When in Rome...
Updated: May 7, 2021
One lovely summer morning in Rome, lovely because the it was not yet time for the blast furnace of the Roman summer afternoon, I came strolling down a street of charming pastel-colored buildings. I had turned down this street, following one of those street markers noting various sights - you know, so many meters to Piazza Navona, Santa Maria della Pace, the Colosseum - Timbuktu?. Anyway, one of those markers read Pantheon The image in my mind was from my high school world history text, showing a black-and-white photo, taken who knows how long ago, of an old Roman building leaning a bit as it sat in what looked to be an incipient sinkhole. The caption announced ponderously: "The Pantheon. The most beautiful building in Rome." Oh really? Well, I love history, so I headed in the direction the sign indicated, thinking that if I arrived in Timbuktu, I'd know I had gone too far.
I remember walking down a slight incline, my attention still fixed on the pastel buildings, some of which looked somewhat Baroque in style. I was ambling along enjoying the sun and the lovely colors, when I noticed an odd, round, domed structure that looked like it was made of concrete and some type of brick. "Must be an auditorium," I thought, having forgotten, like the rest of humanity did for 1500 years, that the Romans invented concrete and used it in their buildings. Anyway, this strange creature of a building became more and more massive as I drew closer and walked along side of it, fascinated by its curving walls. Then I came to the columns and finally to the portico bearing the name Marcus Agrippa. THE PANTHEON! My eyes fixed upon it, and I could not get them back.
I don't know how I found the little café that afforded me the most wonderful view of the building, but I did. I managed to find a seat and order a cappuccino without taking my eyes for one second off that building. There I sat for an hour, gazing at the wonder just across the street. Though my eyes were transfixed, my brain began feeding me some bits of information. For instance, I had seen an episode of Hot Rocks by geologist, Ian Stewart, in which he talked about the building techniques of the Romans when constructing the Pantheon, and how they used the heaviest materials at the bottom and decreased the weight as they worked up, going from basalt to pumice in their various mixtures of concrete. Seeing the name Marcus Agrippa brought to mind scenes from the old I, Claudius series. I remembered though that the original Pantheon built by Agrippa had been destroyed, and this one was build in about 125 C.E. by Hadrian, who seemed to have taken pride in his own abilities as an architect. As one apocryphal tale has it, the most famous architect of the time, Apollodorus of Damascus, criticized Hadrian's designs, which displeased the emperor, as the soon-to-be-dead Apollodorus found out.
I finally got my eyes back and entered the building. I had never seen so much marble in my life. (I'd now say the current train station in Monaco is a close second.) In the middle of the floor was a puddle of water, nicely roped off by red velvet cords attached to stanchions. Of course, with water on the floor, one looks up to find the source - where's the leak? No leak, just a big hole with blue sky and sunlight, the oculus, that opening that allowed the outside to come in, rain or shine. Circling around it were coffers, made of that light-weight concrete containing pumice, and all hollowed out so they weighed less, the reason that dome has stayed up there all these centuries.
Currently, the building is not only an historical monument, but on Sundays, it is also a church. That day a service had just ended. At one point in its history, the Pantheon had steeples, as shown in the painting below. Glad they took those off and returned to the original design.
My final Pantheon surprise that day was finding the tomb of Raphael. Yes, the Renaissance painter, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino is buried there, with a huge statue to mark the place. The inscription reads (in translation), "Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be out done while he lived, and when he died feared that she would die with him."
Sounds like they were right to bury him in the temple of the gods, the Pantheon.
Arrivederci Roma! But before I go, I'd like to ask you to log in and tell of some wonderful art surprise you have had when traveling. Remember, art loves you, so come return the favor.
Photos from Public Domain sources: www.pixabay.com and www.publicdomainpictures.net
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019