Sunday, May 6, 2018


Today's photos

1. The facade of the church of Sant'Agostino.

2. Caravaggio's Madonna dei pellegrini.

3. Chapel of the Madonna del parto.

4. A close-up of the Madonna del parto.

5. The tomb of Saint Monica.

6. The main altar by Bernini.

7. Raphael's Isaia and the sculpture of Saint Ann, Mary and Jesus, by Sansovino.

8. A close-up of the Sansovino sculpture.

9. This mosaic is not in the church, but I wanted to show mother and son together.
In a tiny, crowded and inconspicuous piazza near the north end of the more famous Piazza Navona, stands one of Rome's earliest Renaissance churches, Sant'Agostino (Saint Augustine). The church is often overlooked by tourists, despite its location in the middle of the historic center. Making the church seem even more dominant in the piazza is the fact that it is preceded by a high and steep marble stairway. As everybody knows, every church in Rome has its own history, its own works of art and its own curiosities, and Sant'Agostino is no exception. It was begun in 1479 and finished in 1482.

A curiosity

If you want to see a piece of the Colosseum without actually going to the Colosseum, all you need do is stand in front of this church and look at the facade (photo 1) which was made using travertine stone taken from the famous amphitheater. Another example of pagan material turned into Christian use.

La Madonna dei Pellegrini

One of the most famous works of art in the church is the Madonna dei Pellegrini (the Madonna of the pilgrims) by Caravaggio (photo 2). It depicts two elderly pilgrims kneeling at the feet of Mary who is holding the Christ child in her arms. But this representation of Mary is unlike those serene, pious-looking scenes we usually see surrounding the subjects of Mary and the Child. No praying angels and soft, pastel colors here. The pilgrims are dressed in rags, and their dirty, bare feet are in full view. Mary is also in her bare feet, standing in the doorway of what appears to be a dilapidated building. She holds the naked Child in her arms. The only concession made by the artist to the usual depictions of saints is the barely visible halo over the heads of Mary and Jesus. The painting provoked outcries of scandal when it was first placed in the church.

La Madonna del Parto

Perhaps the most interesting statue in the church is the Madonna del Parto (the Madonna of child-birth) which has been associated with various miraculous cures. As its name suggests, it is a statue before which prayers are said for the safe birth of a child. The statue is located in the rear of the church between two entrances; it is filled with ex-voto (votive offerings) left in thanksgiving for a successful birth (photo 3).

A curiosity

A popular tradition holds that this sculpture was adapted from an ancient Roman statue of Agrippina, the mother of the emperor Nero, and that the child she is holding represents the infant Nero. And if you look at it carefully, it does seem to have a similar facial expression as is seen on other statues which depict Agrippina (photo 4). This would be yet another example of a pagan object turned into Christian use.

The cult of this statue as intercessor in child-birth goes back only to the 1800s when a young worker, Leonardo Bracci, prayed to the Madonna to protect his pregnant wife and unborn child. When the baby was born and both mother and child were healthy, Leonardo donated oil to keep a perpetual flame burning before the statue. Since that time this Madonna has been considered the protector of women in child-birth.

The tomb of Saint Monica

A most sacred and revered area of the church is the chapel to the left as you face the main altar. Buried beneath the altar of this chapel is the body of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. She died in the year 287 at Ostia, the ancient seaport of Rome, as she and Augustine were preparing to sail back to their home in Hyppo, North Africa. Monica was originally buried in Ostia, but her body was transferred into this chapel shortly after the church was built in 1482 (photo 5). In his Confessions Augustine gives a moving account of his mother's sudden illness and death.

Next to the chapel of Saint Monica is the main altar of the church, a spectacular work by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (photo 6). It displays a Byzantine Madonna said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist.

Isaia and Saint Ann

There are also two superb works of art in the center aisle: a beautiful fresco of the prophet Isaia by Raphael and a statue-group of Saint Ann, Mary and the Christ-child (photo 7). Just think, this is Jesus with his mother and his grandmother! The piece was carved from a single block of marble in 1512 by Andrea Sansovino (photo 8).

The church of the courtesans

This church also has the dubious reputation of having been known as the “church of the courtesans” in the 16th and 17th centuries. Courtesans were prostitutes whose clients were wealthy and powerful aristocrats, politicians and even clergymen.

