The Pantheon's dome, which reaches approximately 150' above the floor of the
rotunda, was built in a manner that used progressively lighter construction
techniques as it reached for the sky. The indented sections on the dome's
interior surface were used to remove weight and increase the structure's
The oculus (the circular opening at the apex of the dome) served
three roles. First, the
omission of weight strengthened the dome by reducing stress at the
apex. Second, the oculus served to provide interior light while
representing the sun in the heavens. Finally, the oculus
allowed smoke from offerings to escape the dome and served as an simple,
air-purification system. Recent research suggests that the orientation
of the Pantheon and the size of the oculus were designed to allow the sun to
illuminate the portico of the building in April 21 to mark the founding of
The Pantheon's granite columns were quarried in Egypt, transported
up the Nile, across the Mediterranean and up the Tiber where they
were then lugged to the building site.
Temples had existed at this site before the Pantheon, but they were
minor constructions of minimal importance. The Emperor Hadrian commissioned the Pantheon
with its spectacular
rotunda and the marvelous dome as a temple dedicated to all gods.
The Pantheon was built over the ruins of a temple that had been erected by Agrippa
during the previous century.
In our opinion, Hadrian is one of the most interesting of the Roman
emperors. Hadrian's travels took
him throughout the Roman Empire when it was at its peak. His architectural
footprint can be found in a variety a places, including Israel,
Greece, Great Britain (Hadrian's Wall) and, of course, Rome. It is thought that Hadrian
traveled a great deal because of his dislike of Rome and its politics.
In turn, it was recorded that the Roman politicians of the time did not
appreciate Hadrian. Curiously, Hadrian dedicated the Pantheon to Agrippa,
whose name he had inscribed over the entrance to the rotunda.
Around the 7th century, the Pantheon was consecrated a Christian
church and many believe that this action both improved the upkeep of
the building and protected it from those who might have
otherwise desired to destroy it for salvage. It continues in
use as a church today. There is, of course, another side to
the preservation argument. It appears that the popes harvested
brass from the interior and porch of the Pantheon, to support other
projects in the Vatican. Perhaps the most famous of these is
Bernini's Baldacchino in Saint
Peter's Basilica, which is reputed to contain brass from the
In later years the Pantheon
became the favored burial place for famous Italians. It is the
final resting place of Raphael, the composer Corelli and several kings of Italy.
The details of the Pantheon are rich and inviting. Spend some time
here taking in the beauty and complexity of monument to the
architectural skill of the ancient Romans. When finished, you
will find many places to take a break in the surrounding Piazza
della Rotonda. Just down the street is another of Bernini's
unique statues and the impressive Gothic-style church
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
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