today, the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa are in the town of Tivoli. His other great building was his mausoleum, an enormous circular tomb on the river Tiber. Hadrian’s mausoleum was an huge drum of stone designed to contain his ashes. It was over a hundred feet high and even had trees planted on the roof. It probably looked something like this little picture here.

When you have a structure that big, its ruin is bound to be put to use. Today, it’s called the Castel Sant’ Angelo. It’s situated just north and across the river from Piazza Navona and in close proximity to St. Peters Basilica. It was converted early on to a medieval fortress, and has been in use for nearly it’s entire history in one way or another. Being so close to the Vatican, it was a palace for the popes and the one sure place to hole up when invading armies came into Rome. Today when you visit the place, you can walk into it’s core and the empty room that once held the remains of Emperor Hadrian. He’s long since gone, as are the great marble columns and stones that once made his mausoleum so impressive.

I’ll write another post on Castel Sant’Angelo later, but for now, check out this great site. It has a virtual 360° cam of the Castle and lots of cool info, including a downloadable app and MP3 audio tour. 

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The Pantheon

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.

Caravaggio

When you walk through the old neighborhoods of Rome within blocks of Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the convent where we are staying, you’re walking the turf of arguably the greatest painter who ever lived. Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio is a true master of painting who lived and worked in Baroque Rome when it was a very seedy and dangerous place. His style of chiaroscuro (or dramatic dark and light)and in-your-face style of painting was revolutionary when he burst onto the scene in 1600. His works are intense and overly dramatic, often brutal, but undeniably powerful. They are also scattered all around Rome waiting to be found, hanging in little side churches where you have to insert a coin to turn on the lights for a few minutes.

As if Caravaggio’s paintings weren’t fascinating enough, he possesses perhaps the most wild biographical story of any artist. It wasn’t enough for Caravaggio to be a revolutionary painter. He was a tortured person who lived for trouble, painting controversial paintings by day and picking sword duels and bar fights by night. He was arrested by the Roman authorities many times and the prison records still exist. Eventually, he killed a rival artist in a sword duel just off of Piazza Navona, and fled south to Naples to save his skin. Not surprisingly, he died young and under mysterious circumstances. His works remain a direct result of his violent nature. There is a fantastic documentary on Caravaggio as part of Simon Schama’s POWER of ART series. It’s in 4 parts- part 1 is here:

This is the best film on Caravaggio. Like his work, it’s in your face and brutal, but you should absolutely watch it before you go to Rome. Enjoy.