What is the Pantheon?
The Pantheon in Rome is a 2nd-century AD temple turned Roman Catholic church built by Emperor Hadrian, which houses the tomb of Renaissance artist Raphael.
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A Roman temple turned Christian church, the Pantheon is the best preserved structure from the ancient world and one that has had a profound influence on Western architecture. Derived from the Greek words pan (meaning ‘all’) and theos (‘god’), the church once stood as a magisterial dedication to the pagan gods of Rome. Cassius Dio, the prominent Roman historian, speculated that its name either came from the statues of gods located around the perimeter, or the resemblance of the vaulted dome to the heavens themselves. Either way it must have been a powerful sight to behold.
The original structure was built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa, a confidant of the first Emperor Augustus. However, it was damaged during a widespread fire 50 years after its completion. Despite its restoration by the Emperor Domitian, Hadrian decided a completely new version was required, and all traces of the previous Pantheon were destroyed in the early 2nd century, except the dedicatory inscription above the entrance that reads: ‘Marcus Agrippa, the son of Lucius, three times consul, built this’.
There were a great number of public projects completed during Hadrian’s reign, however his name was never inscribed upon any of them, the only exception being the temple to his father Trajan. He therefore decided to preserve the inscription of the original building as a gesture to his noble predecessor.
In terms of design, the Pantheon is unusual in combining traditional Tuscan and Greek architectural styles, each with a degree of innovation. The structure is formed of two distinct parts: a front porch and a circular cella behind, or inner chamber, topped with a hemispherical dome.
The porch is built in a Tuscan style and covered with a roof held up by Egyptian granite columns. Unlike the segmented pillars found in Greek architecture, the columns of the Pantheon were single blocks of stone imported from Egypt. If you look to the top of these columns, you’ll see the elaborate decoration of acanthus leaves and scrolls, the typical features of Corinthian style.
In stark contrast, the cella is made from concrete, brick, and stone, its brilliance not conveyed by lavish materials but instead by the innovative methods of the Roman architects in charge. The walls are composed of vaulted spaces stacked on top of each other, which act to redirect the pressure towards eight enormous supports. A wooden frame in the shape of the ceiling was then constructed, and concrete poured to set on top. In fact, its impressive design continues to beguile modern architects who are mystified as to how the structure is still standing today.
At the top of the dome is an oculus, or eye, that enabled worshippers to look towards the heavens. This particular oculus is a rare feat of engineering and the largest of its kind. Coupled with the awesome appearance of the dome, once decorated in gold to resemble the heavens, this would have been a magnificent sight for any visitor. The oculus was never covered and so the building was fitted with drain holes and designed with a slightly convex floor to wash away any rainwater. It flowed into drainpipes below, all of which are still in working order.
Aside from its architectural brilliance, the Pantheon also houses the tomb of Renaissance artist Raphael, located between the second and third chapel on the left. At his audacious request, Raphael’s body was transferred here shortly after his premature death at the age of just 37. Centuries later the tomb was opened to verify its contents. The burial contained a skeleton, deemed by those present to be the artist’s earthly remains.
Since antiquity, the Pantheon has had an extensive influence on architecture, notably the Islamic Dome of the Rock and the Capitol in Washington D.C. It’s completely understandable, then, that when Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century installed an inscription at the back of the Pantheon’s porch, it began: ‘The Pantheon, the most celebrated edifice in the whole world’.
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