Rome
The Pantheon in Rome Jeremy Vandel

The Pantheon

This is one of the most iconic and indispensable monuments to visit in the Eternal City. It's one of the few Roman buildings to remain intact, encompassing centuries of history, art, culture, and sophisticated building technology.

The origin and function of this majestic monument can be deduced from the meaning of its name. In Ancient Greek, Pántheon means “temple of all the gods.” In Latin, the building is called Pantheum.

The Pantheon is located in the Pigna district, in the heart of the historic center. The temple was dedicated to all the gods of the past, present, and future. Today it’s one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the world.

History of the Roman Pantheon

The majestic appearance of the Pantheon has hardly changed in 2,000 years. The current complex was built between 118 and 125 AD by Emperor Hadrian and it largely replaced two older temples on the same site.

The first of which had been built about 150 years earlier by Marcus Vipsiano Agrippa (a Roman general, statesman, and architect) but was damaged by a fire in the year 80 AD. A second temple, built by Emperor Domitian, suffered a similar fate when it got struck by lightning in 110.

Republican period (509 - 27 BC)

The Pantheon was founded in 27 BC by Agrippa (a close friend, son-in-law, and lieutenant to Augustus) whose name is engraved on the facade. He wanted to have a temple built dedicated to all the gods. For this, he entrusted the execution to Lucio Cocceio Aucto, a famous Roman architect and engineer.

It’s said that the monument was constructed at Agrippa’s expense, on a piece of his property next to the Basilica of Neptune. The first version of the temple included a rectangular base, with a transverse cellae (the inner part of the structure), a pronaos (space in front of the cellae), and was built in marble-clad blocks facing south.

In front of the building was a circular plaza that separated the temple from the Basilica of Neptune. It was surrounded by a wall, with a floor of travertine slabs. Later, marble slabs were laid on top of this, probably during the restoration commissioned by Domitian.

Much of the information we have about this first version of the temple comes from Pliny the Elder (a Roman soldier, politician, and historian) who personally saw the structure and recorded his observations in his work Naturalis Historia.

Agrippa’s intention seems to have been to found a temple dedicated to the seven planetary deities. In particular to Mars and Venus, protectors of the Gens Iulia (an influential patrician family of ancient Rome). It also appears that he wanted to place a statue of Octavian Augustus in the temple, from whom the building would take its name.

Since Emperor Augustus didn’t agree with either proposal, Agrippa had a statue of Divus Julius (the deified Caesar) built inside and one of Octavian and one of himself in the pronaos, in memory of their friendship and commitment to the common good.

Imperial Period (27 BC - 476 AD)

After the fires of 80 and 110 AD damaged the first structure, several restoration attempts were made by Domitian and Trajan. Until the period from 120 to 124 AD, Emperor Hadrian had the Pantheon rebuilt.

It appears that the second version of the temple was the work of architect Apollodorus of Damascus. Based on the timing and characteristics of the building, it’s also possible that Trajan had already started the rebuilding. And that after his death, Hadrian resumed the work after a period of interruption. What we do know is that the temple was completed with some modifications to the original design.

The final version of the Pantheon has a circular shape and is connected to a portico of Corinthian columns (eight in the front row and two groups of four in the second and third rows), supporting a triangular pediment. Despite the reconstruction, the original inscription of the building has been preserved.

The large circular cell, known as the Rotunda, is surrounded by thick walls of masonry and eight large columns on which the weight of the characteristic concrete dome is distributed. In the semicircular dome, there is a circular opening at the top, called the Oculus, through which the interior is illuminated. The height of the building is equal to the diameter of the Rotunda, a feature that reflects the classical criteria of balanced and harmonious architecture.

Almost two millennia after its construction, the dome of the Pantheon remains one of the largest in the world and, in particular, the largest dome built in unreinforced concrete. It has a diameter of 43.3 m and is decorated inside with five orders of twenty-eight arches, decreasing in size as it increases in height.

Medieval era (476 - 1492)

The subsequent history of the temple is interesting and rich in events. After several restorations, both by Emperor Antonino Pio and at the beginning of the III century AD by Settimio Severo, the Pantheon fell into a state of abandonment.

