Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The Pantheon

Andrea Christopher
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
Inscription on Pantheon


The inscription on the fa├žade of the Pantheon translates to “Marcus Agrippa, the son of Lucius, three times consul, built this.” Generally such an inscription clarifies confusion surrounding the origins of a monument; in this case, it has been the source of conflict in the debate over when and by whom the Pantheon was built. Descriptions of the Pantheon are not prevalent in ancient literature, and so for a long time scholars hypothesized about the origins of the building.

The architecture only added to the confusion surrounding the Pantheon’s origins because there is a certain degree of discontinuousness between the three parts: the porch, the intermediate connecting block, and the rotunda. The Greek style columnar portico contrasts the Roman style rotunda. In addition, the relatively low porch next to the exceptionally high impediment of the rectangular intermediate block proves an awkward combination.

In an attempt to explain the inconsistencies of the building, many theories have been developed. Michaelangelo suspected that portions of the Pantheon were built by different architects who had varying levels of skill. Palladio believed that Agrippa had merely added onto an already existing Republican-era building. Beltrami recognized a Hadrianic influence, but also mistakenly believed that the Pantheon was built in separate portions.

It was not until the early 1900s that the controversy surrounding the origins of the Pantheon was brought to rest. Bricks from all parts of the building were studied for their stamps indicating the date when they were made, as well as the names of prominent government officials at the time. Dating of the bricks conclusively set the time range in which the Pantheon was built to be 120-128 AD. The beginning of construction may have begun as early as 118 AD to clear the space for the building’s foundations. This time period for construction proves the Pantheon was built under the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian.


The name Pantheon comes from the Greek words pan and theon, which mean all and gods, respectively. The Pantheon as it is known today was actually built on the site of another Pantheon that served as a temple for all the Roman gods. The first building was built by Marcus Agrippa around 27 AD to celebrate the victory of his father-in-law, the emperor Augustus, at Actium over Antony and Cleopatra. Located in the Campus Martius, the original building was rectangular and faced south. However, this building was completely destroyed by a fire. Domitian had the Pantheon restored in 80 AD, only to have it struck by lightening and burnt to the ground again in 110 AD. The destruction of the original Pantheon was considered a bad omen suggesting that the pagan gods were unhappy with the temple that was built to honor them. The remains of the Pantheon were thus left in place for nearly eight years until Hadrian became emperor and began his building program, which produced the Pantheon that still stands today.


Since its inception in 128 AD, the Pantheon has had a long history. Renovated by Septimius Severus and Caracalla, the Pantheon fell into disrepair, as did many Roman buildings, after Constantine moved the center of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. During the rise of Christianity, the Pantheon was abandoned and then pillaged by the Goths. By 600 AD, after the Tiber flooded, mud accumulated around the building and it is believed that the Pantheon might have become filled with dirt, allowing trees to grow inside. In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV rededicated the Pantheon as the Church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres and according to legend a multitude of devils fled shrieking through the oculus when he did so. It is rumored that at this time, twenty-eight wagonloads of martyrs' bones were brought to rest at the Pantheon from the catacombs. The Pantheon was the first Roman temple to be consecrated as a church, and doing so saved it from ruin because the church dedicated a great deal of wealth to maintain the building. In 1101, after the popes moved to Avignon, the Pantheon served as a fortress in the struggles between the Colona and the Orsini, two rival Roman aristocratic families. Bernini also added two bell towers in the 1500s, which made the Pantheon appear more like a traditional church. However, the awkward appearance of the bell towers quickly earned them the nickname of “the ass-ears of Bernini” and they were consequently removed in 1883.

II. Description
Floor Plan of the Pantheon
The pattern on the floor consists of squares and circles and symbolizes order
within the Roman empire. A 19th century reproduction of the original floor exists in the Pantheon today.
Pantheon Exterior
Standing outside the Pantheon, observers can gain a sense of the large scale of the building.
Pantheon Interior
The oculus serves as the main source of light inside the Pantheon.

The image of the Pantheon is a sight that no one can easily forget. On the exterior, the scale of the building dwarfs all who stand before it. On the interior lies a sight that few are prepared for.