A curiosity

The first three pews in the church were reserved for the courtesans so that the faithful would not be distracted during the services by seeing them face to face. Some of these high-class prostitutes were even buried in the church, including the infamous Fiammetta, the lover of Cesare Borgia, the son of Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503).

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Protestant Cemetery

Today's photos

1. The first century B.C. Pyramid-tomb of Gaius Cestius.
2. A striking view of one part of the cemetery.
3. The tombs of John Keats and Joseph Severn.
4. The tomb of Percy B. Shelley.
5. You might not expect to see this flag in a cemetery in Rome!
6. A close-up of the inscription of Thomas Jefferson Page.
7. The tomb of Antonio Gramsci.
8. A close-up of the inscription on the Gramsci tomb.
9. The entrance gate to the cemetery.

During the period of the Papal State, burial of non-Catholics within the city of Rome was forbidden. In 1716, however, Pope Clement XI Albani was persuaded by the Stuart family, ex royals of England in exile in Rome, to provide a small piece of land just outside the Aurelian walls to be used for non-Catholic burials.

A curiosity

What prompted the Stuarts to make this request of the Pope? It seems that an Englishman, 25 year-old George Langton, was killed when he was thrown from his horse and struck his head. Since the young man's family wished to bury him in Rome, they asked the Stuart family to use their influence with the Pope to permit the burial. Young Lamgton thus became the first person to be laid to rest in the cemetery in 1718. Over the years his tomb was lost but was re-discovered in 1929.

After the city of Rome fell to the Italian troops of unification and became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the cemetery was greatly expanded. By 1918 it was considered to be a national monument, and today it is visited by thousands of people every year. It is referred to by several different names: The English Cemetery, The Protestant Cemetery and The non-Catholic Cemetery. And today it has a place in almost all the guidebooks of Rome . . . including mine, The Sights of Rome!

The cemetery was established just outside the ancient city walls erected in the third century by the emperor Aurelian (270-275).

A curiosity

The practice of burial “outside the walls” goes back all the way to the time of ancient Rome when burial within the walls was forbidden to everyone. This is why, for example, the early Christians established their cemeteries outside the walls. Today we know these ancient Christian burial places as the Catacombs.

One reason why it is a popular tourist destination is that it holds the tombs of several famous people including the English poets Keats (photo 3) and Shelley (photo 4), and Joseph Severn (photo 3), the English Consul in Rome from 1860-1872 who was a close friend of Keats. Also buried here is August Goethe, son of the famed German poet, and Antonio Gramsci (photos 7 & 8), the founder of the Italian Communist Party.

A curiosity

The curious fact about Gramsci's tomb is the grammatical error in the short Latin inscription at the bottom of the monument. It reads: “Cinera Antonii Gramscii” (the ashes of Antonio Gramsci), but the “cinera” should be “cineres”.

But aside from the famous tombs, people visit the cemetery because it is such a beautiful and peaceful place with an abundance of tall cypress and pine trees (photo 2). Despite the fact that it is located in a heavy traffic zone of the city, it is a place of almost total silence as it is protected from the noise on all sides by a high wall. People are also attracted by the tombs themselves, many of which are authentic works of art.

A curiosity

There are even a few Americans buried here. One of them is the naval officer Thomas Jefferson Page (photos 5 & 6), a southerner who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He was one of several southerners who moved to Europe after the defeat of the Confederacy. The first time I saw his tomb there was a Confederate flag flying over it. Unfortunately, the flag has since been removed. Political correctness seems to be making inroads even in Rome!

A unique feature of this cemetery is the administration of it. It is under the patronage of fifteen foreign embassies in Rome, surely a diplomatic feat unequaled in the history of diplomacy! The embassies are, diplomatically in alphabetical order: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Practically a little United Nations in itself!

There is one tomb which is halfway inside and halfway outside the Aurelian walls. It is a monument known as the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius (photo 1), and it is not at all out of place in a cemetery because it was originally built as a tomb for this Roman official in the year 12 B.C. So we have the third-century Aurelian walls which literally incorporate the first century pyramid, thus leaving half of it inside the walls and the other half outside the walls.

There are many interesting tombstone inscriptions in this little cemetery, and in several different languages, as we would expect considering all the embassies involved. Here are just a few of my favorite ones. Were I still in Rome I would spend another day in the cemetery copying inscriptions!

