The Pantheon - Rome’s Main Conundrum

The Pantheon of Rome is an enigmatic construction. Its solid “looks” almost gives away its true age, yet the real number is always surprising. This monument of Ancient Roman civilization stands right in this place since approximately 125 AD, which makes it an outstanding, incomparable and one of a kind construction that not only survived through eighteen centuries, but remained intact. 

The latter fact is even more surprising if we take into account that the Pantheon is a building with literally a hole inside its spherical roof, which allows rains to get into the building freely. Moreover, it was plundered so many times that it is quite puzzling to find it still standing. Just imagine the Pantheon with bronze portico and roof, marble walls, elegant statues it once had - it is completely different today from what it looked like. But even stripped and naked as it is this building is still an example of an architectural marvel, which inspired architects all around the world to copy it in thousands of variations across the globe.

In fact, the Pantheon is the most cited building in architecture in the whole history. It has been referred to thousands of times during renaissance, neoclassicism and even postmodernism in many countries around the world. Just some famous buildings that were inspired by the Pantheon: il Duomo by Brunelleschi in Florence, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica by Michelangelo in the Vatican, the Pantheon in Paris, the United States Capitol in Washington and numerous other architectural objects.

Historical Facts Around the Pantheon

  • The current Pantheon stands on the site of another building that initially was built by Marcus Agrippa (son-in-law of the first Roman emperor, Augustus) and burnt in a fire in around 80 AD.
  • Emperor Domitian rebuilt the Pantheon, but it burned down again in 110 AD. 
  • The third and the last initiator of the Pantheon is thought to be Emperor Hadrian (117 AD). This ruler was that kind of emperor who was very enthusiastic about art and architecture. He had projects all around Rome and they say that the Pantheon was a part of this project. Hadrian was also known as an emperor who didn’t leave inscriptions on the buildings. The latter fact partly explains why we don’t see his name on the Pantheon. However, it is a big question why Hadrian’s Pantheon (if it is Hadrian’s) has the same inscription as the first Pantheon that was built here in the same place. The inscription on the facade tells us the following: M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT, which means "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made (i.e. built the building) when consul for the third time."
  • After the Constantine became the first Chriastian emperor, Rome was no longer the center of the Ancient Roman world. The capital of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium in 303. And since then Rome became neglected and abandoned. 
  • Another flash of information about the Pantheon  is recorded in 609, when the Pantheon turned into a Christian church of St. Mary and Martyrs by Pope Boniface IV. This event was crucial for saving the Pantheon from the destruction of the Dark Ages for Rome was conquered many times after that and who knows what it would turn into in the later years if it didn’t serve as a church. In order to consecrate the building holy relics of martyrs were removed from the catacombs and placed under the high altar, announcing the new role of the Pantheon.
  • However, even after this even the building wasn’t completely safe. For instance, according to the monk Paul the Deacon Emperor Constans II took the bronze tiles and other parts of the building with him during his arrival in 663 and sent his new possessions to Constantinople for the needs of the new capital. 
  • During the Renaissance the Pantheon became a place for burial of some famous artists and architects. One of them is the genius Raphael, whose tomb you can still visit. Among those buried there are also such names as Annibale Carracci, the composer Arcangelo Corelli, the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, Kings Vittorio Emanuele II, Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita.
  • Since the Renaissance the Pantheon has been actively used as a titular church, being decorated with different non-essential modifications and decorations. One of the most famous and funny of them, called “ass’s ears” was, thank God, taken away in the later centuries. Two small towers were erected on the roof of the Pantheon creating quite a ridiculous scene. Every Roman guide will definitely tell you more about this curious event. 
  • The place around the Pantheon has been changing a lot, too. It started as a construction surrounded by vast free lands. With time settlements came closer and closer until the buildings were built really near it and today it seems that only the Piazza Rotonda protects the “private” area of the Pantheon. 

