Pantheon is a building in Rome, originally built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt in the early 2nd century AD. A near-contemporary writer, Cassius Dio, speculates that the name comes from the statues of many gods placed around the building, or from the resemblance of the dome to the heavens. The intended degree of inclusiveness of the dedication to “all” the gods is debated. Since the French Revolution, when the church of Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, was deconsecrated and turned into a secular monument, the Panthéon, the generic term pantheon may be applied to any building in which illustrious dead are honoured or buried.
The building is circular with a portico of three ranks of huge granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment opening into the rotunda, under a coffered, concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) open to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft). A rectangular structure links the portico with the rotunda. It is one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings. It has been in continuous use throughout its history. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to “St. Mary and the Martyrs” but informally known as “Santa Maria Rotonda.”
In the aftermath of the Battle of Actium (31 BC), Marcus Agrippa built and dedicated the original Pantheon during his third consulship (27 BC). The form of Agrippa’s Pantheon is debated. Augustus’s Pantheon was destroyed along with other buildings in a huge fire in 80 AD. Domitian rebuilt the Pantheon, which burned again in 110 AD. Not long after this second fire, construction started again, according to a recent re-evaluation of the bricks dated with manufacturer stamps. Therefore, the design of the building should not be credited to Hadrian or his architects. Instead, the design of the extant building might belong to Trajan’s architect Apollodorus of Damascus. The degree to which the decorative scheme should be credited to Hadrian’s architects is uncertain. Finished by Hadrian but not claimed as one of his works, it used the text of the original inscription (“M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIVM•FECIT”, standing for Latin: Marcus Agrippa, Lucii filius, consul tertium fecit translated to “‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this”) on the new facade, a common practice in Hadrian’s rebuilding projects all over Rome. How the building was actually used is not known.
Cassius Dio, a Graeco-Roman senator, consul and author of a comprehensive History of Rome, writing approximately 75 years after the Pantheon’s reconstruction, mistakenly attributed the domed building to Agrippa rather than Hadrian. Dio’s book appears to be the only near-contemporary writing on the Pantheon, and even by the year 200 there was uncertainty about the origin of the building and its purpose:
Agrippa finished the construction of the building called the Pantheon. It has this name, perhaps because it received among the images which decorated it the statues of many gods, including Mars and Venus; but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens. (Cassius Dio History of Rome 53.27.2)
The building was repaired by Septimius Severus and Caracalla in 202 AD, for which there is another, smaller inscription. This inscription reads “pantheum vetustate corruptum cum omni cultu restituerunt” (‘with every refinement they restored the Pantheon worn by age’).
In 609 the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Christian church and consecrated it to Sancta Maria ad Martyres, now known as Santa Maria dei Martiri:
Another Pope, Boniface, asked the same [Emperor Phocas, in Constantinople] to order that in the old temple called the Pantheon, after the pagan filth was removed, a church should be made, to the holy virgin Mary and all the martyrs, so that the commemoration of the saints would take place henceforth where not gods but demons were formerly worshiped.
The building’s consecration as a church saved it from the abandonment, destruction, and the worst of the spoliation which befell the majority of ancient Rome’s buildings during the early medieval period. Paul the Deacon records the spoliation of the building by the Emperor Constans II, who visited Rome in July 663:
Remaining at Rome twelve days he pulled down everything that in ancient times had been made of metal for the ornament of the city, to such an extent that he even stripped off the roof of the church [of the blessed Mary] which at one time was called the Pantheon, and had been founded in honor of all the gods and was now by the consent of the former rulers the place of all the martyrs; and he took away from there the bronze tiles and sent them with all the other ornaments to Constantinople.
Much fine external marble has been removed over the centuries, and there are capitals from some of the pilasters in the British Museum. Two columns were swallowed up in the medieval buildings that abutted the Pantheon on the east and were lost. In the early seventeenth century, Urban VIII Barberini tore away the bronze ceiling of the portico, and replaced the medieval campanile with the famous twin towers built by Maderno, which were not removed until the late nineteenth century. The only other loss has been the external sculptures, which adorned the pediment above Agrippa’s inscription. The marble interior has largely survived, although with extensive restoration
Since the Renaissance the Pantheon has been used as a tomb. Among those buried there are the painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci, the composer Arcangelo Corelli, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi. In the 15th century, the Pantheon was adorned with paintings: the best-known is the Annunciation by Melozzo da Forlì. Architects, like Brunelleschi, who used the Pantheon as help when designing the Cathedral of Florence’s dome, looked to the Pantheon as inspiration for their works.
