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Join us as we pay a visit to the incomparable Pantheon in the heart of Rome. Nearly 2,000 years old, but incredibly well preserved – it is fascinating for both its architecture and history and there’s always something new and interesting to learn every time you visit.
In this episode, we talk to long-time resident of Rome and architectural historian Agnes Crawford of Understanding Rome. Agnes is a private tour guide leading groups on many different aspects of the Eternal City including the Pantheon. We learn about the history, the stories and mythology surrounding this agent Roman temple now still functioning as an active Christian church.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Built 1900 years ago, the Pantheon is the best-preserved Roman building and has the largest unreinforced concrete dome anywhere in the world
- The frontage of the Pantheon will likely seem very familiar – the entrance is the classic Greek temple front with columns, and then the triangular pediment on top – taking a style from ancient Greek architecture – that was ancient, even for the Romans, however, once you go inside it turns to cutting-edge design of the times – built in brick with a vast dome
- Ancient Greek culture was absorbed into the Roman world – as well as the architecture
- The reason why the Pantheon has survived in such great condition for almost 2000 years is that like many other buildings that have survived well – it became a church. 130 years after the last Emperor was deposed, it was consecrated as a Church. So it’s been a Church for far longer than it was a temple and is the Church of St. Mary and all Martyrs
- First built under the Roman Emperor Trajan – the name Pantheon comes because the temple was built for the gods – “pan” means “all” and “theos” means “god”
- When the Pantheon was built, one and a half million people were living in Rome, whereas in the year 1000 (500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) roughly only 20,000 people were living in the city.
- The dome has a diameter of 43 meters and the height of the building is also 43 meters and the walls are 24ft at the thickest point
- In the niches, right the way around where now you see statues of Saints and paintings of the Virgin and child, there would originally have been statues of Roman gods, so Juno and Jupiter and Mars and Minerva
- As well as the standard Roman gods, they also had imported foreign gods like Apollo and Castor and Pollux, the twin horsemen, sons of Zeus. There would then also be gods from the human realm such as former emperors like Hadrian
- As with the Pantheon moving on from being a Roman temple to being a church, there are lots of cross-overs in Roman life then and now. For instance, the title of the current Pope is Pontifex Maximus. That was a title also held by Emperor Augustus.
- Inside the floor of the Pantheon, there are large discs of Porphyry, a purple stone that came from the Eastern deserts of Egypt. Purple was the color of the Emperors and it also then became the color of the church. Bishops wear purple and the robes worn by a Cardinal are red, but in Italian, they are called La Porpora
- Rome is surrounded north and south by quiescent but not extinct volcanoes. The ones to the south last erupted about 5000 years ago. The upshot of this exclusive volcanic activity was a number of useful byproducts, one of which is lava, which was used to pave the Appian way. The hills are full of natural springs and another byproduct is a local sandy soil called pozzolana. Another local material, found to the east of the city, is quick lime from limestone mountains. Pozzolana when mixed with quick lime and slicked with water created a liquid that hardens
- When cleaning on the Pantheon was done some years ago they used sonar technology to measure the density of the concrete. The concrete was found (as had been suspected as is a known sort of technique of Roman building) to have a lighter density towards the top. This is because it was mixed with pumice, another material found in the volcanic Aeolian Islands, which was used as a kind of aggregate in the concrete to relieve the weight
- Bauhaus architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le_Corbusier would study Roman buildings. In this modern movement, their streamlined white buildings of the early 20th century things would be built on the idea that form was a product of function – in the same tradition as the Pantheon
- Vitruvius – the architect of Emperor Augustus, said that the ideal building should follow the ideal proportions of the human body, so the height of a person is proportional to the length of an arm, is proportional to the length of a leg. Leonardo Da Vinci drew Vitruvian man in the early 1500s. This is the man with the square in the circle with his arms outstretched and is basically a drawing which takes the proportions that Vitruvius says are the ideal proportions of a building
- Vitruvius also said that for any building to be perfect it should have three characteristics: Fermitas, it has to stand up, Utilitas, it has to do whatever it’s supposed to do properly, and only then do you have Venustas (from Venus) – the beauty
- The Oculus (the eye) is essentially a hole in the roof of the Pantheon and was designed to let in light. Nowadays there is some electric light in the side chapels, but even today, the vast majority of the light is natural and comes through the huge doorway and the 8 meters wide Oculus
- When St. Peters was built in the Vatican, Michelangelo deliberately made the dome have a diameter of a meter less than the dome of the Pantheon because he didn’t want to steal the record of the ancients
- At midday on the 21 April, which is the birthday of Rome, the rays of light from the Oculus hit a grill directly above the entrance doorway, funneling light in a beam out into the entrance portico – check out some dramatic footage of this here
- During the Pentecost (50 days after Easter) the firemen of the city of Rome climb up on the outside of the Patheon dome and at the culmination of the Mass, drop rose petals down through the Oculus down into the church below
- Where the Pantheon stands, there had previously been another temple – overseen by Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law to the Emperor at the time Augustus. This temple was destroyed, but when the Pantheon was built, Hadrian had the inscription be a nod to the previous temple and so Marcus Agrippa is in the writing “M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT.”
