Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
After visiting the Pantheon and admiring its elegant design, the artist Michelangelo proclaimed “desegno angelico e non umano,” that it was the design of angels and not of man. Although it was built almost two thousand years ago with basic materials, the Pantheon is still revered as an architectural masterpiece. Despite numerous restorations and renovations over the past few centuries, the main building is largely intact and contains much of the ancient, original marble that was imported for the temple. The Pantheon as it is seen today is the result of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s substantial building program that included the construction of bridges, temples, monuments and even entire towns. In order to understand the history and significance of the Pantheon, it is important to first examine the man who is responsible for the building as it stands today.
Both Hadrian and his predecessor Trajan were from Italica, Hispania, in modern-day Spain. Hadrian’s provincial origins led to his reputation as a “man of the Empire, not the capital” which he proved with his extensive travels as emperor. The emperor who would be known simply as Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24, 76 CE. Many of his ancestors served as magistrates and his most notable great-great-great-grandfather was a senator during the reign of Julius Caesar. When Hadrian’s father died in 85 CE, he became a ward of his second cousin, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, known as Trajan. Trajan, a respected soldier, received orders to go to Rome and Hadrian was brought with him to the capital. Trajan eventually gained more power as a favorite of the Senate’s and eventually became the first non-Italian emperor of the Roman Empire. In order to strengthen his connection to Trajan, Hadrian eventually married Trajan’s great-niece, Sabina. By 101 CE, Hadrian had become a senator and started the break in tradition that resulted with more provincials gaining senate offices. Over the next several years, Hadrian built a successful career as an officer with victories that included the capture of Mesopotamia and the annexation of the Kingdom of Armenia. When Trajan died suddenly in 117, his wife Plotina declared that Trajan had formally adopted Hadrian on his death bed and named him as his successor. As a result, Hadrian was acclaimed emperor on August 11, 117 (Grabsky 135).
Despite the centralization of power in Rome, Hadrian traveled extensively to tour the provinces and legions that safeguarded Rome. In fact, 13 of his 21 years in power were spent outside Italy in other provinces. He was distinctive as an emperor because he did not want to expand the Empire, as Trajan and many other emperors before him did, but instead he wanted to strengthen its boundaries (Grabsky 145). In 122, Hadrian initiated his building program with the construction of a wall to cover the 73 mile border between Britain and the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Wall was a visible statement of Roman authority in that it served a barrier against small raids and isolated the Empire from other neighboring areas (Grabsky 150). During his travels, Hadrian made many improvements for various other provinces outside of Rome. He especially had a fondness for all things Greek. For instance, he wore a close-cropped beard usually associated with the ancient Greek philosophers, despite the tradition of clean-shaven emperors. He also declared himself a citizen of Athens and constructed several monuments while visiting the city. During his visit during the winter of 124 CE, Hadrian commissioned a new aqueduct, completed the temple of Zeus, ordered the construction of a new library and built a new quarter of town called Hadrianopolis. As a result of his extensive travels and his reputation as “the greekling,” some Italian subjects believed that Hadrian’s allegiance was to Athens, not Rome (Brown 57). In response, Hadrian launched a program of restoration and building projects within the capital. Within Rome, he built landmarks including the Temple of Venus and Rome, a temple to the deified Trajan, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo, which he built as a mausoleum for himself and his descendents (Birley 283). It is interesting to note that in all his travels, Hadrian paid respects to local gods by visiting principal shrines and restoring or building new shrines.
