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 fa├žade 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.