Walking through the cobbled streets of downtown Rome, it’s not uncommon to come across buildings that are thousands of years old. But they are usually preserved as ruins, like the famous Colosseum. This is what makes the Pantheon, an ancient Roman pagan temple turned church, such an extraordinary building. The Pantheon is, in fact, both millennial – it was built between 113 and 125– and incredibly well preserved. Stepping into its Corinthian colonnade feels like stepping into a time machine leading 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 Hadrianthe Pantheon (a word that literally means “temple of all the gods” in ancient Greek) was originally intended to serve as a private temple to Agrippa himself.
This is why an inscription on the front of the temple reads: “M. Agrippa L.[ucii]F[ilius]co[n]s[ul]tertium fecit”, which means “Marcus Agrippason of Luciusmade [this building]when he is 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 1980s and 110s and the temple was thus 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 that it be converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Martyrs, officially known as “Sancta Maria ad Martyresbut more commonly called “Santa Maria Rotunda”, literally “Saint Mary in the Round”, 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 Saturday 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, is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Its entire weight is supported by a ring of voussoirs, wedge-shaped structures supporting vaults that lead to a round-shaped opening at the top called the oculus. The oculus acts as natural air conditioning by letting air in and out of the church. The oculus is also open to light and, of course, rain—a drainage system at the bottom allows water to flow out of the building on rainy days.
Throughout the day, beams of light 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 striking contrast to the checkerboard themes of the floor—and has five regularly spaced rings of 18 recessed panels, called coffers, which probably had symbolic significance. Art historians believe that they were used as a symbol of the arched vault of the heavens or as geometric or lunar symbols.
This structure has remained more or less unchanged over the centuries, with the exception of modifications during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII ordered the bronze ceiling of the portico of the Pantheon to be melted down in order to make cannons for the papal fort of Castel Sant’Angelo, which had previously served as Mausoleum of Emperor Hadrianand for other works in the papal domain.
A few years later, Pope Clement XI commissioned the church’s high altars and apses, which were designed by Roman architect Alessandro Specchi. Just above the apse is a 7th-century icon of the Virgin offered by Emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV on the day the Pantheon was officially transformed into a Christian church (May 13, 609).
From the Renaissance, the Pantheon was adorned with beautiful paintings, such as the Annunciation by the Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forlì. Another remarkable work of art is the Madonna of the Belt 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 is a canvas by the Baroque painter Clément Maioli depicting Saint Laurent and Saint Agnes (1645-1650), while the right features a work by Renaissance painter Pietro Paolo Bonzi depicting the Gospel account of the The incredulity of Saint 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 Madonna of Mercy between Saint Francis and Saint John the Baptist of the so-called Umbrian school of painting, which included Renaissance masters like Raphael and Perugino. The final niche on the right side features a fine marble statue of Saint Anastasius completed in 1725 by 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 under a beautiful sculpture of the Madonna del Sasso, literally the Madonna of the Stone, sculpted by Lorenzetto, Raphael’s pupil.
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 perhaps the best time to visit is on Pentecost Sunday, celebrated on the 50th day after Easter, when a morning mass is followed by a
rain of red rose petals flowing from the oculus
a millennial tradition initiated by the first Christians, who used red roses as a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles as tongues of fire.