The Dome

The Pantheon is known for its spectacular dome with an uncovered hole in the middle of its hemispherical ceiling. This dome is so intricately built that no one among those who dared could compare with it whether in shape, size or materials used. Firstly, the dome was made from concrete. Secondly, it is completely unreinforced. These two facts don’t go well together, because concrete is an excessively heavy material for ceilings of such shape and size and therefore needs support. It seems that a gigantic hemisphere was put on the building, but how? From an architectural point of view it is impossible. And when we talk about impossible things we also take into account that the Pantheon was built almost 2000 years ago.

This “eye” in the dome - the oculus - is the only source of light inside the building that projects a thick ray of light, which “travels” around the walls of the building during the day. Interestingly, it stops on the entrance door and lights it up at 12:00 on April, 21. Needless to say that the purpose of the oculus remains another big mystery of the Pantheon. 

The oculus in the dome also allows rain to fall down freely, but floods have never changed a thing or been of any problem to the construction. First of all, because of the drainage system in the floor and inside the building that works perfectly well till today. Secondly, because of the design of the building and the secret material it was made of.

The mathematical, architectural and physical calculations behind the Pantheon are mesmerizing. When Michelangelo himself saw this building, he said that it was “built by angels, not by men.” 

What It Is Made Of

For our contemporaries the walls and the dome of the Pantheon seem to be executed in concrete, but how come that today’s technologies can’t produce such durable materials. Just to think of, the expiry date of modern cement is 600 years. 

Many architectural monuments dated back to Ancient Rome (the Caracalla Baths and the Colosseum, for example) seem to have been done from concrete with the unknown formula. Unfortunately, it was completely lost in history. 

The last but not the least question to be asked about this outstanding historical landmark is how a building aged almost 2000 years old can stay intact without any major reconstructions made during most of its existence. What’s for sure, the eternal Pantheon knows how to keep its secrets. 

Pantheon Today

Since the 13th of May in 609 the Pantheon of Rome is called the Basilica Santa Maria ad Martyres. It welcomes Catholic pilgrims as well as visitors of every other confession. Masses and liturgies are held here every Saturday and Sunday as well as wedding celebrations. Two amazingly beautiful events happen here every year.

The day of Pentecost, which takes place on the 50th day after Easter, and is celebrated in the Pantheon with rain of rose petals. In Italian this celebration is called La pioggia di petali di rose. 

Every year on April, 21 another spectacular thing happens in the Pantheon. The dazzling light from the oculus that travels all around the walls, the floor and the ceiling during the year stops right at the main entrance. Interestingly, since ancient times April, 21 was the day of the foundation of the city. On this day an emperor would enter the main door stepping out of light and looking god-like to the people who were looking at him.

What We Don’t Know About the Pantheon

While the history of many ruins in Rome is quite often documented very well, the history behind the Pantheon remains blurry. In case with the Pantheon we can only collect questions that stay unanswered. Let’s sum up what we don’t know about the Pantheon.

  • What purpose it was supposed to serve
  • Why the creator of the third Pantheon (the current one) left the initial inscriptions on the facade of the building instead of writing something in honor of his name
  • Why there weren’t any documentations made about this prominent building although other buildings from the period of the Ancient Rome were often documented sufficiently to know all the necessary details
  • Who started and finished building the current Pantheon
  • Who the architect was
  • What happened to the building during 300 years between 303 and 609
  • What happened to the building between 663 and the Renaissance period (a gap of 600-700 years)
  • How was the roof of the Pantheon erected
  • What purpose the oculus served
  • What the Roman concrete was really made of
  • How come that water does not affect the Pantheon although the building is standing in the prone to floods area and, in addition to it, allows rainfalls directly into the building

That way or another the Pantheon is a true gem and miracle of the Eternal City. Unlike other monuments of the past it has managed to have a particularly long life, keep its secrets bottled up and be useful for so many centuries. What’s for sure, we are very lucky to evidence this historical masterpiece that is a 100% must-see place for every visitor of Rome.

Important Information

Address: Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma Rm, Italy. Metro: Barberini station, Line A. Landmarks in the vicinity: the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navona, the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Official website: www.pantheonroma.com/home/

Working hours: Monday – Saturday: 8:30am – 7:30pm (last entry 7:15 pm), Sunday: 9am – 6pm (last entry 5:45 pm). Closed on the following days: May 1, December 1, January 1

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