Sit tibi terra levis (Latin)
May the ground upon you be light.

Sol me rapuit (Latin)
The sun has snatched me up.

Fermi stare qui significa salire (Italian)
Staying still here means climbing up.

Venni a Roma – Salì al cielo (Italian)
I came to Rome – I climbed to heaven.

Britannia! Mihi et meis patria carissima!
Cor, ut semper, meum, si non ossa contines! (Latin)
Britain! Very dear fatherland to me and mine!
You keep me heart, as always, if not my bones!

A curiosity

The most compact Latin inscription in the cemetery is seen above the monumental entrance gate (photo 9). It means: To those who are about to rise. But these seven English words are rendered in Latin by one word: Resurrecturis.

Both the pyramid and the cemetery are overlooked by most tourists, especially those who spend only a day or two in Rome, but it is well worth a visit the next time you find yourself in the Eternal City.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Pantheon: Part 4

Today's photos:

1. The dome with its oculus dominates this aerial view of the Pantheon.

2. This lady is dwarfed by the massive front doors.

3. You can enjoy this view of the dome from the terrace of the Hotel Minerva. Notice the stairway cut into the stone, leading up to the oculus.

4. The sunlight streams through the oculus creating a spotlight on the inner wall of the dome.

5. What are these firemen doing at the top of the dome?

6. It is Pentacost Sunday and the firemen are throwing rose petals down through the oculus.

7. Down come the rose petals!

8. Some of the firemen can be seen from the nearby Piazza Minerva.

9. It is April 21 and the spotlight moves inexorably toward the doorway.

10. It's almost there! (Sorry, I have lost my photo of the spotlight as it hits the door, but believe me . . . it got there!

It is interesting to see the Pantheon's dome from unusual vantage points, such as the aerial view (photo 1) and the view from the terrace of the nearby Hotel Minerva (photo 3).

As you enter the Pantheon, notice the large double doors made of bronze (photo 2). These are the original doors, but in the sixteenth century they were taken down, recast and put back up. They are so big that some people just can't believe that they are still in use, but I can assure you that they are opened and closed every day . . . by hand!

The mighty dome and its oculus

Once inside, your eyes will automatically be drawn to the magnificent dome and its circular opening in the center, the oculus (photo 4).

Many people are surprised to discover that the oculus is not covered with glass or any other material; it is open to the sky. It was built that way for practical reasons, to provide light and fresh air into the building, since there are no windows opening up to the outside. You will occasionally see birds flying around inside. And when it rains, the water comes in and drains out through several inconspicuous holes in the floor beneath it. The oculus measures 9 meters across.

A curiosity

During the middle ages there was a widespread belief that when the building was transformed into a church in the seventh century, devils which had inhabited the pagan temple flew out, bursting through the top of the dome, thereby creating the oculus.

The dome has always fascinated visitors to the Pantheon, especially trained architects. When Michelangelo was designing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, he had such great admiration for the Pantheon's architect that he declared that he would not make the dome of the basilica larger than that of the Pantheon. And in fact, this dome is one meter larger in circumference than Michelanelo's dome over St. Peter's. The circumference of the Pantheon is exactly the same distance as its height – 43.3 meters.

Pentecost in the Pantheon

Pentecost Sunday is the day when the Church recalls the Gospel story of the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. Pentecost, from the Greek word meaning fiftieth, is a movable feast in the Church which occurs fifty days after Easter. On that day in the Pantheon a solemn Mass is celebrated, at the end of which firemen throw down from the oculus thousands of red rose petals which come fluttering down on the congregation below, to recall the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire (photos 5-8).

This is an extremely old tradition in the Pantheon, begun by Pope Benedict XI (1303-1304). The custom continues to this day, even though there have been periods when it was interrupted and then taken up again. It is a spectacular sight to see all those rose petals fluttering softly down from the oculus. A large crowd gathers every year to witness this unusual sight.

April 21 in the Pantheon

When you find yourself in the Pantheon on a beautiful sunny day you will notice that the sunlight streaming through the oculus creates a spotlight effect on the interior wall of the dome. Amazingly, every year on April 21, the birthday of Rome, at exactly 12:00 noon this spotlight hits the front door, the only time this phenomenon happens. This is, of course, not a freak accident, but something planned and calculated at the time the building was constructed. The plan was for the emperor Hadrian to be present at the inauguration of the building, so it was decided that he should arrive at exactly 12:00 just as the spotlight bathes the entrance with rays of light (Photos 9-10).

