The word Pantheon is actually an adjective from the Greek meaning “Honour all Gods”. This breathtaking building is a reminder of the great architecture of the Roman Empire. When Michelangelo first saw the building he said that it looked like it had been built by angels, not humans.
Pantheon – History
The Pantheon is the best-preserved Roman building from ancient times. This Roman engineering marvel was built in AD 120 by Emperor Hadrian. He designed it to restore the earlier temple built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa which had burnt down.
The Barbarians destroyed a lot of ancient Roman monuments. It is a bit of a mystery why the Pantheon survived intact. To have then survived to the modern day is a testament to the design and quality of the building. In AD 609 it usage changed from a pagan temple into a church, the first time this had happened. Being a church is probably what saved it from being destroyed during the Middle Ages. Today it is a church dedicated to St. Mary of the Martyrs. However, everybody still calls it the Pantheon although many of the signs inside still refer to it as St. Mary of the Martyrs.
Fountain of the Pantheon
In front of the Pantheon is the fabulous “Fountain of the Pantheon”. The fountain has as its centrepiece an obelisk surrounded by four dolphins. It’s a great place to stand and admire the impressive portico at the front of the Pantheon which screens the vast hemispherical dome. The Piazza della Rotonda, which it sits in is a busy square with lots of bars, restaurants and cafes. The Piazza is full of people at all hours, photographing the building, enjoying the music performed by different street artists or just eating outside one of the eateries.
There are sixteen massive columns supporting the portico. Each of the 60-ton columns was brought all the way from Egypt. On top of the columns sits a triangular pediment. The pediment bears an inscription that attributes the building of the Pantheon to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa a Roman statesman and architect. It reads “M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT” which when translated means “It was built by Marcos Agrippa in his third consulate”. This is slightly confusing as Agrippa built the earlier Pantheon which burned down. Emperor Hadrian used this piece of the old building as a nod to the previous building.
It’s only when you step inside that you can appreciate the true scale and beauty of the building. The rotunda’s diameter (43.3 meters) is exactly equal to its height. The only light streams through the hole at the top of the dome, the oculus.
A number of opulent shrines line the walls. These include the tomb of the Rennaissance artist and architect Raphael and a number of the kings of modern Italy. The marble floor was restored in 1873 and preserves the original Roman design consisting of a series of geometric patterns.
Dome and Oculus
The immense dome, with its great hole in the top, was the world’s largest dome for 1300 years. Today it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. It was made by pouring a mixture of concrete, tufa (a variety of limestone) and pumice over a temporary framework made out of wood. The use of hollow decorative coffers reduced its weight.
Roman engineers removed as much weight from the dome as possible. Its thickness progressively decreases towards the top. This decrease in thickness has a strange effect. Whilst inside the ceiling is spherical, outside it looks flattened towards the top. The total weight of the dome is still 4,535 tonnes.
The oculus is 7.8 meters in diameter and is the connection between the temple and the gods above. Rain occasionally falls through it, but the floor beneath slants to drain away any water managing to hit the floor.
The nearest Metro station is Barberini on line A. It is free to enter the Pantheon. As you enter you’ll notice that there are requests and signs for silence at all times while you are in this religious place. The Pantheon is open on Saturdays from 9 am until 7:15 pm, Sundays from 9 am until 5:45 and on Public Holidays from 9 am until 12:45 pm. The Pantheon is closed on some national holidays and also if a mass is taking place.
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