In honor of the Rome’s 2772nd birthday, Federico Schiaffino takes you on a tour of the Pantheon, symbol of the indestructibility of the Eternal City.
It has remained miraculously intact, exactly as it was 1900 years ago. The Pantheon, one of the world’s best-preserved ancient Roman temples, is in fact still in use today. Despite barbaric invasions and orders of demolition by the church, it looks almost identical to its original design, which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian, in the second century AD. A visit to the Pantheon is nothing less than a journey back in time—a time that appears to stand still. The Pantheon was the first temple in Rome to be built with a dome, and its circular design also has a symbolic meaning, that of encompassing all the gods into a space of religious perfection. The floor is the very same one that Hadrian and his priests walked on millennia ago, the massive 16 supporting columns defy the centuries, and the majestic vault seems to symbolize the immortality of the Eternal City. The only original elements that are missing are the great fresco that depicted the battle between the Amazons and the Giants, and the bronze ceiling beams, which were melted down by Bernini to make the baldachin of St. Peter’s. When visiting this one-of-a-kind monument, it’s impossible not to wonder about its extraordinary history. How did the Pantheon—unlike many other pagan buildings in Rome—survive the centuries intact? It was thanks to Pope Boniface IV who, in the year 609, decided to turn the temple into a Christian church, Santa Maria ad Martires, and indeed services are still held here. Another question that pops to mind is: how did the Romans create such a mammoth building while still maintaining a perfect balance? How could such an imposing dome, still the largest in the world and as tall as it is wide, not collapse, taking the supporting structure down with it? The ancient architects used state-of-the-art building criteria that still amaze modern-day engineers. To solve the problem of excess weight, the Romans came up with a very effective trick. If the dome had been made of brick, it would certainly have crumbled, so the ancient engineers, who are unknown to this day, decided to use a composite of materials that becomes increasingly light the higher it rises in the strati ed structure. Heavy layers of concrete and travertine make up the bottom, pebbles in the middle, and pumice stone at the top. Even the width of the walls is not uniform; they become progressively thinner towards the top of the dome.
Another question is: why doesn’t the weight of the dome cause the walls of the monument to buckle, with 5000 tons bearing down them? Simple: the dome is built like a monolith in the shape of a lid that rests on an ingenious system of columns, pillars, and vaults capable of perfectly distributing and sharing the load. Even the coffering of the dome’s ceiling, besides creating an aesthetic embellishment, has the task of making the cupola lighter. The Pantheon is such a revolutionary invention that Brunelleschi himself came to Rome to study it and apply its techniques to his famous masterpiece, the Duomo of Florence. Yet another ingenious aspect of the temple is the hole, or oculus, in the center of the dome, through which water falls on rainy days, and the sunlight shines, illuminating the interior without the need for lamps. The Pantheon has certainly had its ups and downs (for a brief period it was even used as a poultry market!), but today it is the resting place of Italy’s royal family, as well as illustrious artists such as Raphael, whose funerary monument is marked by a statue by Lorenzetto. The artist himself asked to be buried here to perpetuate his glory and legacy, so it’s no coincidence that the day’s last ray of sunlight shines directly on his tomb.