It is only recently that this phenomenon has been brought to the attention of the public, so now there is always a large crowd on hand every year to witness this extraordinary event. It is interesting to be there about half an hour before noon (1:00 pm during daylight savings time) to watch the spotlight as it inexorably approaches the entrance.

A curiosity

I have my own "Pantheon dome story" to tell. I spent the summer of 1972 in Rome with a group of classics teachers in the summer program of the American Academy in Rome. We had a wonderful leader that year, the late Professor John D'Arms of the University of Michigan. He arranged for our group to climb to the top of the dome and view the interior of the Pantheon from the oculus. We took an elevator inside the six meter thick wall of the building up to the base of the dome. From there we climbed up to the oculus by means of a stairway cut into the stone on the outside of the dome. (You can clearly see this stairway in photo #3). I was able to lie on my stomach, put my hands on the edge of the oculus and look down into the Pantheon. It was truly an extraordinary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No one is allowed to do this anymore. The only people you will ever see at the top of the dome are the firemen who throw the rose petals down on Pentecost Sunday and the maintenance workers when there is need to inspect and do repair work.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Pantheon: Part 3

Today's photos:

1. The Renaissance painter Raphael.

2. The tomb of Raphael in the Pantheon.

3. La Madonna del Sasso (Our Lady of the Rock).

4. The Transfiguration, Raphael's last work.

5. A close-up of the sarcophagus in Raphael's tomb.

6. The Annunciation in the first chapel on the right.

7. The oldest Christian item in the Pantheon.

Next to the tombs of Umberto and Margherita is the final resting place of the great artist Raphael Sanzio (photo 1) who died at the very young age of 38.

A cuoriosity

An interesting fact about Raphael's death is that it occurred on the same date as his birth: April 6,1483-April 6, 1520). He died, probably of some sort of venereal disease, after 15 days of agony, on Good Friday.

The Inscriptions

His simple, but dignified tomb (photo 2) is extraordinary for several reasons, not the least of which is the spectacular Latin epitaph which runs across the top of the sarcophagus, or stone coffin. It was composed by Cardinal Pietro Bembo who had been a close friend of the artist. Every time I read it, it sends shivers up and down my spine!


Here lies the famous Raphael. When he was alive, Mother Nature feared that his works were surpassing her works, and when he was dying she feared that she herself was dying.

On the face of the Sarcophagus are seen the words:


The bones and the ashes of Raphael Sanzio of Urbino

The Statue

There is a statue of the Madonna and Bambino in a niche above the artist's tomb (photos 2 & 3). It was Raphael himself who sketched the subject and left instructions that it be carved by his students and placed over his tomb. The statue is often called La Madonna del Sasso (Our Lady of the rock), because she has one foot resting on top of a rock.

To your left as you face the tomb is a niche which holds a bust of Raphael (photo 3). A corresponding niche on the right is empty. It was intended to hold the bust of Maria Bibbiana, the woman who was to be his wife, but she preceded him in death, so it was decided not to include her in the scene.

A curiosity

At the time of his death, Raphael was working on his latest masterpiece, The Transfiguration, (photo 4) which had to be finished later by his students. The unfinished work was placed in his room during the last three days of his agony and was then carried in his funeral procession. Today the original painting is displayed in the Picture Gallery of the Vatican Museums. A mosaic copy four times the size of the original painting can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica.

The Tomb

Some 300 years after Raphael's burial a doubt arose in the minds of many regarding the exact location of the tomb. They knew he had been buried in the Pantheon, but they did not know precisely where. Some, however, believed that he had been buried in the nearby basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Finally, it was decided to carry out excavations inside the Pantheon to search for the lost tomb. The work began on September 9, 1833, directly below the altar of the Madonna del Sasso.

Sure enough, at about one and a half meters below the surface they discovered a wooden casket, inside of which was an intact skeleton. Experts at the time determined that these were indeed the remains of Raphael. At that news, Gregory XVI Cappellari donated an ancient marble sarcophagus from the Vatican Museums to hold the remains (photo 5). This is the sarcophagus which we see today behind glass beneath the Madonna del Sasso.