Pope Urban VIII (1623 to 1644) ordered the bronze ceiling of the Pantheon’s portico melted down. Most of the bronze was used to make bombards for the fortification of Castel Sant’Angelo, with the remaining amount used by the Apostolic Camera for various other works. It is also said that the bronze was used by Bernini in creating his famous baldachin above the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, but according to at least one expert, the Pope’s accounts state that about 90% of the bronze was used for the cannon, and that the bronze for the baldachin came from Venice. This led the Roman satirical figure Pasquino to issue the famous proverb: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis [Urban VIII's family name] did”)
In 1747, the broad frieze below the dome with its false windows was “restored,” but bore little resemblance to the original. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a piece of the original, as could be reconstructed from Renaissance drawings and paintings, was recreated in one of the panels.
Also buried there are two kings of Italy: Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, as well as Umberto’s Queen, Margherita. Although Italy has been a republic since 1946, volunteer members of Italian monarchist organisations maintain a vigil over the royal tombs in the Pantheon. This has aroused protests from time to time from republicans, but the Catholic authorities allow the practice to continue, although the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage is in charge of the security and maintenance.
The Pantheon is still used as a church. Masses are celebrated there, particularly on important Catholic days of obligation, and weddings.
The building was originally approached by a flight of steps. The ground level in the surrounding area has risen considerably since antiquity.
The pediment was decorated with relief sculpture, probably of gilded bronze. Holes marking the location of clamps which held the sculpture suggest that its design was likely an eagle within a wreath; ribbons extended from the wreath into the corners of the pediment.
The Pantheon’s porch was originally designed for monolithic granite columns with shafts 50 Roman feet tall (weighing about 100 tons) and capitals 10 Roman feet tall in the Corinthian order. The taller porch would have hidden the second pediment visible on the intermediate block. Instead, the builders made many awkward adjustments in order to use shafts 40 Roman feet tall and capitals 8 Roman feet tall. The substitution probably resulted from logistical difficulties at some stage in the process: the grey granite columns
actually used in the Pantheon’s pronaos were quarried at Mons Claudianus in Egypt’s eastern mountains. Each was 39 feet (12 m) tall, five feet (1.5 m) in diameter, and 60 tons in weight. These were dragged more than 100 km from the quarry to the river on wooden sledges. They were floated by barge down the Nile when the river was high and transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean to the Roman port of Ostia where they were transferred back onto barges and up the Tiber to Rome. After being unloaded near the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Pantheon was still about 700 meters away.
In the walls at the back of the portico were niches, probably for statues of Caesar, Augustus and Agrippa, or for the Capitoline Triad, or another set of gods.
The large bronze doors to the cella, once plated with gold, are ancient but not original to the Pantheon. The current doors—too small for the door frame—have been there since at least the 15th century.
The 4,535 metric tons (4,999 short tons) weight of the Roman concrete dome is concentrated on a ring of voussoirs 9.1 metres (30 ft) in diameter which form the oculus while the downward thrust of the dome is carried by eight barrel vaults in the 6.4 metres (21 ft) thick drum wall into eight piers. The thickness of the dome varies from 6.4 metres (21 ft) at the base of the dome to 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) around the oculus. No tensile test results are available on the concrete used in the Pantheon; however Cowan discussed tests on ancient concrete from Roman ruins in Libya which gave a compressive strength of 2.8 ksi (20 MPa). An empirical relationship gives a tensile strength of 213 psi (1.47 MPa) for this specimen. Finite element analysis of the structure by Mark and Hutchison found a maximum tensile stress of only 18.5 psi (0.128 MPa) at the point where the dome joins the raised outer wall. The stresses in the dome were found to be substantially reduced by the use of successively less dense aggregate stones in higher layers of the dome. Mark and Hutchison estimated that if normal weight concrete had been used throughout the stresses in the arch would have been some 80% higher. The interior coffering was not only decorative, but also reduced the weight of the roof, as did the elimination of the apex by means of the oculus.
