Without a doubt, Rome’s Pantheon is the most important surviving structure of the ancient Roman Empire. It has survived, but it also exudes modern elegance and vision. It is easy to forget that you are in a structure nearly 2,000 years old when you stand on the porphyry-inlaid flooring and gaze up at the massive occulus.
It appears to be another temple dedicated to the pagan gods in Rome. It is actually a massive structure, topped by the largest unreinforced concrete dome on the planet. This feat of engineering required so much precision that no one has attempted it since.
It has not been abandoned in use, which is one of its main reasons for being so remarkable. It has been used as an ancient Christian church since the 7th Century. You can still attend Sunday worship there if you wish to see one of the most beautiful and unique sanctuaries in the world.
What to see when you visit the Pantheon
The huge portico of Pantheon is framed in 16 granite columns. Each one of these stones measures 39ft high and 5ft wide and weighs 60 tons. Each stone had to be imported from Egypt by a network of boats and barges with the help of many slave workers, as if its size wasn’t enough.
Modern engineers have not yet figured out how the massive columns and the famous Egyptian obelisks of Rome were transported over long distances. The portico was likely to have had ancient bronze relief statues on its roof in ancient times. Some archaeologists believe this bronzework was removed by Pope Urban VIII to make room for Bernini’s St. Peter’s baldachin, but the jury is still out.
Marble is the most common image we associate with ancient Roman architecture. You might be surprised to discover that Roman architecture was not built with stone, but with concrete.
Concrete is simply a mixture of dry ingredients and small pieces of aggregate for strength. It sets through chemical reactions. Concrete has been used since the dawn of recorded history, but it was first used by the Romans to create large-scale, curved superstructures. The shining example is the Pantheon.
Roman concrete is not the modern Portland cement. It’s a mixture of water, lime and volcanic ash, called Pozzolana. To build the dome that weighed 5,000 tons, workers had to make coffered concrete blocks that were precisely sized so that they could be stacked on top of each other to form the elegant curve of the huge Dome.
The entire Dome would have been thrown off its feet if a single block had a slight deviation in shape. They were building towards the top of the Dome. The shapes had to be correct, and the density of each block had to drop as they moved up. The dome would eventually collapse if the top was heavier or lighter than its base.
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To overcome this problem, the designers used lighter aggregates as the blocks got higher. The blocks at the top of the dome have pumice (comparatively light stones), while the blocks near the base contain bricks and travertine.
The 30-foot-high oculus is 142 feet high and opens to the heaven. It lets natural light in through the interior, creating a reverse sundial effect throughout the day. The floor has held up well despite being exposed to the elements for almost 2,000 years. You’ll notice drainage holes in the floor that allow rainwater to drain away from the stone without causing permanent damage.
A Bit Of Trivia
It doesn’t matter if the bronze Pope Urban VIII took from the Pantheon went into Bernini’s divine Baldachin. But it did go into the Castel Sant’Angelo’s cannons. It was not a happy moment for all Romans. One contemporary poem said: “What the Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberinis did.” Before he became pope, Urban VIII’s last name was Barberini.
It is possible that you are aware that Raphael, the Renaissance master, is buried in The Pantheon. His fiance, however, is buried alongside him. Raphael, who was engaged to Maria Bibbiena, allegedly put off marriage for six years. He also had at least one affair while he was away. It seems that Rafael was motivated by connections to marry.
The original purpose of the Pantheon’s construction is unknown. It is obvious that it was a religious structure, but the identity of those worshipping there is still a mystery. Contemporary writings suggest that the name “Pantheon”, which may only have been a nickname, was not actually the correct name for the building. However, it is unclear what its purpose was.
Filippo Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon when he was trying to build the huge Dome on the Florence Cathedral.
Tips for visiting the Pantheon
Every day, the Pantheon is open at 9:00 am and closes at 7:00 pm (last entry at 6.30pm). You must book your visit at least a day in advance to visit the Pantheon during weekends and holidays. From Monday through Friday, admission is free. It closes Monday through Friday, on August 15th, December 25th, and January 1st.
For the most recent updates, please visit their website. Times may vary depending upon special religious events.
The Pantheon has added a basic security system to its entrance in recent years. If you have a bag, be prepared to have it checked. You will need to have your bag checked if you are carrying one. Access to places of culture is permitted from 6 August 2021 upon presentation of valid green passes.
The Best Times to Visit the Pantheon
It is possible to fit a 143ft-diameter sphere into the central atrium. However, it can get crowded during high season. If possible, avoid visiting the Pantheon in the middle of the day or in afternoon. The best time to visit the Pantheon is early in the morning, right before the doors open at 9:00am. In the evening, just before the doors close in the evening. The dome’s interior is best seen from the outside. It is stunning to see the light streaming down from the glowing oculus.