However, not all of his attempts at building were successful. In 130, Hadrian tried to rebuild the ruins of ransacked Jerusalem in his name. On the site of the Jewish Temple, he began building a temple to “Jupiter and the Emperor.” The revolt by the Jews in response to his desecration of their temple resulted in the only major war of Hadrian’s career that resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Eventually Judaea was abolished and renamed Syria Palaestina and the hatred between Jews and non-Jews grew (Grabsky 165). However, since Christians were not included in the conflict and therefore were not excluded from Jerusalem, the city became overtaken by Christians. At the end of his travels, Hadrian retired to Tivoli, an one square mile estate that he populated with replicated copies of sights seen during his travels. His estate had approximately 300 acres of pleasure gardens, reception halls, baths, a library, guest quarters for his advisors to live in and a man-made island to serve as Hadrian’s private retreat (Brown 45). In preparation for his death and eventual succession, Hadrian adopted Lucius Commodus in the summer of 136, but when he unexpectedly died, Hadrian chose a senator Antoninus who already had the favor of the Senate. Soon after, Hadrian died leaving only his nephew Annius Verus, who would be known as Marcus Aurelius, to continue his legacy as the adopted son of Antoninus (Birley 290).
Of all of his achievements and buildings that displayed his adept skill for design, the Pantheon is the most impressive and well-known. Despite all of the fascination and admiration surrounding the Pantheon, surprisingly little is known about its true origins. Its architect is unknown, but the discovery of date stamping on bricks has led historians to determine that it was built between 118 and 128 CE in the Piazza della Rotonda in the Campus Martius area. In fact, the largest historical indicator of the architect and patron of the Pantheon, the inscription carved into the façade, is misleading. The ancient Latin inscription on the entablature on the exterior reads “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM ·FECIT”, or “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times consul, built this.” Although it is can be assumed that Agrippa, who was the lieutenant, advisor and son-in-law to emperor Augustus, was the architect and creator of the temple that now stands in Rome, this is an inaccurate assumption. Agrippa built the original Pantheon on the same site in 25 BCE as a temple dedicated to all of the Roman gods (“pan” meaning all and “theon” meaning god). However, this original structure was destroyed by fire and eventually the restored version erected by Domitian was struck by lightning and also burned beyond repair. These temples were replaced by the present structure that was built by the emperor Hadrian in approximately 125 CE. Although he clearly retained the large inscription on the exterior portico of the Pantheon, Hadrian left few traces of the original temple.
It is unclear why Hadrian would intentionally mislead visitors about the origins of the Pantheon. The Roman emperors were not known for their modesty, and it seems unlikely that Hadrian would have humbly deflected praise for his creation, especially when considering the grandeur and awe-inspiring design of the Pantheon. However, historians have speculated that there were both personal and political reasons for Hadrian’s inscription. Hadrian was a connoisseur of architecture and it is possible that he wanted to memorialize Agrippa, the man who oversaw the construction of many buildings in the Campus Martius area. In addition, Agrippa was associated with the deified emperor Augustus and therefore the inscription served as a public reminder of the connection between Hadrian and the late, beloved Augustus (Sullivan 60). The inscription is significant mainly because it is an unusual and bold declaration that cedes credit of a significant building to another person.
The Pantheon continues to be celebrated as an architectural wonder because of its innovative design that has been preserved even after 1,875 years of continuous use. The pagan temple survived the Middle Ages when Pope Boniface reconsecrated the Pantheon as a Christian church dedicated to martyred saints in the early 7th century. As a result, while decay and modernization have eradicated all of the other ancient buildings in the Campus Martius, the pantheon remains entirely intact with only its original decorations missing.