The top of the rotunda wall features a series of brick relieving arches, visible on the outside and built into the mass of the brickwork. The Pantheon is full of such devices — for example, there are relieving arches over the recesses inside — but all these arches were hidden by marble facing on the interior and possibly by stone revetment or stucco on the exterior.
The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft), so the whole interior would fit exactly within a cube (alternatively, the interior could house a sphere 43.3 metres (142 ft) in diameter). These dimensions make more sense when expressed in ancient Roman units of measurement: the dome spans 150 Roman feet; the oculus is 30 Roman feet in diameter; the doorway was 40 Roman feet high. The Pantheon holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome. It is also substantially larger than earlier domes.
Though often drawn as a free-standing building, there was a building at its rear into which it abutted. While this building helped buttress the rotunda, there is no interior passage from one to the other.
The interior of the dome was possibly intended to symbolize the arched vault of the heavens. The oculus at the dome’s apex and the entry door are the only sources of light in the interior. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around this space in a sort of reverse sundial effect. The oculus also serves as a cooling and ventilation method. During storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through the oculus.
The dome features sunken panels (coffers), in five rows of twenty-eight. This evenly spaced layout was difficult to achieve and almost certainly had symbolic meaning, either numerical, geometric, or lunar. In antiquity, the coffers may have contained bronze stars, rosettes, or other ornaments.
Circles and squares form the unifying theme of the interior design. The checkerboard floor pattern contrasts with the concentric circles of square coffers in the dome. Each zone of the interior, from floor to ceiling, is subdivided according to a different scheme. As a result, the interior decorative zones do not line up. The overall effect is immediate viewer orientation according to the major axis of the building, even though the cylindrical space topped by a hemispherical dome is inherently ambiguous. This discordance has not always been appreciated, and the attic level was redone according to Neoclassical taste in the 18th century.
The present high altar and the apse were commissioned by Pope Clement XI (1700-1721) and designed by Alessandro Specchi. In the apse, a copy of a Byzantine icon of the Madonna is enshrined. The original, now in the Chapel of the Canons in the Vatican, has been dated to the 13th century, although tradition claims that it is much older. The choir was added in 1840, and was designed by Luigi Poletti.
The first niche to the right of the entrance holds a Madonna of the Girdle and St Nicholas of Bari (1686) painted by an unknown artist. The first chapel on the right, the Chapel of the Annunciation, has a fresco of the Annunication attributed to Melozzo da Forli. On the left side is a canvas by Clement Maioli of St Lawrence and St Agnes (1645-1650). On the right wall is the Incredulity of St Thomas (1633) by Pietro Paolo Bonzi.
The second niche has a 15th century fresco of the Tuscan school, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin. In the second chapel is the tomb of King Victor Emmanuel II (died 1878). It was originally dedicated to the Holy Spirit. A competition was held to decide which architect should design it. Giuseppe Sacconi participated, but lost — he would later design the tomb of Umberto I in the opposite chapel. Manfredio Manfredi won the competition, and started work in 1885. The tomb consists of a large bronze plaque surmounted by a Roman eagle and the arms of the house of Savoy. The golden lamp above the tomb burns in honor of Victor Emmanuel III, who died in exile in 1947.
The third niche has a sculpture by Il Lorenzone of St Anne and the Blessed Virgin. In the third chapel is a 15th-century painting of the Umbrian school, The Madonna of Mercy between St Francis and St John the Baptist. It is also known as the Madonna of the Railing, because it originally hung in the niche on the left-hand side of the portico, where it was protected by a railing. It was moved to the Chapel of the Annunciation, and then to its present position some time after 1837. The bronze epigram commemorated Pope Clement XI’s restoration of the sanctuary. On the right wall is the canvas Emperor Phocas presenting the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV (1750) by an unknown. There are three memorial plaques in the floor, one conmmemorating a Gismonda written in the vernacular. The final niche on the right side has a statue of St. Anastasio (1725) by Bernardino Cametti.