The sharp demographic shrinkage in the Middle Ages meant that the population could only occupy a fraction of the ancient Roman cities, leaving many landscapes of ruins. This promoted the phenomenon of utilitarian reuse, which aimed to save time and manpower by using elements already worked on or buildings that still existed. The Forum Romanum, for example, then became a source of material for new buildings.

In 608, the Byzantine Emperor Foca gifted the church to Pope Boniface IV, who made it a Christian church under the name of Sancta Maria ad Martyres in 609. This is also the reason why the building has remained in continuous use and so well maintained that it’s still standing.

In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers encouraged the destruction of pagan temples. The Pantheon was transformed into a Christian church, marking the definite dominance of Christianity over pagan religions.

Renaissance (1492 - 1789)

As a holy church, the Pantheon and its surroundings must have been influenced by the will of the various popes who succeeded each other. The vicissitudes of the church in the following centuries deserve to be highlighted.

In 1600, the structure of the Pantheon was enriched with two bell towers on its façade, which were intended to give it a more ecclesiastical appearance. The towers weren’t appreciated by everyone and were soon nicknamed “donkey ears”. Eventually, they were removed in the 19th century.

In 1662 Alexander VII had some of the houses leaning against the church demolished. Clement IX in 1668 enclosed the portico with gates, which were later removed. In 1747, Benedict XIV ordered the restoration of the cellae. In the meantime, from the 15th century, the Pantheon was decorated with various paintings and busts of famous Romans, which Pius VII then had removed and transferred to the Campidoglio.

In 1625, Pope Urban VIII Barberini ordered to melt down several bronze decorations from the Pantheon. His intention was to use this material for a new canopy over the tomb of Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica. This was considered a major scandal and led to the famous statement “quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did”). Some of the bronze was also used to craft 80 cannons for the papal fortress Castel Sant’Angelo.

Another noteworthy fact is that the Pantheon was used to bury famous people from the Renaissance onward, as explained in this section. Moreover, a link between the work and the arts was established and consolidated.

This was confirmed as early as 1542 when the Congregation of the Virtuous was founded in the Pantheon. This later grew into the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, transforming the building into a kind of art gallery until the end of the 19th century.

Contemporary times (1789 - present)

Today, the Pantheon is still in use as a Roman Catholic church. In this spectacular place that exudes centuries of history, masses are held and numerous weddings are performed, among other things. You can also attend special celebrations, such as the rain of rose petals.

The Pantheon is state-owned and since December 2014 it has been managed by the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities. In 2019, it registered nearly 9 million visitors, making it the most visited Italian landmark.

In a nutshell, the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture, still can emotionally touch everyone who enters it by its grandeur, elegance, and harmony.

Elements of the Pantheon

As mentioned earlier, the Pantheon represents a majestic architectural work. Some parts have already been mentioned in the historical section of this article and will be explained in more detail below.

The foundation

The foundations of the Pantheon are made of concrete and are nearly five meters deep and about seven meters thick. Over time, they suffered damage, probably due to the swampy nature of the soil on which the complex was built.

Therefore, reinforcement rings were first installed and then other external architectural elements—not originally planned—to relieve the thrust forces.

The Rotunda

This is the core of the Pantheon, the first architectural construction of the temple in chronological terms. Its name is inevitably linked to the cylindrical shape that distinguishes it. The walls of the Rotunda are six meters thick and the height from the floor to the Oculus is 43.3 meters—just like the diameter of the Oculus.

The work is made with a concrete casting and consists of an inner and an outer wall, all supported by eight pillars. Under the latter, seven drainage arches are included in the outer wall.

The dome

The dome of the Pantheon, with a diameter of 43.3 meters, is the most impressive part of the building. Like mentioned before, it’s also the largest dome ever made of unreinforced concrete. Until 1434, it remained the largest dome in the world, until Brunelleschi’s Dome of the Florence Cathedral was built—which has a diameter of 45 meters.

The construction of the ancient Roman dome is a demonstration of the brilliance of the architects from that time, given that it’s still intact today. On the outside, the first part of the dome isn’t visible, since it’s covered by the 7 frames that support the horizontal pressure of the structure. Internally, at the same height, the curve of the structure is instead clearly visible.