What else is inside the Pantheon?

There are, of course, many other beautiful and historic works of art in the Pantheon. One of these, and my own personal favorite, is in the first chapel on your right as you enter the building. It is a beautiful fresco: The Annunciation (photo 6) by Melozzo da Forlì (1438-1494). This painting was beautifully restored several years ago, a restoration which revealed its original, magnificent colors.

The oldest religious item in the Pantheon can be seen high up on the wall behind the main altar. It is a Roman-Bizantine work of the Madonna and Child lined in silver and dating back to the 7th century (photo 7). It is therefore conceivable that this small icon was put in place when the Pantheon was converted into a church in 609.

To your left of the main altar, in the second to last chapel is a beautiful 16th century crucifix.

All the statues in the Pantheon today are of Christian saints, but originally they were all statues of pagan gods and goddesses. The large niche in the center, just opposite the main doors, was once home to a statue of Jupiter, king of the gods. It has been replaced by the main altar of the church.

A curiosity

When Agrippa built the original Pantheon he wanted to name it after Augustus. He also wanted to erect in it a colossal statue of the emperor. Augustus, however, refused this honor, so a statue of his deified father, Julius Caesar, was erected instead. Unfortunately, we do not know the fate of this statue or even if it was transferred to the building reconstructed by Hadrian in the second century A.D.

The fourth and final part of this series of posts on the Pantheon will be dedicated to the cupola (dome). Don't miss it!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Pantheon: Part 2

Today's photos:

1. The tomb of Victor Emanuel II in the Pantheon.

2. The Victor Emanuel Monument in Piazza Venezia.

3. A close-up of the equestrian statue.

4. Dinner is served!

5. Umberto I followed his father as king.

6. A painting depicts the assassination of Umberto.

7. The tombs of King Umberto and Queen Margherita.

8. The plaque in pizzeria Brandi in Naples.

Of the many historic monuments in Rome, my personal favorite is the Pantheon, the best preserved of all the ancient sites in the Eternal City. One of the reasons for my preference is that there are several very important people buried in the building. My research reveals a total of nine tombs in this architectural marvel, but there may even be more. In this post I would like to tell you about three of them, as well as some very interesting facts about the persons buried in the tombs. A third one will be discussed in Part 3 of this series of posts on the Pantheon.

A curiosity

If I am going to tell you about four people buried in the Pantheon, you may be curious to know who the other five are whom my research has been able to "dig up", so to speak.

Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481-1536) – architect

Perin del Vega (1501-1547) – painter

Taddeo Zuccari (1529-1566) – painter

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) – painter

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) – composer

The father of his country

In the center niche on your right side as you enter the building is the imposing tomb of Victor Emanuel II (photo 1), the first Head of State of the modern country of Italy. Many people do not know that Italy, as we know it today, did not become a political entity until 1861. Before that time the peninsula was divided into several small, independent States. One by one these States fell, or willingly ceded themselves, to the Italian forces of unification. The last of the independent States to fall was the largest one, the Papal State in 1861, even though its capital, the city of Rome, held out until 1870.

Victor Emanuel had been the king of Sardinia/Piedmont. When his State joined the unification movement, he was invited to stay on as Head of State of the new Kingdom of Italy. He is to the Italians what George Washington is to Americans: Padre della Patria (Father of his country), as is inscribed on his tomb.

A curiosity

If Victor Emanuel was the first Head of State, why is he called Victor Emanuel II? The fact is that his father, Victor Emanuel I had preceded him as the king of Sardinia/Piedmont. When his son was asked to be the Head of State of the Kingdom of Italy, there was a question of whether he should be called Victor Emanuel I or Victor Emanuel II. Many thought he should be called Victor Emanuel I since he was indeed the first one. However, he himself chose to retain the name Victor Emanuel II out of respect for his deceased father.

There is probably not a city or town in Italy which does not have some kind of memorial dedicated to Victor Emanuel II. The city of Rome certainly can boast the most spectacular reminder of him: the Victor Emanuel Monument (photo 2) with its colossal equestrian statue (photo 3) of the king in Piazza Venezia and, of course, the tomb itself in the Pantheon.