Having been built between 118-128 AD, the Pantheon possesses architectural features that were popular during its construction, while also maintaining its own uniqueness. The porch and the intermediate block assume a Greek style, with an entablature resting on sixteen columns. After passing through the portico, one encounters the large rotunda that follows a Roman style because the large dome is supported by exerting strain on the walls of the cylinder on which it rests. The particular design of the Pantheon, including the unification of Greek and Roman style, has led to speculation as to who the architect of the Pantheon was. While conclusive evidence of the identity of the architect has yet to be found, some believe Hadrian might have designed the entire building. Hadrian had a strong interest in architecture, and had a love for both Greek and Roman culture. Thus, the Pantheon symbolizes his attempt to combine both cultures’ architectural styles in one building.

The building of the Pantheon would have been a huge undertaking. In total, five thousand tons of concrete were used to build the rotunda by pouring successive rings of concrete into a previously constructed wooden framework. The walls of the cylinder were six meters wide to support the strain of the entire dome on the foundation. The height and diameter of the interior rotunda both measure 43.3 m; the implication of this is that a perfect sphere with a same diameter would fit just perfectly inside the rotunda. The oculus, or opening at the top of the dome, measures 8.8 m across and significantly lightens the load on the foundation of the structure. It is also in keeping with the belief that there should not be a roof on a Roman temple. Serving as the major source of light in the Pantheon, the oculus also allows in rain and snow, setting a different atmosphere throughout the seasons. The floor is sloped towards drains that are present to collect rain. Blind windows line the rotunda, probably meant to let light into the extensive network of passageways that are used by maintenance crews. William MacDonald, a Pantheon expert, believes that the windows also allow the building to breathe by circulating air to prevent moisture collection that could cause cracks in the cast cement. The marble work on the floor containing patterns of circles and squares is a 19th century accurate reproduction of the original floor.

When observing the Pantheon from outside, the columns play a significant role in adding to the grandeur. The sixteen monolithic columns are made of red and gray granite and the shafts stand 40 Roman feet tall. Carved in eastern Egypt, the transport of the columns to the construction site required them to be floated up the Nile River on a barge, through Mediterranean Sea and up the Tiber River. Once they reached Rome, they were carried down the streets of the city and then erected. Three of the columns on the east side of the building fell, and were replaced by the Pope Urban VIII and Alexander VII. The columns of the Pantheon have prompted a lot of discussion because scholars believe that if the columns had only been 10 Roman feet taller, they would have allowed for continuity between the porch and intermediate block that is lacking in the current structure. Certainly 50 Roman foot monolithic columns were considerably more difficult to acquire; it is quite possible that the larger columns were instead used for the Temple of Trajan, which was being built by Hadrian around the same time for his adoptive father. Problems with obtaining larger columns may have thus prompted the architect of the Pantheon to compromise and use smaller columns. Politically, it would have been important for Hadrian to devote the larger columns to the Temple of Trajan to show respect for Trajan, especially because the size of the columns was very important to the Temple of Trajan since it dictated the size of the entire building, whereas it was not as crucial to the structure of the Pantheon.

When it was first built, the entire exterior of the dome, as well as the interior of the coffered ceiling, would have been covered in bronze. However, some of the bronze was removed to make the 80 cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s mausoleum, but was eventually returned when it was melted down for the tomb of Vittorio Emanuele II, which now rests at the Pantheon. Some more of the bronze was pilfered by the Goths, but most of it was taken by the Barberini Pope Urban VIII, prompting the expression “what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”

Many aspects of the exterior as evident today would have been very different when the Pantheon was first built. The brickwork covering the outer wall of the rotunda would have been covered in stucco, marble paneling, or even travertine. Currently, the Pantheon sits somewhat sunken into the floor because the street level has risen around the building. Originally, the Pantheon would have sat high above street level, with five steep stairs used to reach it.

