The Work of Angels

Buildings, gardens and objects have been created to send a strong message to the wider public of how wealthy or powerful, or both, the individual was at the time of its creation. For many it was a means of leaving a legacy, which allowed them to live forever, a living monument. In the case of the Pantheon its longevity is a tribute to not only to Hadrian but to the incredible knowledge of the Roman Empire.

The Pantheon is the epitome of the power of place. The structure has endured 2,000 years. The surrounding scenery may have changed over the years and the overall use of the building adapted to current beliefs. But the residual theme has remained the same; the power of place and the sense of place has endured in the power of the magnificent architecture and the beauty of the interior.

This amazing building is located in the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome. To sit in the Piazza with a glass of wine, staring at this wondrous edifice imagining how it would have looked with its gilded bronze tiles, the golden dome glowing in the sunlight. The tiles were removed in 663 by the Byzantine emperor Constans II and later they were stolen. The interior is beautiful but it would have originally had bronze encasing on the wooden beams and ceiling of the portico. The interior of the dome would have included gold rosettes in the centre of each coffer. So we will have to use our imagination. It was Pope Urban VIII who is responsible for removing the bronze, which weighed about 181 metric tons, and it was recycled into eighty cannons. At a later date it was used again to cover the canopy over the altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

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The roof of the Portico would have originally been covered in bronze

Sometime between 27 and 25 BCE General Marcus Vipsanuis Agrippa ordered the building of a monument to the harmony of the universe. It was built for his father-in-law Emperor Augustus and dedicated to the seven celestial gods for the cult of Augustus. Unfortunately the building was destroyed by fire in 80 CE, Emperor Domitian took on the task of rebuilding the monument.

In 110 CE during the reign of Emperor Trajan, the temple was struck by lightening resulting in another devastating fire. A building that was dedicated to the gods did not seem to have their protection, was this a sign of their disapproval. The Campus Martuis, a large public area fell into disrepair and remained an eye sore. The baton was passed to the next emperor to conquer this site and appease the gods.

Publuis Aeluis Hadrianus was supposedly adopted by Emperor Trajan, his father’s cousin, on his death bed in 117 CE. Unfortunately Hadrian was not present at the time and the document had been signed by Trajan’s wife Plotina, it was highly suspect. Hadrian was a soldier, who was popular with the legions and he travelled throughout the empire gaining their support, in return they proclaimed him emperor.

As well as a soldier, Hadrian was a painter, sculptor, poet and from an early age he had a great interest in architecture. On his return to Rome in 118 CE he set to work rebuilding the Temple of All the Gods. Hadrian’s decision to change the design and orientation of the temple has been vindicated as the Pantheon has stood largely intact for nearly 2000 years.

The Pantheon was given to Pope Boniface IV in 608, which had fallen into ruin. The interior had been used to house animals and was over grown with trees and vegetation. He cleared the interior and restored the drains. He also removed the statues of the Roman gods, as the building was consecrated and became the church of Saint Mary among the Martyrs.

The City of Rome had been extensively burnt in the fire of 64CE, Nero passed regulations to put measures in place for future building. Restricting the use of inflammable building materials. Romans elevated the problem by using concrete. This material is fast setting pozzolana containing volcanic ash, which will even set under water. This new material allowed the Romans to build arches and domes.

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A simple floor plan of the Pantheon

The main body of the building, the rotunda was constructed out of brick and concrete. The walls of this large drum are six metres thick and together with the rectangular concrete vestibule that connects the portico to the rotunda, takes the weight of the dome. The Campus Martius was close to the River Tiber and as a consequence the ground was marshy. As a result the foundations for the Pantheon had to be substantial as the dome alone weighs 4,535 tons. They were conscience that they could help to reduce the overall weight through the design of the building and adapting the materials to compensate.

As the ground was swampy a foundation was dug and filled with concrete. Two circular brick walls were built on the foundation pad and sandwiched between was the concrete. The walls and concrete were constructed in layers of 0.6 metres high, allowing for each layer to become firm before the next layer was constructed. The surface of the interior wall had to include spaces for the various wall niches and bays. Placed on top of the rotunda is a perfect hemisphere with a diameter of 43 metres.

An interior view showing the bays and niches

The recipe for Roman concrete consists of sand, lime, volcanic ash, and aggregate. They altered the consistency of the recipe as they constructed the layers of the dome.  The base layer of the dome contains a bulky consistency of concrete with large pieces of aggregate. As the wall of the dome rose up to the Oculus the consistency of aggregate became much finer, which obviously helped combat the weight. The important design feature of the coffers also meant less concrete was needed and produced a very decorative effect. The dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

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The Oculus and the Coffers which would originally have rosettes in their centres 

In the centre of the dome is an Oculus, the only light source for the interior. The Oculus is open to the elements and when it rains, the problem is solved by the floor sloping towards the centre and the water exits via a drainage system. As the sun travels across the sky, the beam of light travels round the interior.

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Interior of the Rotunda with the beam shining on the wall

This has led to the belief that the building was also celebrating the sun god. When the Pantheon was originally built a statue of Jupiter was located directly under the Oculus. Jupiter was the most important of the Roman gods, he was considered the protector of the city and the state of Roman. One among many of his responsibilities was as Jupiter Lucetuis in charge of the Sun and Moonlight.

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Corinthian columns supporting a blank pediment which originally contained a sculptured frieze

The triangular pediment is supported by columns of grey granite, with Corinthian capitals and bases of white Pentelic marble. The columns are 12 metres tall with a 1.5 metre diameter and weigh 60 tons each. They were quarried in Egypt at Mons Claudianus in the eastern desert and transported on wooden sledges more than a 100 km to the River Nile. A journey which was downhill all the way. They were then conveyed by barges to Alexandria for the crossing to Ostia, where they continued along the River Tiber to Rome.

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These old bronze doors measure are 12 metres high, but sadly they are not the original

Originally the main entrance would have been reached by climbing steps, entering through the portico into the cella, a small rectangular room, via the magnificent bronze doors which would have been covered in gold. The climbing up to the building would have signified its importance.

We have to thank Boniface for rescuing the Pantheon and the Renaissance period for its appreciation by people such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Andrea Palladio. Palladio was so captivated by the Pantheon that it was to influence his designs for the rest of his career. Over the years it has been the inspiration for many architects such as Brunelleschi, Bernini, Inigo Jones, and Thomas Jefferson, to name but a few, to go on and create some of the most beautiful buildings around the world.

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Tomb of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)

It was Raphael’s final wish to be interned in the Pantheon. His request was honoured by Pope Gregory XVI who also provided the sarcophagus, when he died in 1520 at the age of 37.

Tombs of King Vittorio Emanuele II and King Umberto I

The National Institute of Honour Guards to the Royal Tombs was founded in 1878. They were originally chartered by the House of Savoy, but were allowed to continue with the authority of the Italian Republic. The guard consists mostly of Italian army veterans who volunteer to stand guard over the tombs of King Vittorio Emanuele II and King Umberto I.

 

The photos and artwork are from the author’s own collection.

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Author: heritagehistorian

I am a historian, writer and editor. I spend my time researching architectural history, people and places.

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