A curiosity

Take a good look at the horse of Victor Emanuel. Just how big is it? Well, consider that when the monument was dedicated in 1911 they wanted to do something really spectacular to commemorate the event. So they chose 21 workers to represent all who had labored on this project over the years, and they served them a meal (photo 4) inside the belly of the horse which is said to be sixteen times life size!

The king is dead. Long live the king!

When Victor Emanuel II died in 1878 he was, of course, given a hero's burial in the Pantheon after a solemn funeral procession through the streets of Rome. It is known that the king had expressed a wish to be buried in Torino, the capital of Piedmont, but his son and successor, Umberto I (photo 5) accepted the request of the city government of Rome that his father should be buried in the capital of Italy, and indeed, in the Pantheon itself.

The assassination

Umberto I, at the death of his father in 1887, automatically became king. He ruled until 1900 when he was assassinated, shot to death as he road in his carriage in Monza, Italy, a short distance from Milan, on July 29,1900 (photo 6). His assassin was a thirty-year-old Italian-American anarchist, Gaetano Bresci, who shot the king four times.

A curiosity

The American anarchist Leon Czolgosz stated that the assassination of Umberto I inspired him to assassinate the American president William McKinley in 1901.

Bresci was immediately arrested and saved from being lynched by onlookers. He was given an unusually speedy trial and sentenced to life (ergastolo) on August 29, 1900. The official version of the assassin's death is that he hanged himself in his cell on May 22, 1901. However, many believe this version to be false because his death was not made public until after his body was so decomposed that it was impossible to determine the exact cause of death.

The royal widow

In any case, Umberto was given a hero's burial in the Pantheon in the center niche on your left as you enter the building, just opposite the tomb of his father. Umberto's wife, Margherita, lived on for another 26 years. When she died in 1926 she was also allowed to be buried in the Pantheon, in the wall just below the tomb of her husband (photo 7).

Notice the purple structure which stands in front of the two tombs. This shade of purple or dark red, called porphory, is often used on the tombs of royalty or of people held in great honor for one reason or another. This particular one is in the form of an ancient Roman altar, appropriate since the Pantheon was once a Roman temple.

A curiosity

In 1889 Umberto and Margherita went on an informal, unofficial trip to Naples where they had dinner in a modest Neapolitan pizzeria called Brandi. The owners of the restaurant decided to serve a special pizza to the king and queen. They topped the pizza dough with red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and green basil leaves, calling it their patriotic pizza since it had the colors of the Italian flag. The queen, Margherita, was so pleased by this unusual culinary concoction that it was decided, with her permission, to name the pizza after her. And that is why we have, to this day, the famous pizza Margherita!

The pizzeria Brandi still exists today, and in 1989 a plaque was displayed in the restaurant recalling the 100th anniversary, not so much of the royal visit, but of the birth of the pizza Margherita (photo 8)! The inscription is in Italian; the translation is as follows:

Here 100 years ago

was born the Pizza Margherita

1889 – 1989


Part 3 of this four part series will be dedicated to another famous person who rests in the Pantheon: Raphael. I think he deserves a post all to himself!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pantheon: Part 1

Today's photos:

1. This amazing photo, sent to me by my friend and editor, Gianfranco Mandas, literally takes my breath away.

2. Here is one of my photos which includes the fountain and just a small part of the famous dome.

3. This is an 18th century print showing the unfortunate addition provided by Bernini for Urban VIII. What animal does it bring to mind?

The Pantheon is not only the best preserved of Rome's ancient monuments, it is also and foremost an amazing architectural masterpiece. The handsome inscription which runs along the top of the façade of the building tells us who built it and when.


Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, made this

From our knowledge of history, we know that Marcus Agrippa was consul for the third time in 27 BC.

A curiosity

The office of consul was the second highest office in the Roman Empire, just behind the emperor himself who at this time was Augustus. But Agrippa had a close personal tie to Augustus as well because he was his son in law, married to the emperor's daughter, Julia. In addition, Augustus intended for Agrippa to succeed him as emperor, but the latter predeceased him.

A temple and more than a temple

The Pantheon was officially built as a temple dedicated to all the gods, but even more so to recall the famous Roman military victory of Octavian over Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. This was in 31 B.C. shortly after Caesar's assassination when the two men were challenging each other to take over the power once held by Caesar. The victory consolidated this power into the hands of Octavian, whose name was thereafter changed to Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The Pantheon soon became, and remains today, the living symbol of the mighty Roman empire.

