Exploring the Pantheon

Considered one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings, the Pantheon has undergone many changes over approximately the period of 2,000 years. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice, allowing the Temple of All the Gods to change from the rectangular structure commissioned in 27 A.D. by Marcus Agrippa, to the domed building standing today thanks to Emperor Hadrian’s restorative efforts in 126 A.D.

PantheonDownsizedThe Pantheon was built as a temple and sacrificial altar, where many animals were sacrificed, only survived when it was turned into a church in about 609 A.D. (Churches need to be maintained, and so the Pantheon lives on). A blessing to all of us whom wish for a better understanding of Roman history and architecture.

Praised by Michelangelo as an “angelic and not human design”, the Pantheon’s design combines the religious, technical and architectural aspects of the Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures.

The Greek influence can be seen in the geometric perfection of the round building as only the Greeks believed in the spherical nature of the universe. The portico and pediment also hint to this culture’s influence.  118 years later Hadrian built on the same foundations where the temple had been destroyed by a fire.  That new temple, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, was named Agrippa.

Like the Colosseum, bits and pieces were taken from the Pantheon, to create objects of the Renaissance period. Such an example, was the bronze that was taken from the more decorated portico ceiling of the Pantheon, and re-distributed within the “Baldacchino,” a magnificent piece that was designed by the famed Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and that sits today as a center piece in Saint Peter’s Basillica.

Also a testimony to the Romans advanced and ingenious contributions is that the oculus is believed to act as a giant sundial. Meanwhile, the portico’s sixteen 60-ton columns leading to the temple have been inspired by the hypostyle (hall of columns) most seen in Egyptian temples, which is why they were quarried in Egypt and transported to Rome through barges and vessels. The Egyptian effect may also be felt through the concept of bringing the heavens to earth via the Roman arch and dome. This is the opposite of Egyptians’ beliefs in building their pyramids to take the Pharaoh’s soul to the heavens, but it’s related since the Romans didn’t have such a concept earlier.

Also on the outside is brickwork laid on the perimeter wall. Inbuilt arches can also be seen, which, in addition to serving decorative purposes, channel the weight of the dome downwards.

Interestingly, despite being re-built by Hadrian, the Pantheon still features the original dedication to Agrippa, which reads: ‘M. AGRIPPA.L.F.COSTERTIUM.FECIT” or “Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, having been consul three times made it”. Above it, the pediment  (triangle on top of the inscription) remains blank, but it may have featured a sculpture depicting the Battle of the Titans. Below the inscription is a set of bronze doors which may have been covered in gold in the past.

Stepping into the Pantheon, visitors will note the numerous cavities and chambers visible in the round, 25-foot thick wall across multiple levels. Structurally, the wall has been considered to be a series of concrete piers separated by eight large equally-spaced niches. Most of the niches are semi-circular in shape whereas the one at the main door is more square-like. What’s interesting is that these niches are the resting places of two great Italian kings and the poet Raphael.

At the top of the wall and niches is the famous dome. Boasting a 43.4 meters diameter, it’s considered the world’s largest reinforced solid concrete dome. It’s also one of the most difficult aspects to describe as its configuration is unusual. The radii of the dome are about 71 ft. according to the original design whereas Italian engineer G. Cozzo believes them to be around 82 ft.

That aside, the ceiling of the dome features five symmetrical rows of 28 sunken panels or coffers and an oculus in the center. While most believe them to be decorative only, the ceiling’s design actually helps in reducing the weight load of the roof. This is important as the Pantheon’s walls were built with concrete of varying densities. The base is made of extremely thick concrete of a density of 20 ft. whereas the top near the oculus is only 7.5 ft. thick. All of this, was considered “a stroke of genius,” or an engineering feat for this historical time period.

The beautiful yet functional design of the Pantheon has inspired many builders over the years, driving them to create similar structures such as the Villa Almerico-Capra in Italy, the U.S. Capitol Building, and the Jefferson Memorial-“Monticello” in Washington DC. With an architecture created to last for centuries to come, the Pantheon will continue flaunting the genius of Ancient Rome.

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Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

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