The architecture of the Pantheon makes it a sight to behold for both architecture and history buffs and even tourists who travel to see the grand temple. The Pantheon was innovative in both its design and scale. The exterior portico has a distinctly Classical look, which is indicative of Hadrian’s reverence for all things Greek. There are sixteen monolithic Corinthian columns made from red and gray granite that was carved in Egypt. The columns are arranged in three aisles, with the center aisle leading to the front door and the other two side aisles leading to statues, possibly one of Augustus and one of Hadrian or Agrippa. Each column is 41 feet in height, 5 feet in diameter and weights approximately 60 tons. The structure sits on a foundation of ringed concrete 24 feet wide, 15 feet deep and is reinforced by a web of stress-relieving arches that are embedded in its walls (Brown 61). When it was first built, the Pantheon was raised upon a flight of five steps that are now partially buried by the natural rise in ground level. This elevation of the portico would have contributed to the awe that ancient visitors experienced when visiting this impressively large temple. Additionally, the bronze metal covering the dome and beams of the Pantheon would have also glowed brightly in the sun, thus adding to the impressive and intimidating effect of the temple on its original visitors. The design and dimensions of the exterior suggest that the interior is a rectangular, dimly lit space with a flat ceiling. However, the Pantheon was revolutionary because it was a departure from conventional Greek temple architecture that focused on the exterior as the most extravagant and decorated part of a temple. Most western architecture before Romans was mostly concerned with the exterior appearance of buildings. The Romans pioneered a new style of architecture by inventing new building types, most notably the public baths and basilicas, which placed more emphasis on the design and function of the interior. The Pantheon is the prime example that represents the shift in emphasis, as its vast exterior is secondary to the impressive interior.
The interior of the Pantheon is completely different from the expectation that a visitor has when viewing the exterior. Instead of a rectangular room with a flat ceiling, the inside of the Pantheon is a vast circular space capped by a floating dome that is amply lit by light that streams in through the prominently featured oculus. The size of the interior was also a revolutionary development in construction that serves as a reminder of Roman innovation. The large dome structure was constructed when 5000 tons of concrete, a Roman invention, was poured over a wooden hemisphere framework supported by scaffolding. The ceiling’s distinctive coffers were also created in this way with 140 convex wooden molds serving as their framework (Morgan 39). Originally, the roof was covered in sheet metal with bronze rosettes in the center of each coffer. This would have reflected the light that came in through the only source of natural light, the eight meter wide circular opening, or oculus, at the top of the domed roof. The oculus allows visitors to have a different viewing experience of the Pantheon, depending on the current weather. On a sunny day, a circular beam of bright light moves gradually across the interior making the interior of the Pantheon a giant clock face that marks the daily passage of light and time. When it is raining, rain spirals in through the oculus and is diverted by the gently sloping floors to drains in the rotunda. The Pantheon interior was also distinctive as a temple because its architecture is the main feature, which contrasts with its contemporary, conventional temples that were designed to be simple rectangular contains that feature the statue of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. Instead, in the Pantheon, it has been suggested that the gods were on the periphery in the openings against the circular wall.
There is no doubt that the design of the Pantheon was the primary concern of its architects because of the precision with which it was built. The famed Pantheon dome is a perfect half sphere which, if it were extended downward, would fo rm a full sphere that would just touch the floor of the circular interior exactly at its center. The function of the Pantheon as a temple dedicated to all of the gods also played a part in its awe-inspiring design. The pattern of circles and squares is repeated throughout the floor and columns and the very design of the entire building, with a rectangular portico with a rotunda attached. The circles represent the heavens while the squares symbolize earth. The combination of circles and squares signifies the ancient belief in the necessary and constant interaction between the heavens and earth. The lower two thirds of the dome is inset with five rings of coffers with each coffer consisting of four receding levels of squares that are pushed together toward the upper edge of each coffer. This off-center placement of the squares in coffers all around the dome gives the visual effect of increasing intensity. The coffering abruptly stops near the peak, which enhances the illusion of the remainder of the dome being suspended without any simple means of support. The dome was most probably designed in this way to serve as a reminder of the heavens. This connection would have been clearer in ancient times because each coffer has a bronze rosette in the middle, which reflected light that came in through the oculus. These rosettes were arranged precisely like planets in orbit around the sun, represented by the oculus. This realization has led to the suggestion that the statues in the Pantheon represented celestial deities such as Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus), Saturn, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Apollo and Diana. While these features would have enhanced the religious ceremonies that took place in the Pantheon, they also served a purpose in the more public, civic proceedings that were held in the temple.
