St Mary's College student Phoebe Pierard experiences the ancient wonder of the Pantheon in Rome.
Navigating the narrow, bustling streets of Rome, I turned a corner and found myself facing a temple. Eight granite, unfluted Corinthian columns, imported in their entirety from Mons Claudianus, an ancient Roman quarry in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, stood supporting the 44-metre-high structure. Etched into the face of the portico, in replica bronze, is the inscription “M. Agrippa L. F. Cos Tertium [Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, thrice Consul, built this]”. The declaration signifies the Romans’ reverence for their ancestors, although the text is deceptive; the façade may have been commissioned by Agrippa, but the rest of the structure was built more than a century later, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117–138AD).
This is the Pantheon, and whatever its exact provenance, it is a masterpiece of Roman architecture. Its architects and builders tested the limits of concrete and mathematics to create one of the world’s most influential and significant buildings.
I entered through the vestibule and past the heavy bronze doors. Here I was, in the 21st century, yet my reaction to the building must have been little different to that of a Roman entering it for the first time in 128AD. From the dingy passageways of Rome, we had both been thrust into light and open space.
And it was breath-taking: a rotunda elaborately embellished with marble geometry; friezes of false windows that led my eye up to the gargantuan dome, unaligned with the barrel so as to be seemingly free, about to rotate at any minute. The oculus, nine metres wide, saw into my soul – or was I looking through it into the heavens?
People swarmed around the alcove, a testimony to the passing of time with its Christian altar. Originally dedicated to the seven Roman planetary gods, the Pantheon survives as a Catholic church, Sanctae Mariae Rotundae. There are columns and niches, all merely for decoration as the concrete dome is self-supporting on a rotunda six metres thick.
However, there are secrets in the wall. I traced my hands across the brilliant azure, green and chamomile-yellow marble designs in the wall, trying to absorb the history, imagining what went on in the secret passages within the thick concrete and brick, weaving my own ideas and stories into the tapestry of the temple. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what a marvel this place must have been for the ancient Romans. Religious and public ceremonies, usually conducted outside by the portico and which must have been impressive but would have been familiar, surely didn’t require such a feat of engineering for what really acts as a mere back room.
There must have been something else to justify its design. I returned my focus to the dome, recalling what I’d read in school. The Pantheon has 140 coffers (sunken panels) arranged in five rings and 28 lines. As Pythagoras and Euclid demonstrated, 28 is a ‘perfect number’ – one of four known in antiquity – a whole number equal to the sum of its factors (1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28). The design of the Pantheon is an expression of Roman ideas about the mystery of the cosmos and religion.
To look up is dizzying. The Romans, masters of distortion, created squares within the dome, shrinking as they encroached the oculus to become lighter where the dome is weakest while retaining the necessary structure. This is an ingenious solution to the impossibility mimicked in the floor and friezes: marble circles within squares, and squares within circles. And then it dawned on me. The dome is half of what would be a sphere, 43 metres in diameter, fitting precisely within the cella (the inner chamber of the temple). The sphere was central to the Romans’ understanding of the universe. In their cosmology, the earth was the centre of seven planetary orbits. The sphere symbolised the heavens, and the emperor’s divine power over his people.
As I joined the crowds of people around the exit, it occurred to me that although the Pantheon was a feat of people who lived 2000 years ago, it has yet to be rivalled for its incredible engineering and design. The Pantheon has been the inspiration for countless other buildings throughout history, from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Reichstag building in Berlin to the National Gallery in Washington. The building’s exterior may not match its appearance in antiquity. Holes dotting the surface indicate there were once elaborate bronze embellishments on the façade, and many statues are absent from their niches. But the building has remained intact for nearly two millennia while neighbouring structures have crumbled or disappeared. As I walked out of the interior and into the portico, I felt I had looked into the heart of the universe.