We spent the better part of a day wandering around the inside and the outside and neighborhood of this great structure. For me it was another kind of homecoming; I visited here with a friend while cycling through Europe 25 years ago and fell in love with this place. What can I say? I still like this building. While the Colosseum wins in the category of “Place where lots of wild and nasty things happened,” the Pantheon wins hands down as “The most unique, forward-thinking, best preserved ancient Roman building.”
It was originally built by King Agrippa, a son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, around AD 27. Unlike many temples, it was not dedicated to one particular deity but dedicated instead to all of the Olympian gods. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it burnt to the ground in AD 80 and was totally rebuilt under a completely different design by Emperor Hadrian around AD 125. This domed circular building has an internal diameter of about 142 feet and is the same distance tall at its highest point inside. The interior of the building could perfectly fit a sphere of equal size. The center of the dome has an aperture opening to allow in sunlight that measures about 30 feet in diameter. The original drains in the floor that collect the rainwater that falls in through the aperture still work. The dome itself was built of concrete of increasingly lighter materials as it reached its apex. The upper-most concrete material was made from of pumice. The sixteen monolithic marble columns at the portico entrance to the Pantheon are of Egyptian granite.
There was no dome structure equal to it prior to its construction and no dome structure even approached its proportions until the building of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, Italy some 1,300 years later in 1436. Hadrian’s Pantheon took seven years to build. Brunelleschi’s took sixteen years. The Romans perfected the use of concrete, but by Brunelleschi’s time it was a forgotten art and heavy brickwork replaced the delicacy of a pumice concrete mix. Brunelleschi was even given special permission to cut a hole in the Pantheon dome to try and learn how the concrete worked, but still couldn’t figure it out. You can still see the hole today. In this particular case, the Romans were truly revolutionary in their architectural design.
And you know what makes this place truly amazing? You don’t need one of those silly “Before and After” overlay books to enjoy it. The Pantheon is perfectly preserved on the inside. It remained in use as a Roman temple until AD 608 when it was converted into a Christian church (Santa Maria ad Martyes) and today functions as a mausoleum for dead presidents of Italy. The outside is pretty unassuming although the piazza in front of the Pantheon does contain an Egyptian obelisk. The Pantheon is in such good shape that I had to regularly consult my guidebooks just to make sure that I had read the information about its preservation correctly. It’s amazing!