When constructing the dome, it was necessary (given its large dimensions) to apply a technical solution: lightening concrete, in combination with other materials. Moreover, this technique has been used in several monuments of the imperial period such as the Basilica Maxentius and the Baths of Diocletian.

The original bronze covering of the ceiling of the dome is missing today. Pope Urban VIII had the bronze framing of the cassettes (the recessed, rectangular areas in the ceiling) in the vault, and the bronze decorations of the portico melted down. This bronze was likely used by the architect Bernini to create the canopy over the tomb of Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Oculus

A striking feature of the interior is the Oculus or “ the Demon’s Hole” of the Pantheon. The circular opening in the dome is the monument’s only source of light. In addition to lighting, the Oculus was also necessary to reduce the weight of the dome. Moreover, it was believed that through this opening the people were in closer contact with the Gods.

The Oculus has a diameter of 9 m and several legends and functions are associated with this particular part of the work, as described in more detail later in this article.

The pronaos and the portico

In front of the temple is the pronaos (space before the cellae/naos) of Greek origin, with 16 Corinthian columns supporting the tympanum (the triangular gable field between the cornice and the sloping roof moldings). In Roman times, the bronze bas-reliefs on the tympanum themed the battle between the Gods and Giants.

The portico, also in the Greek style, is 34 m high and has a frontal colonnade with 8 Corinthian columns. The tympanum, which is now empty, would have contained an emblem, such as an eagle or a gilded bronze crown that symbolized Jupiter.

Finally, the portico was constructed of white marble and decorated with reliefs showing garlands, precious objects, and candelabras.

Curiosities about the Pantheon

The Pantheon is the Roman monument that holds the most records: it has the largest dome in the history of Roman architecture and is the best-preserved of all the ancient buildings of the great empire.

Moreover, it’s the only building that to this day, after two millennia, has retained the same (religious) function for which it was built and it’s also the most copied and imitated structure of antiquity—not only in Italy.

Eclecticism

The structure of the Pantheon encloses a set of features belonging to different cultures and worlds, merged in an unexpectedly pleasant outcome. The monument exhibits elements that recall the style of ancient Greece, that of imperial Rome, and elements typical of the first Christian basilicas.

The front view, which looks much like the façade of a Greek temple, stands in unexpected contrast to the semicircular domed roof above it. Finally, the building occupies the space behind the facade in the form of a large apse.

Also noteworthy is the contrast with the obelisk that stands opposite the monument, on Rotunda Square. This Egyptian jewel adorned the Temple of Isis in Egypt in the days of Pharaoh Ramses and is 6.43 meters high.

Architectural influence

The best-preserved monument of Roman architecture has had an enormous influence on architects around the world. Numerous civil halls, universities, and libraries exhibit characteristic elements of its structure, such as the dome.

Among the famous buildings in Italy influenced by the Pantheon, we can mention the church of the monumental cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, the church of San Carlo al Corso in Milan, the basilica of San Francesco di Paola in Naples, the Cisternone in Livorno, the church of the Gran Madre di Dio, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Even abroad, stylistic traces of the monument can be found. For example, in Anglo-Saxon countries, we find the Thomas Jefferson Rotunda at the University of Virginia, the library of Columbia University in New York, and the library of the State of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. In France, on the other hand, we find Soufflot’s Pantheon in Paris.

The demon’s hole

The Oculus of the Pantheon covers several legends. For example, in the Middle Ages, it was thought to be the ancient location of the bronze pine cone that is currently in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums.

Another myth claims that it “never rains” in the Pantheon. This is because the Oculus creates an upward airflow that holds back the drops of rainwater. When it’s raining heavily outside, it appears that it’s raining less or barely at all inside. In reality, this perception is enhanced by the fact that both central and side drain holes in the floor prevent the formation of puddles.

Given the size and scope of the Oculus, it was thought that it couldn’t possibly have been built by human hands. Therefore, it’s said that the Oculus was carved by the horns of an enormous devil escaping from the temple. For this reason, it was also known as “the demon’s hole”.