- The Pantheon is usually open 9am to 7pm. Public holidays are best avoided because it’s either closed or overly busy. Because it is a church and a national monument it is free to visit. At time of press, due to covid, a negative test or vaccination certificate is required and so queues can form. 9 am Monday morning is a good time to go to avoid the crowds – as is early-midweek generally
- The Pantheon is quite literally in the heart of Rome and is surrounded by medieval Renaissance Baroque cobbled streets and is on a beautiful piazza with a fountain
About our guest – Agnes Crawford
Agnes is originally from London. Having graduated from Edinburgh University with a Master of Arts degree in Architectural History in 1999. she moved to Rome in 2000, married a Roman, and have lived here ever since. She is a licensed guide with thirteen years experience.
She is passionately enthusiastic about the city, and believes that by Understanding Rome your visit will be both more meaningful, and much more enjoyable. As well as exploring Rome at your own pace, and focusing on what interests you, Understanding Rome is also about where to take your coffee, the best places for gelato, and where to shop. She is delighted to help people feel as at home in Rome as she does.
You can find Agnes on these channels:
- Websites: www.understandingrome.com
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/understandingrome
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/understandingrome
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/understandrome
- Trajan – Roman Emperor 98 to 117
- Hadrian – Roman Emperor 117 to 138
- Hagia Sophia – formerly the Church of Hagia Sophia, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it was converted into a mosque. In 1935it was established it as a museum, before converting back to a mosque in 2020.
- Roman Curia – the central body through which the affairs of the Catholic Church are conducted
- Palestrina – Italian city built upon the ruins of the ancient city of Praeneste.
- porphyry – a purple-red igneous stone
- coffer – is a series of sunken panels in the shape of a square, rectangle, or octagon in a ceiling or vault
- Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier – 20th century architects
- Vitruvius – the architect of Emperor Augustus. He is responsible for a book called The Ten Books of Architecture, which has never been out of print.
- Filippo Brunelleschi – designed the dome of Florence cathedral
- gnomon – the needle on a sundial
- Campus Martius – the Field of Mars, a publicly owned area of ancient Rome about 2 square kilometres which in the Middle Ages, was the most populous area of Rome
- Apollodorus of Damascus – celebrated Roman architect
- Asia Mindor/Anatolia – a large peninsula in Western Asia – the major part of modern-day Turkey
Resources from Untold Italy
- We love to stay near the Pantheon when we visit Rome. Check out 11 top hotels near the Pantheon, Rome
- Discover more around Rome in Best Place to Stay in Rome: Districts and Neighborhood Guide and 15 of the Most Interesting & Beautiful Fountains in Rome,
- Listen: to more about Rome in Episode #003: Rome Highlights and Maria’s other episodes on Episode #051: Rome and Italy at Christmas and Episode #038: The Captivating Cilento Coast
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step-by-step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.