The Pantheon

It was beginning to rain. And of course, our umbrellas were back in our hotel room. So we headed back in that direction, soon found ourselves in the Piazza della Rotonda, and noticed that the line to enter the Pantheon—endlessly long an hour earlier—was now nearly inconsequential. So we nipped inside. Because this iconic structure—built as a temple to the Roman Gods—is now Catholic Church (Basilica of Saint Mary and the Martyrs), admission is free.* However, we gladly sprang for the cost of audio guides (which became standard procedure whenever we visited places wherever they were available and we did not have a tour guide). There is so much to notice, learn, and understand about this monumental ancient edifice. Commissioned by Marcus Agrippa in the decade after the Battle of Actium (31 BC), this was part of a complex of buildings on his own property. The current structure was completed by Hadrian, probably about 126 AD. It is one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings; one contributing factor: it was “Christianized” by Pope Boniface IV in 609 and, since then, has always been in continuous use.

From the piazza, the imposing portico dominates. Inside, the rotunda draws all eyes upward. Open to the sky, the oculus** (circular window at the apex of the dome) lets in both daylight and starlight, as well as fresh air, and—on this inclement afternoon—rain.

Among the extensive details conveyed by our audio guide, we learned (and were able to verify with our own eyes) that the floor is slightly raised in the center so that rainwater flows to strategically positioned slots in the floor; from there it is carried off to a network of drainpipes below. This ingenious system is just one example of the  brilliant Roman engineering evident in every aspect of The Pantheon’s design and construction. Its defining feature, of course, is the dome—the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Achieved through multiple innovations, the dome’s thickness, as well as the heaviness of the building materials used, were reduced as it rose upward, toward the open “eye.”

The height, from floor to oculus, and the diameter of the rotunda are the same (142 feet), which means the interior space would fit precisely within a cube and, in theory, could contain a sphere precisely 142 feet in diameter.

Immediately upon entering, despite the chattering throng of visitors (as well as quiet worshipers) inside, we were struck by the grandeur, visual harmony, beauty of this space. It takes a few moments of concentration to distinguish the details of the architectural elements, which feel symmetrical, yet are not. Finished in a breathtaking array of marble panels, carvings, and pillars, the rotunda is lined with alcoves. The most elaborate of these, directly opposite the entrance, is topped by a gorgeous, half dome; it houses the church’s main altar. Six additional alcoves, three on either side, house chapels. The two largest chapels are the burial places for Italian kings—Victor Emmanuel II (d. 1878), who is credited with the unification of modern-day Italy, and Umberto I, who was assassinated in 1900. Niches between the chapels are replete with sculptures, busts, and sarcophagi, including one that contains the ashes of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (better known simply as Raphael, the great Renaissance artist). In short, there are more paintings, frescoes, statues, architectural elements, religious symbols—and dead bodies—here than can be comprehended, appreciated, or remembered after a single visit. Even the floor, with its pattern of alternating circles and squares, is worthy of note. The overall feeling, though, no matter how crowded the building gets, is one of calm tranquility.

We were surprised, at first, to encounter a distinguished looking gentleman, resplendent in a black cape that bore a bold crown and shield emblem. He stood by a lectern near a massive bronze plaque inscribed with gold lettering: VITTORIO  • EMANVELE II  • – PADRE • DELLA • PATRIA. This, then, was the chapel where Victor Emmanuel is buried. (In the Pantheon, the burial places of the kings are watched over by the National Institute of Honour Guards to the Royal Tombs, so this was a member of that organization. It’s only in retrospect, to be honest, that I’ve been able to sort all this out in my head.) We realized that the lectern held a guest book, and that we were welcome to sign. I felt honored to add our names, “John and Janice Blake, Manhattan Beach, California, USA,” to those of countless other visitors from around the world.

Despite its 3-star billing as a “must see” for tourists, the Pantheon remains a place of worship. And so there are pews fronting the altar for those who wished to pray, or pretend to pray, or simply sit quietly and look around while listening to the audio guide (as we did). Despite my ambiguous religious identity—long-lapsed Catholic, enthusiastic (but attendee mostly only on Christmas and Easter) Episcopalian, strong believer that each person’s sincerely held faith, or lack thereof,  is valid, I hold fast to many of the traditions of my upbringing. Among these is the idea (or call it a fond fantasy) that holy images hold special meaning and a mysterious spiritual power. Thus whenever I encounter Saint Joseph,*** I somehow feel that I’ve just had a brief visitation from my beloved Uncle Joe, who died in 2009 at the age of 94. I also take great joy and comfort in the ritual of making an offering, lighting a candle, and saying a prayer in Church. I cannot now recall whether the Pantheon was the first church where I lit a candle; I do know I lit candles in nearly every Church we visited where I they were available; in the U.S. they are hard to find, most churches in the interest of fire safety have replaced them with fake push-button votives. Not the same!

Before we left, in addition to lighting a candle (if I really did), I took the time to make a second stop at the Chapel of Saint Joseph, the first chapel the left of the entrance.

Outside, from the piazza, we stood for a while, considering the architectural perfection of this building, which, in spite of its fairly squat profile, grim exterior, and great mass, is a presence of majesty, power, and grace. Its significance as an inspiration in Western architecture (and model for landmark buildings of more recent centuries) is unmistakable.


*Sorry to say, just came across an article online stating that beginning May 1, the free admission policy was reversed, and it now costs 2 euros to enter the Pantheon.

**”Oculus” is, of course, the Latin word for “eye.” I should have known this immediately, having taken three years of Latin in high school;  I kind of knew it; but, I have to be honest: I looked it up to be sure.

***Or the Goodyear blimp (but that’s a story for another day!)

A note from Mrs. Penfire: On this day, and throughout our Italian sojourn, we encountered historical…and mythical…names that were vaguely familiar, but shrouded in the mists of foggy memory and long-forgotten history…and Latin…classes. I do remember, sort of, that Marcus Agrippa, was a general (I think). And I  know for sure that Hadrian built the wall between England and Scotland; well we all know he didn’t actually build it with his own hands, nor did he “build” the Pantheon; but he gets credited with the construction of these edifices, and many more, I’m sure. As we trek on, through Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, Pompeii, Ravello and the Amalfi Coast, lots more of these names are going to pop up. I have been dutiful in fact checking as I go; but, luckily for you, there’s no quiz at the end of all this; so please just read along for fun. I recommend you not try to remember who actually is who!