On June 21 (the summer solstice), at precisely noon, the light of the sun shines through the Oculus and projects a huge disc of light onto the floor. This phenomenon symbolizes the connection between humanity and the Gods.

Also on April 21 at noon, the day when according to legend the city of Rome was founded, the sunlight falls exactly on the center of the Oculus. Because of this, the Pantheon is also called the solar or astral temple.

The immortal inscription

As mentioned in the historical section of this article, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa had his name engraved on the facade of the Pantheon. The original inscription reads “Marcus Agrippa, Lucii filius, consul tertium fecit” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built it.”

Although the monument was rebuilt under the reign of Hadrian, by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, and several changes were made, the inscription remained faithful to the original. Two thousand years later, it’s still one of the most representative elements of the Pantheon.

The planetary gods

In the Pantheon, within the wall of the Rotunda, seven niches are placed between the Corinthian columns. These differ in shape, some are circular and others rectangular, but all are evenly arranged from the center.

In the past, these niches housed the statues of the deities of the planets: Sol Invictus, Luna, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, and Mars. Over the centuries, the statues were stolen or destroyed and replaced with Christian altars and monuments.

In the fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Mémoires d’Hadrien), written by the French-Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar, the role of the Gods is described as follows “I wanted this sanctuary of all gods to represent the globe and the celestial sphere, a globe within which the seeds of eternal fire are enclosed, all contained in the hollow sphere”.

Thus the Pantheon leads us back to the theories and astronomical concepts by which the ancient Greeks and Romans interpreted celestial phenomena. Because of the vision they had of the universe and the planets, they considered each occurrence to be living personifications of the Gods.

The whole constitutes an interesting abstract of astronomy in the analysis of such theories and the parameters of comparison with modern scientific achievements in astronomical and cosmological fields. In addition, it could also reveal interesting architectural analogies in the same proportions as the grandiose and powerful monumental internal structure of the Pantheon.

Tombs

As mentioned in the historical section of this article, from the Renaissance on (as in all churches), tombs were built in the Pantheon. These belong to various important historical figures, including painters, composers, architects, etc.

One notable person buried in the monument is undoubtedly the famous painter Raffaello Sanzio, who was in charge of the works for the realization of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. He chose the Pantheon as his final resting place.

On the artist’s tomb is the famous inscription in Latin “Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori“ (Here lies Raphael, by whom Mother Nature feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die).

The first two kings of Italy

The tombs of the two first kings of Italy are also located here. The tomb of Vittorio Emanuele II (1820 - 1878) is in the central chapel on the right. On the other side of the Pantheon, you’ll find the tomb of his son, King Umberto I (1844 - 1900), and his wife Queen Margherita.

The tomb of Vittorio Emanuele III (1869 - 1947) is missing. The last king of Italy died after being exiled for supporting Mussolini’s regime and signing the racial laws nearly 80 years ago that brought doom to many Jewish families. The remains of the king and his wife were flown to Italy in late 2017, where they have been included in a family mausoleum in Vicoforte near Cuneo.

The rain of rose petals

In honor of the Feast of Pentecost, something special happens every year at the Pantheon. This is because the Mass that’s given concludes with a veritable rain of rose petals (Vigili del Fuoco), an ancient tradition that provides visitors with a unique experience.

At the end of the service, firemen reach the top of the Pantheon’s dome (43 meters high) and drop around 7 million red rose petals from the Oculus. This event (on the 50th day after Easter) used to celebrate the end of the harvest and today still symbolizes the tongues of fire that the Holy Spirit sent down on Mary and the Apostles during Pentecost.

The “red rain” has been an officially reinstated tradition since 1995, which originally first took place thousands of years ago. Besides, this tradition is not only common in Rome, although the Pantheon undoubtedly gives the most spectacular example. Pentecost, especially in central and southern Italy, is also called “Rosy Easter”.

The use of rose petals in the Roman tradition, an element that’s also used on other occasions and has great symbolic value, goes way back. During the Rosalia, for example, a Roman festival in which the deceased are honored and remembered, the Romans decorated the graves of their loved ones with rose petals, rosaries, and other flowers. In addition, food was sometimes sacrificed. The Rosalia was part of the four death celebrations called solennia sacrificia (Rosalia, Parentalia, Violaria, and the birthday of the deceased) and was usually celebrated in May.