Since it was rededicated as a church, the Pantheon houses a collection of religious art and several tombs. Upon entering the rotunda, the first chapel to the right is a fresco of The Annunciation, attributed to Melozzo da Forli or Antoniazzo Romano, and two 17th century angel statues flank the fresco. In the aedicule is a 14th century fresco of The Coronation of the Virgin. The second chapel contains the tomb of the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. In the main apse is an icon of The Virgin and Child, dating from the 7th century. The tomb of the artist Raphael also lies in the Pantheon, as requested by Raphael when he studied the Pantheon during his report on the state of monuments, after he was appointed to serve as the superintendent of antiquities in 1515. Other artists buried in the Pantheon include Giovanni da Udine, Perino del Vaga, Taddeo Zuccari, Annibale Carraci, and Baldasare Peruzzi. The niches contain statues of various saints and priests.

III. Function
When it was initially built, the Pantheon was meant to serve as an assembly hall where the public could gather. Hadrian would have sat in a throne to oversee public gatherings. While meant to represent all gods as its name suggests, the Pantheon was not necessarily used as a temple because it lacked the rectangular shape of previous temples. In part, the Pantheon was meant to appease the gods because the destruction of the previous buildings in its place was seen as a sign that the gods were unhappy. In the niches would have originally stood statues of various gods, and deified emperors. For example, a statue of Augustus was placed in one of the main recesses.

One of the main purposes of the building, was for Hadrian to give the Roman people something to be proud of. A viewer approaching the Pantheon when it was first built would have had to look up to see the entire front porch. The bronze covered rotunda would have glowed in the sun. Upon entering the rotunda, the viewer would have been stunned by all the exquisite marble and grandeur of the dome. The interior of the rotunda was also symbolic of the greatness of the empire. The dome’s lack of corners shows no beginning or end, symbolizing continuity, perfection, and permanence. This was meant to demonstrate how the Roman empire was to be seen. The perfection of the dome also reminded the viewer of the continuity of the heavens, showing a connection to the Roman gods. When Hadrian had court under the dome, he would have appeared to have great power by being watched over by the gods. The pattern of circles and squares on the floor would have also symbolized the order of the empire. In addition, the construction of the Pantheon in a relatively short time of ten years would have undoubtedly provided work for thousands.

IV. Patron
The emperor Hadrian emulated Greek style by curling his hair and maintaining a full beard.

Hadrian was born in 76 AD in Italia, near Seville in modern Spain, to an aristocratic family originally from Rome. The death of his father at age nine was very significant in Hadrian’s life because at this time he went to live with his cousin, Trajan, who was a general in the Roman army at that time. Trajan and his wife took Hadrian in as their own son, and provided for him to be educated partially in Spain, but mostly in Rome. During this time, Hadrian developed an interest in art and architecture that continued throughout the rest of his life.

After Trajan became emperor, Hadrian quickly climbed the ranks of the Roman elite and was given many different titles, especially after proving himself in battle in the Dacian wars. When Trajan died in 117 AD, he proclaimed that Hadrian would succeed him as emperor of Rome.

As an emperor, Hadrian was a very interesting character. A great orator, he would write his own speeches. Hadrian recognized the importance of support of the military and people on the outer parts of the empire, and spent a great deal of his reign traveling the empire for support. Hadrian’s experience in war made him weary of continuous fighting, which had long been the means by which the Roman empire gained wealth and expanded. As a result, Hadrian believed that the Romans should just maintain the borders of the empire, rather than continually expanding. As part of this policy, Hadrian had a wall that bears his name built in England, meant to separate the barbaric British tribes from civil Roman society.

Hadrian’s policy against expanding the borders of the empire was met by a great deal of resistance by many government officials who believed that the only way to continued Roman success was by conquering other lands. Along with this was a belief by several senators that they had more right to the throne. Shortly after coming to power, a plot was discovered in which four popular senators planned to have Hadrian assassinated. Hadrian’s bodyguard quickly had the senators killed. This scandal caused Hadrian to begin losing the public’s support. As a result, he began his building program to give Rome something to be proud of, as well as to remind the public of Hadrian’s generosity and concern for the city, even when he was away traveling. This extensive building program eventually led to such great works as the Pantheon, Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, and Castel Sant’Angelo.

