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.

A Meeting of Minds

The Piazza di Spagna has been the location of the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican City since the 17th century. It was also the residential location for foreign visitors from the 17th to the 19th century. Tobias Smolett , the well known 18th century writer and surgeon, wrote a book about his experiences of travelling in France and Italy. This 1766 book describes the history and social life of the places he visited, giving his own opinion about diet and morals, and guiding future travellers on how to conduct themselves. He declared that “Here most of the English reside”.

But it was not only the English, other nations were represented too and were drawn to the area; artists, writers and musicians frequented the Piazza and the nearby streets. The meeting place for some of the most talented and influential people of their times. Franz Liszt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Honore de Balzac, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Henry James, as well as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Browning, to name but a few.

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The Piazza di Spagna “Here most of the English reside” Smolett

The Piazza is famous for the Scalinata di Trinita Dei Monti, know as the Spanish Steps, which were built between 1723 to 1726, to connect the Santissima Trinita dei Monti with the Piazza. Charles VIII of France purchased land in order to found a convent for the French order of San Francesco di Paola. He also provided money to build a church the Santissima Trinita dei Monti. Approval was given by Pope Alessandro VI and construction started in 1502 using stone from Narbonne in France. The Gothic church’s towers were not built until 1580-87 when, by then, the style was out of favour. The church’s design can not be attributed to any one architect.

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Santissima Trinità dei Monti and Third Century Obelisk

Plans to build the steps date back to the 1580s when the church was built. The plans did not proceed due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1660 when money was left to the church for the project, by a French diplomat Etienne Gueffier who had left the money in his will for the sole purpose. Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Cardinal, took over the project but unfortunately it stalled again due to Gueffier’s nephew contesting the will; and Pope Alessandro VIII taking exception to the idea of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV as part of the design. Sixty six years later the steps were finally completed. The 135 Baroque style steps  were designed by the Italian architect Francesco De Sanctis, who was favoured by the French. There were diplomatic negotiations between the Vatican and French officials to make sure the completed work represented both nations.

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Keats-Shelly Museum viewed from Spanish Steps

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Keats-Shelley Museum viewed from front with original shop front with flour-de-lis symbol above

At the base of the steps, the buildings on either side were designed by Francesco de Sanctis and constructed by the French. The Casino Rossa on the right of the steps was designed as a purpose built shop with accommodation above. It is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, but was originally a boarding house where John Keats lived for three months before he died on 23rd February 1821. John Keats originally studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital registering in October 1815, and became a licensed apothecary in 1816. He was promoted to a Dresser allowing him to dress wounds, set bones and assist with surgery. In July he passed the examinations to become a surgeon and took a summer break in Margate. Keats’ first love had been literature and though he continued to write poetry, his medical studies were taking up to much of his time.  After spending his summer holiday writing, he returned to London and on the 31st October at the age of 21 he began practicing as a surgeon. In December 1816 his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was published in The Examiner, it was the turning point, he was disillusioned with medicine and now he could justify a change of career. Sometime after this period Keats started to take mercury for an unspecified illness, possibly veneral disease, though he was well aware how dangerous this medication was, by the summer of 1818 he was already showing signs of mercury poisoning. Towards the end of 1818 he was caring for his brother Tom who had contracted tuberculosis, because of Keats’ weakened system it was inevitable that he would also contract tuberculosis. Tom sadly died on 1 December 1818. Keats continued to write, and by the summer of 1819 he was ill with the first stage of tuberculosis. In February he started to haemorrhage, from the colour of the blood he knew he was dying.  It was decided that he should travel to Italy for the winter.

On the 13 September he left England for Naples with his friend Joseph Severn, the artist. They spent ten days in quarantine before arriving in Rome on the 14 November. He became a patient of Sir James Clark who had set up a practice in Rome, and took up residence in the Casino Rossa in the Plazza di Spagna. Clark’s diagnosis was consumption and to counteract the effects of the mercury, which damages the stomach, he  prescribed a starvation diet and blood letting. Keats as a physician was well aware that it was futile. He died at the age 25 and during his very short life he produced some beautiful poems. Keats had been invited to Pisa by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats hoped he would visit him after his stay in Rome. Shelley wrote Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats upon hearing of his death. A year later when Shelley drowned there was a small copy of the Keats’ poetry in his pocket.

After the death of Keats the furniture, curtains, wallpaper and his personal property were burnt to stop the spread of disease and infection, this was decreed by Vatican Law. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Shelley’s ashes were also interned here and they were joined by Joseph Severn in 1879.

The room where Keats died, the ceiling, fireplace and flooring are the only original features left.

Over the years the house fell into disrepair, but it was still attracting attention as the site where Keats died. By 1903 two American ladies were living there and showing visitors around. Eventually in 1906 a group of English, American and Italians raised the money to purchase the rundown Casino Rossa and after restoration it was formally opened in December 1909. Over the years the house suffered from only being available to the academics and its future was uncertain. In 1976 Sir Joseph Cheyne, Bt became curator and worked tirelessly to change the image; he encouraged school parties and made the house a tourist attraction. When Cheyne retired in 1990 its visitors numbered 11,000. The property is owned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, a British charity, it is run as a commercial business open six days a week, all year round except for one week in December. The house’s running costs are covered by the admission fee, a gift shop and the rental income. It has a library of over eight thousand books devoted to English Romanticism, holds various events, exhibitions and poetry readings. They have a book club, competitions, awards and a website doing a successful job to keep the memory of the dead poet alive.

In the centre of the Piazza is located an unusual fountain shaped like a sinking boat. The Fontana della Barcaccia was designed by Petro Bernini. The water for the fountain was supplied from the Acqua Vergine, one of the Roman aqueducts constructed by Consul and Architect Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Bernini’s design of a leaking boat compensated for the minimal water pressure. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623. It was started in 1627 and completed after his death in 1629 by his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. John Keats could hear the water flowing from the fountain and requested that the epitaph on his headstone should read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

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The Piazza and Fontana della Barcaccia viewed from Keats-Shelley Museum

As previously mentioned the Piazza di Spagna was the area where English tourists congregated and as a nation we are very fond of a cup of tea. Two ladies who arrived in Italy in 1893 were able to exploit this need in order to make a successful business which is still flourishing today. Babington’s Tea Rooms can be found on the left side of the steps.

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Babington’s Tea Rooms

When the English Anna Maria Babington and the New Zealand Isabel Cargill arrived in Rome they invested their £100 in opening a tea rooms on the Via dei Due Macelli, close to the piazza. Obviously it was a resounding success, as it provided the comforts of home for the weary tourist, and the next year they relocated to the building on the left side of the steps.

In 1910 Annie Cargill the sister of Isabel, arrived in Rome and opened the Hotel Londra & Cargill on the corner of Via Collina and the Piazza Sallustio. The hotel is a large building dating from the 1800s and is open to this day. Unfortunately the tea room business was effected by the outbreak of the first world war and this continued into the 1920s. Anna Maria moved to Switzerland due to ill health and sadly died of a heart attack. Isabel’s daughter Dorothy, from her marriage to the Italian artist Giuseppe da Pozzo, took over the management of the tea rooms. Annie invested money in the tea rooms, they were refurbished and business started to pick up again. Throughout the second world war the family left Rome, when they returned after the war they found out that the staff had kept the tea rooms open using their own rations. This family run business is still as successful as ever, and has built up a worldwide following through its website and sales of its merchandise.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.