As you stroll through the cobbled streets of downtown Rome, it is not uncommon to come across buildings that are thousands of years old. But they are generally preserved as ruins, like the famous Colosseum. This is what makes the Pantheon, an ancient pagan Roman temple turned into a church, such an extraordinary building. The Pantheon is, in fact, both millennial – it was built between 113 and 125– and incredibly well preserved. Entering its Corinthian colonnade is like stepping into a time machine that takes you back to ancient Rome.
Built by order of the Roman consul and architect Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) and completed during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, the Pantheon (a word which literally means “temple of all gods” in ancient Greek) was originally intended to serve as a private temple for Agrippa himself.
This is why an inscription on the front of the temple says: “Mr. Agrippa L[ucii]F[ilius]co[n]s[ul]tertium fecit ”, which means“Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building]when consul for the third time. This facade is also the only original piece of the temple of Agrippa that has survived intact. The rest of the original structure burned down in a series of fires between the 80s and 110s and the temple was therefore rebuilt under Emperor Hadrian, who dedicated it to Agrippa probably in 126.
In the 7th century, Emperor Phocas donated the temple to Pope Boniface IV, who ordered it to be converted back into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs, officially known as “Sancta Maria ad Martyrs“, But more commonly known as” Rotunda of Santa Maria “, literally” Sainte Marie en Ronde “, in reference to the circular shape of the building. The Pantheon has served as a Catholic Church ever since and still does. Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. for non-Italian speakers.
The structure of the Pantheon itself is an architectural marvel, especially since it was built in 126. Its dome, with a diameter of 141 feet long, is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. world. Its entire weight is supported by a ring of voussoirs, wedge-shaped structures supporting arches that lead to a round-shaped opening at the top called the oculus. The oculus acts as a natural air conditioner by letting air in outside the church. The oculus is also open to light and, of course, to rain–a drainage system on the bottom allows water to drain out of the building on rainy days.
Throughout the day, light beams from the oculus illuminate different parts of the interiors, acting like a natural sundial.
The interior of the dome is characterized by a recurring circular and square pattern–a stark contrast to the checkerboard themes of the floor–and features five evenly spaced rings of 18 recessed panels, called chests, which likely had symbolic significance. Art historians believe they were used as a symbol of the sky or as geometric or lunar symbols.
This structure has remained more or less unchanged over the centuries, with the exception of modifications in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII ordered that the bronze ceiling of the portico of the Pantheon be melted down in order to make cannons for the pontifical fort of Castel Sant’Angelo, which previously served as a Mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, and for other works in the papal field.
A few years later, Pope Clement XI commissioned the high altars and apses of the church, designed by the Roman architect Alessandro Specchi. Just above the apse is a 7th century icon of the Virgin which was donated by Emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV on the day the Pantheon officially turned into a Christian church (May 13, 609).
From the Renaissance, the Pantheon is decorated with beautiful paintings, such as the Annunciation by the Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forlì. Another remarkable work of art is the Madonna of the Girdle and Saint Nicholas of Bari, dating from 1686 and attributed to an unknown artist.
On the left side of the first niche of the Pantheon, there is a canvas by the Baroque painter Clément Maioli representing Saint Laurent and Saint Agnes (1645-1650), while the right presents a work by the Renaissance painter Pietro Paolo Bonzi representing the Gospel story of The incredulity of St. Thomas (1633).
The third niche is decorated with a sculpture of Saint Anne and the Blessed Virgin by the Roman sculptor Lorenzone as well as the painting entitled The Virgin of Mercy between Saint Francis and Saint John the Baptist from the so-called Umbrian school of painting, which included Renaissance masters like Raphael and Perugino. The final niche on the right side features a beautiful marble statue of Saint Anastasius completed in 1725 by the late Baroque sculptor Bernardino Cametti.
The Renaissance period also marks the beginning of a series of notable burials inside the Pantheon. Some of the most important Italian figures of all time, from Renaissance painter Raphael to King Victor Emmanuel II, are buried inside the temple-turned-church. Raphael’s tomb is located under a beautiful sculpture of the Madonna del Sasso, literally the Virgin of Stone, sculpted by Lorenzetto, the pupil of Raphael.
Today, the Pantheon is one of the most visited monuments in Italy. It is estimated that in 2017, more than 8 million people entered its thousand-year-old portico and marveled at the enchanting beauty of its oculus. The Pantheon is open to tourists all year round, but the best time for a visit may be on Pentecost Sunday, celebrated on the 50th day after Easter, where an early morning mass is followed by a rain of red rose petals flowing from the oculus, a thousand-year-old tradition initiated by the early Christians, who used red roses as a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles like tongues of fire.