Red rose petals were also used by early Christians in memory of the blood that Christ shed on the cross for the redemption of mankind. Thus, the origin of the Pantheon tradition partly came from the symbolic meaning of the red rose and not from the white rose that symbolizes Mary.

The legend of the magician Baialardo and the devil

Around the Pantheon is a ditch from which you can see where the street level was in Roman times. According to a medieval legend, this moat was formed curiously.

It seems that the famous magician Pietro Bailardo came into possession of the Book of Commandments, which was given to him by the devil in exchange for his soul.

Then Bailardo regretted the agreement and used his magical abilities to make a one-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem, St. James of Galicia, and finally to the Pantheon. Outside the temple, he encountered the devil who came to claim his soul and fled inside to pray for forgiveness.

The devil was furious and walked around the temple countless times waiting for Bailardo to come out again. Thus he dug the moat that is still visible today.

Useful tips for your visit

  • Visiting the Pantheon is free. You don’t need tickets and you don’t have to pay an entrance fee.
  • The monument is one of the most visited sights in the city. You can avoid the rush hours by going there before 10 o’clock in the morning. Once the maximum number of people in the Basilica is reached, access will be denied.
  • There are no time limits for visiting the church. To fully admire the work you’ll need at least half an hour to a maximum of an hour and a half.
  • Admission to the Pantheon is granted up to 15 minutes before closing time. You can check the current opening hours via this website.
  • Remember that the Pantheon is a religious place. Therefore, take into account the clothes you’re wearing (avoid bare shoulders, for example) and don’t use your cell phone.
  • To attend the tradition of the rose petal rain, it’s recommended to be there before 9:30 a.m. (one hour before Mass begins) with regard to the crowds.

Nearby places of interest

The busy Pantheon is surrounded by other attractions. Here’s a list of sights that you can visit within walking distance from the ancient temple.

Piazza Navona

This is one of the most famous monumental squares in Rome. Emperor Domitian had a large stadium built on this spot for athletic competitions, which had room for 30,000 people.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans built houses on the former tribunes. The athletics track itself remained unbuilt and evolved into a large square over the centuries. In the 17th century, Pope Innocent X gave it its current shape.

Piazza Navona is located in one of Rome’s oldest neighborhoods, 400 m west of the Pantheon (a 5-minute walk).

The Trevi Fountain

This is the largest and most famous fountain in Rome and is built against the back wall of the Palazzo Poli. It was commissioned by Pope Clement XII, designed by Bernini, and built over 50 years later in the Baroque style by the architect Nicola Salvi.

Construction of the enchanting and romantic rococo fountain began in 1732 and was inaugurated in 1762. Today, it’s a true symbol of the city and is visited by millions of tourists every year.

The Trevi Fountain is 650 m southwest of the Pantheon (an 8-minute walk).

The Imperial Forums

The Fori Imperiali consists of a series of monumental fora (public squares). They were built over a total period of 150 years, between 46 BC and 113 AD. Over the years, Caesar, Vespasian, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan contributed to its development.

The Imperial Fora were built to replace the Roman Forum after it became too small due to strong population growth and could no longer fulfill its purpose as the center of Rome.

The entrance to the Imperial Fora is 900 m southeast of the Pantheon (a 12-minute walk).

Roman Forum

This was the epicenter of social, political, religious, and cultural life in ancient Rome. It was also the heart of the empire and the ruins found here are surprisingly interesting.

No trip to the Eternal City would be complete without a visit to this majestic complex. It’s a must-see site and access is included in the Colosseum entry ticket.

The entrance to the Roman Forum is 1 km southeast of the Pantheon (a 14-minute walk).

Circus Maximus

Considered to be the largest sports stadium built by man, this archaeological area was the site of legendary entertainment activities for nearly a thousand years.

Most of the building is underground and there’s not much left to see above ground. However, through a virtual reality tour, you can discover what the circus used to look like. It’s definitely worth a visit.

The entrance to the Circus Maximus is located 1.5 km south of the Pantheon (a 20-minute walk).