One of Hadrian’s great interests was in Greek culture. Hadrian emulated the Greek style of dress and appearance, by having his hair curled and by maintaining a full beard. This earned him the nickname of “the Greekling.” Hadrian believed that Greek art and literature was far superior to that of the Romans, and consequently commissioned several building projects in Greece. Hadrian also had a love affair with a Greek youth named Antinous, which he flaunted. Antinous’ sudden death caused tremendous sorrow to Hadrian who then set up a cult in his memory. This Greek influence in Hadrian’s life is thus reflected in the Pantheon.

Hadrian’s legacy as an emperor was his buildings. While it was not uncommon for emperors to commission building, what sets Hadrian apart was his extensive involvement in the buildings, possibly even designing some of them.

In the Pantheon, Hadrian attempted to convey a connection to the gods, and to the great emperor Augustus. The Pantheon was built facing north, and prior to the construction of the city around the building, the Pantheon would have faced the mausoleum of the beloved emperor Augustus. This position of the Pantheon was meant to honor Augustus and also associate Hadrian with the great emperor. The themes evident in the structure of the dome, meant to remind the viewer of the heavens, also gave an impression of Hadrian’s connection to the gods, and thus showed the relationship between Roman government and religion. One of the great mysteries regarding the Pantheon that still remains is the reason why Hadrian chose to have Agrippa’s name put on the building. The choice to do so was meant to be perceived as a great sign of humility, and although the exact reason is unknown, it probably was meant to honor the original building, and by association Augustus. This would be another sign of the emperor lineage.

V. Conclusion
Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with the Pantheon that he had his home in Virginia, Monticello, modeled after it.

The Pantheon still stands as a testament to the genius and skill of the Roman people. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the best preserved monument from ancient Rome. Throughout its history, the Pantheon’s innovative combination of both Greek and Roman style has been admired by many. In fact, the Pantheon has served as inspiration for many replicas throughout Europe. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with the beauty of the structure that he even modeled his home in Virginia, Monticello, after the design. Modern visitors to the Pantheon continue to be impressed with the scale and grandeur of the design, showing the impact of the architecture of its time on current aesthetic. Among the Pantheon’s many admirers was the artist Michaelangelo, who stated “Desegno angelico e non umano” or, that it was a design of angels and not of man.

VI. Personal Observations

The appeal of the Pantheon for me has been its connection to the ancient world. I am very impressed with the brilliance of the Roman people in their ability to create such lasting structures. This tradition has not necessarily been continued into modern society, and thus fascinates me.

In researching this project, I was particularly taken with the amount of changes that have been made to the original structure. I found it unspeakable that such a beautiful building could have been pillaged, and yet also surprising that despite the changes, the building still maintains its own unique character.

There are no words to describe the feeling one has upon first entering into the rotunda. The scale of the Pantheon is absolutely humbling. I could not help but be reminded of the permanence of the building, and the fact that it will continue to impress visitors long after my time is over. I highly recommend the Pantheon as a site that every person should see at least once, and hopefully more than just once.

VII. Bibliography

Birley, Anthony. Hadrian: The Restless Emperor. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Davies, Paul, David Hemsoll, and Mark Wilson Jones, “The Pantheon: Triumph of Rome or Triumph of Compromise,” Art History, v. 10 June, 1987.

DuTemple, Leslie. The Pantheon. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2003.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Leacroft, Helen and Richard Leacroft. The Buildings of Ancient Rome. New York: William R. Scott Inc., 1969.

Macadam, Alta. Blue Guide: Rome. New York: A&C Black Publishers Limited, 2003.

MacEwen, Indra Kegis, “Hadrian’s Rhetoric I: The Pantheon,” RES, v. 24, Autumn, 1993.

Scarre, Chris. “The Pantheon at Rome.” The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1999.

Speller, Elizabeth. Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey Through the Roman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Testa, Judith. “The Pantheon: Temple of the Whole World,” Rome is Loved Spelled Backward: Enjoying Art and Architecture in the Eternal City. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998.