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Rome, old Rome particularly, is never without an interesting sight from the past.

On our way to the Pantheon, we passed this 2,000-year-old colonnade, the facade of what had to have been quite an imposing structure.

It was built at a level much below that of present-day Rome, actually quite a common sight in the old parts of the city. As Rome was sacked and destroyed by attacking hordes of Visigoths commencing in 410 C.E., and again by Goths in 455, buildings fell, literally, and at some point new construction was built on top of those ruins; thus, the newer street levels are considerably higher than the old. Some extra credit to our students if you can research and find the identity of this colonnade.

Ahead we see the sunlit Piazza della Rotonda, the bright light so typical of Italian urban focal points seen through otherwise narrow and darker streets.

The tables, chairs, and umbrellas tell us that every open spot in an Italian city is a potential site for an outdoor dining and/or drinking experience. What a wonderful way to use space, give life to a city, and even add to the security of the place, because the expression "people watching" also means keeping things safe!

The fountain in the center of the piazza contains an Egyptian obelisk, which originally guarded a temple in Egypt dedicated to Isis, goddess of the Moon.

The Pantheon, our primary reason for being in this piazza, is probably the most intact (perhaps the only completely preserved building of large size) of all Roman constructions. Built by the Emperor Hadrian in 120 C.E., and dedicated to Roman gods of the planets ("pan" derives from "all" or "many," and "theo" relates to "god" or "religion," and so "pantheon"). The building sits on foundations laid by the Roman Emperor Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C.E. The original building was a temple (possibly celebrating victory over Anthony and Cleopatra), which subsequently burned twice. Hadrian created a hemisphere set within a cylinder, with parts of the original portico reset in front. The pediment still bears the original inscription by Agrippa, identifying him and his time period.

A glimpse of the cylindrical form behind the portico, which shows us why the piazza is known as "rotonda" - things, which are round, are "rotund" in English, from the Latin, with the Italian spelled "rotonda." Concrete is the main construction material.

There was some early restoration in 202 C.E. In 609 C.E., Pope Boniface IV transformed the pagan temple into a Christian church, dedicating it to the Madonna and Christian martyrs (Santa Maria ad Martyres). The portico is 33.5 meters wide and 18.3 meters in depth (110' x 60'). The monolithic, unfluted columns are of Egyptian granite, and stand 14 meters high (46’-5”). The Corinthian capitals are of white Pentelic marble. Its roof is constructed of wood rafters. We shall enter and learn more of its history.

Before we enter, perhaps a night view might be in order. The lighting reveals more than the daytime illustration, which was a bit on the dark side. But artificial lighting can do a lot for a building, a city. It figuratively brings life to an otherwise dead object.

The bronze entrance doors were originally plated with gold. Bronze covering of the segmental vaulting overhead was removed in 1626 and recast to become Bernini's famous baldachino inside St. Peter's, and some pieces became cannon for the Castel San Angelo.

The interior is lit through an oculus in the dome of a hemisphere set within the cylinder we saw outside. Rain, in the form of a mist, enters. We will get to that oculus in a moment.

The interior is developed around a theme of alternating "tabernacles," or niches, and actual deeply recessed altarpieces and areas.

The 15th century crucifix is contained within the third niche. The artist and architect Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) is buried within a Roman sarcophagus here. 

The fourth niche contains the main altar, and was designed by Alessandro Specchi (1668-1729), the architect who began the design of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

The Sixth niche contains the tomb of Victor Emanuel II, "Father of the Country." He united the city-states, which became the country of Italy, as we geographically know it today, in the 1860s.

The flooring is composed of alternating inlaid squares and circles of marble and stone (restored by Pius IX in 1873).

The semi-circular vault of the apse of the altar is composed of gold mosaics.

A close-up of the altar apse.

The oculus, seen at night, and set in the center of the dome, has an 8.2 meter diameter (27'), and is 43.4 meters feet above the floor (142'- 6"), the same dimension as the width of the interior. Remember, we said it was a hemisphere, set within a cylinder.

Holes appear in the floor, indicating the existence of drainage, undoubtedly for the rain/mist mentioned above.

The first of five rows of recessed coffers, which were created in concrete mixtures to reduce weight and to create a design pattern. Each horizontal row of coffers is a ring of corbel construction, created concentrically. Additionally, in a clever optically-created psychological effect, each row is smaller in height as we go upwards to the oculus, creating the illusion of even greater height.

The five rows of coffers and the oculus.

The beginning of a 360 degree eye-level panoramic sweep of the Pantheon.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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