The Pantheon was more public than most temples with Hadrian often holding judicial court there. As a result, the Pantheon became a visible declaration of Imperial power. The layout of the dome and bronze rosettes representing the starry heavens also makes the visual suggestion that Hadrian, who would have sat under the light from the oculus surrounded by the statues of gods, was divinely blessed as Roman emperor. In this way, the Pantheon served as an example of political propaganda. Eventually, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pantheon lost its political and civic importance. Fortunately, the Pantheon was preserved as a church that was in continuous use for almost two thousand years with few restoration and renovation attempts.
When one considers how many years have passed since the original construction and the number of additions and alterations to the Pantheon, it is amazing that the structure is intact and minimally altered. The exterior of the building is mainly unaltered and only the original decorative accents have changed since the original restorations by Septimius Severus and Caracalla. The exterior portico would have been more intimidating and impressive when it was first built because it was raised up on a flight of five marble steps that have since been covered by the rise in ground level. The sculptures in front of the Pantheon are also gone but their original placement and design has been speculated. For instance, remains of a statuary base and the pattern of clamp-holes suggest that there was a sculpture of an Imperial eagle with outspread wings. Along with the statues, the metal that once decorated the Pantheon is also long gone. In 663, the Byzantine emperor Constaans II removed the bronze tiles that covered the exterior of the vast dome and its lead replacement has been dated to the 8th century. In addition, in the 1620s, Pope Urban VIII had 200 tons of bronze from the supporting beams and the portico roof removed in order to make cannons. Coincidentally, these same cannons were eventually melted to decorate the tomb of the first Italian king, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who is now entombed in the Pantheon (Speller 240). The most infamous additions to the Pantheon were the two bell towers that temporarily topped the entrance. Pope Urban VIII added these distinctly non-Classical bell towers that clashed with the Classical architectural style of the Pantheon during a restoration effort in 1626. These bell towers became known as “Bernini’s ass’s ears”, which is an inaccurate attribution because Carlo Maderno most probably designed them and Bernini was openly critical of them. In response to years of widespread criticism of this addition, the bell towers were removed during another restoration in 1882. The main building has been greatly preserved because of its reconsecration in 609 by Pope Boniface IV. This change from pagan temple to the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs has resulted in its interior decoration featuring Christian frescoes. Also, the main apse where Hadrian would have held court is now the main altar of the church. The transformations of the area around the Pantheon have also greatly affected the way that modern visitors view the temple.
Over the past centuries, there have many several natural and constructed changes to the Campus Martius area that have changed the way that modern visitors view the Pantheon and surrounding areas. The Pantheon now occupies an entire city block and seems to tower over other more modern buildings in the Piazza della Rotonda, but its original relation to its neighboring buildings was more complicated. Other buildings were probably closely built near the Pantheon on two sides, which would have de-emphasized the exterior walls of the rotunda, thereby disguising the abrupt transition between the rotunda and the rectangular portico (Sullivan 61). In 1711, Pope Clement XI ordered the construction of a new fountain centerpiece and the creation of the forecourt piazza while Alexander VII had the level of the surrounding piazza lowered to provide a better view of the building’s façade. Modern researchers have also suggested that a low-roofed colonnade enclosed the forecourt piazza (Speller 240). Despite these numerous additions and improvement efforts, the Pantheon still stands intact in the same site it has inhabited for the past two thousand years.
Although natural decay and renovations have significantly changed the landscape of Italy’s capital, visitors can still travel to the Pantheon and imagine the splendors of ancient Rome. Centuries after the construction of the Pantheon, artists would admire the vast dome and draw inspiration from its ancient design. For instance, in his extensive research for the dome he would build in Florence, Brunelleschi traveled to Rome to study the Pantheon’s famed vault. Even today, students of architecture marvel at the ingenious, basic materials and methods that were used to build such a grand and impressive structure. Almost two thousand years after its erection, the Pantheon continues to be relevant primarily because it is a well-preserved visual link between ancient Rome and the modern, metropolitan city that was built above its ruins.
Figure 1: The famed dome and oculus of the Pantheon
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