The building we see today, however, is not the original Pantheon built by Agrippa. In the year 80 A.D. it was heavily damaged by fires in this part of Rome. Then in 110 A.D. it was struck by lightning which severely damaged the structure of the building. It was then that the emperor Hadrian (117-138) decided to rebuild it. This was done in the amazingly short time of ten years: 118-128.

A curiosity

Hadrian did something very unusual for a Roman emperor; he ordered that the inscription of Agrippa be put back on it. We do not know for sure who the architect of the Pantheon was, but many believe it was Hadrian himself. We know that he was a skilled architect and that he designed several buildings in Rome, including the temple of Venus and Rome, the largest temple in the Roman Forum.

From pagan temple to christian church

So why has this building come down to us almost perfectly preserved after so many centuries? The answer is that in the year 609 it was donated by the emperor Foca to Pope Boniface IV (608-615) who immediately turned it into a church. This is what saved the building for us because the Church has kept it up for all these centuries. Its transformation from a pagan temple to a christian church has a strong symbolic meaning: the victory of Christianity over paganism.

A curiosity

In order to further emphasize this symbolism, Boniface IV ordered that cartloads of the bones of Christian martyrs be brought from the Catacombs and buried in the Pantheon: Christian martyrs replacing pagan idols. This accounts for the name of the church: Santa Maria ad Martyres, St. Mary at the Martyrs. And that name remains even to this day.

The portico

The Pantheon proper is preceded by a rectangular portico with 16 enormous monolithic columns of red and gray granite. There are two huge niches carved into the back wall, one on either side. These once held colossal statues, one of Augustus and one of Agrippa. Unfortunately, those statues have been lost. What a prize it would be if we still had them!

The ceiling of the portico has its own interesting story. In 1625, Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644) called in his young architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and told him to build a baldacchino (canopy) to go over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica which was nearing completion at the time. He told Bernini that he wanted the baldacchino to be built of bronze and he asked the artist if he could do such a thing. Bernini's response was: "Yes, I can do it, but where will I get all the bronze I need?" And the Pope assured him: "This is not a problem, friend. Go over to the Pantheon and take all the bronze you need from the ceiling of the portico." And that's what Bernini did! If you go into St. Peter's Basilica, look at the enormous baldacchino which is supported by four twisting columns. All of that bronze was once on the ceiling of the portico of the Pantheon!

A curiosity

There was much criticism of the Pope for taking this bronze and using it in the church. One very clever man composed a short saying in Latin critical of the pontiff's Barberini family.

Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini

What the barbarians did not do the Barberini did

Bernini's blunder

Urban VIII and Bernini teamed up for another project on the Pantheon which turned out to be a colossal blunder. Since the building was a church, the Barberini Pope thought it should have a bell tower, just like any other church, and of course he instructed Bernini to build it, or rather them, since he wanted the grand building to have two such structures. Bernini dutifully carried out the Pope's wishes and attached two bell towers to the building, one rising up from each side. The result, however, was comical as the two structures appeared to resemble the ears rising up from the head of a donkey. It wasn't long before the bell towers had earned the title: the ass ears of Bernini! They remained in place for almost 200 years but were finally removed in the late 1700s, much to the relief of everyone.

Strange papal signatures

A curiosity

Urban VIII Barberini and Alexander VII Chigi left their marks on the building in an unusual way which is missed by most visitors. The three columns on the left side as you face the front door were damaged and needed to be taken down. The outer one was replaced by Urban and the two behind it by Alexander. Keep in mind that the coat of arms of Urban has the three bees, while that of Alexander sports a star. If you look carefully at the three columns you will see a bee in the center of the capital of the outer column and a star in the same spot on the other two columns. This, of course to recall the coats of arms of the two Popes and to remind the people in a subtle way who replaced the columns!

The fountain

In the middle of the piazza in front of the Pantheon is a fountain originally built by Giacomo della Porta in 1575 for Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585). Usually you will find on the fountains in Rome the coat of arms of the Pope who had them built. But you won't find anything here referring to Gregory because in 1711 another Pope, Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) had the fountain restored and greatly revised, replacing the coat of arms of Gregory with his own. The changes included adding the small Egyptian obelisk which we see on the fountain today. It was originally one of two small obelisks which decorated a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis which existed in this area of Rome in ancient times.