On the first niche to the left of the entrance is an Assumption (1638) by Andrea Camassei. The first chapel on the left, is the Chapel of St Joseph in the Holy Land, and is the chapel of the Confraternity of the Virtuosi at the Pantheon. This refers to the confraternity of artists and musicians that was formed here by a 16th-century Canon of the church, Desiderio da Segni, to ensure that worship was maintained in the chapel. The first members were, among others, Antonio da Sangallo the younger, Jacopo Meneghino, Giovanni Mangone, Zuccari, Domenico Beccafumi and Flaminio Vacca. The confraternity continued to draw members from the elite of Rome’s artists and architects, and among later members we find Bernini, Cortona, Algardi and many others. The institution still exists, and is now called the Academia Ponteficia di Belle Arti (The Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts), based in the palace of the Cancelleria. The altar in the chapel is covered with false marble. On the altar is a statue of St Joseph and the Holy Child by Vincenzo de Rossi. To the sides are paintings (1661) by Francesco Cozza, one of the Virtuosi: Adoration of the Shepherds on left side and Adoration of the Magi on right. The stucco relief on the left, Dream of St Joseph is by Paolo Benaglia, and the one on the right, Rest during the flight from Egypt is by Carlo Monaldi. On the vault are several 17th-century canvases, from left to right: Cumean Sibyl by Ludovico Gimignani; Moses by Francesco Rosa; Eternal Father by Giovanni Peruzzini; David by Luigi Garzi and finally Eritrean Sibyl by Giovanni Andrea Carlone.
The second niche has a statue of St Agnes, by Vincenco Felici. The bust on the left is a portrait of Baldassare Peruzzi, derived from a plaster portrait by Giovanni Duprè. The tomb of King Umberto I and his wife Margherita di Savoia is in the next chapel. The chapel was originally dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and then to St. Thomas the Apostle. The present design is by Giuseppe Sacconi, completed after his death by his pupil Guido Cirilli. The tomb consists of a slab of alabaster mounted in gilded bronze. The frieze has allegorical representations of Generosity, by Eugenio Maccagnani, and Munificence, by Arnaldo Zocchi. The royal tombs are maintained by the National Institute of Honour Guards to the Royal Tombs, founded in 1878. They also organize picket guards at the tombs. The altar with the royal arms is by Cirilli.
The third niche holds the mortal remains — his Ossa et cineres, “Bones and ashes”, as the inscription on the sarcophagus says — of the great artist Raphael. His fiancée, Maria Bibbiena is buried to the right of his sarcophagus; she died before they could marry. The sarcophagus was given by Pope Gregory XVI, and its inscription reads ILLE HIC EST RAPHAEL TIMUIT QUO SOSPITE VINCI / RERUM MAGNA PARENS ET MORIENTE MORI, meaning “Here lies Raphael, by whom the mother of all things (Nature) feared to be overcome while he was living, and while he was dying, herself to die”. The epigraph was written by Pietro Bembo. The present arrangement is from 1811, designed by Antonio Munoz. The bust of Raphael (1833) is by Giuseppe Fabris. The two plaques commemorate Maria Bibbiena and Annibale Carracci. Behind the tomb is the statue known as the Madonna del Sasso (Madonna of the Rock) so named because she rests one foot on a boulder. It was commissioned by Raphael and made by Lorenzetto in 1524.
In the Chapel of the Crucifixion, the Roman brick wall is visible in the niches. The wooden crucifix on the altar is from the 15th century. On the left wall is a Descent of the Holy Ghost (1790) by Pietro Labruzi. On the right side is the low relief Cardinal Consalvi presents to Pope Pius VII the five provinces restored to the Holy See (1824) made by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. The bust is a portrait of Cardinal Agostino Rivarola. The final niche on this side has a statue of St. Rasius (S. Erasio) (1727) by Francesco Moderati.
Works modeled on, or inspired by, the Pantheon
As the best-preserved example of an Ancient Roman monumental building, the Pantheon has been enormously influential in Western Architecture from at least the Renaissance on; starting with Brunelleschi’s 42-meter dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, completed in 1436– the first sizeable dome to be constructed in Western Europe since Late Antiquity. The style of the Pantheon can be detected in many buildings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; numerous city halls, universities and public libraries echo its portico-and-dome structure
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