History, Structure, and Architectural Aspects of the Pantheon

The Pantheon The Pantheon in Rome is the best-preserved Roman architectural structure on earth. It has survived twenty centuries of pillage and invasion, and continues to withstand the pollution of everyday locals and tourists. Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of the first Roman emperor Augustus, first built the Pantheon in 27-25 BCE to commemorate the victory of Actium over Antony and Cleopatra. However, after a fire destroyed the original in 80 CE, it was rebuilt by Domitian, only to be replaced circa 118-128 CE by emperor Hadrian.

This paper will explore the history of the Pantheon, its structure, and many of its architectural aspects. When emperor Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon, it was dedicated as a temple for all the gods of Ancient Rome. The temple was later maintained and refurbished by emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla between 193-217 CE. Throughout the two centuries in which the Pantheon was functioning as a temple to the gods, rituals such as animal sacrifice were common. Animals would be sacrificed in the middle of the rotunda, and then burned, with the smoke escaping through the oculus above.

The Pantheon became abandoned for sometime after Christianity replaced paganism in Rome, and was put into use again after a decree in 408 CE stated temples were to be reopened and used for secular purposes. After officially being reopened in 609 CE after Byzantine emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface IV, it was consecrated as a Christian church. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs, which is how it got the name Santa Maria ad Martyres. The structure of the Pantheon is quite unique. It is made up of three main parts, the entrance portico, the circular domed rotunda, and a connection between these two.

The portico consists of 16 massive granite Corinthian order columns, each weighing 60 tons, which support a pediment at the top. The main entrance into the rotunda is through double bronze doors 21 feet high that were once covered with gold. The dome is made entirely of concrete, without the use of reinforcements, and was constructed in a way that its width is exactly equal to that of its height from the floor to the top, which is 142 feet. To this day, the Pantheon holds the world record for the largest un-reinforced concrete dome.

The interior of the dome is laced with coffers, or sunken panels, which were probably garnished with bronze stars or rosettes suggesting the heavens above. Coffers were not only pleasing to the eye, but they also took excess weight off the dome. The walls of the dome get thinner as they approach the round opening at the top, called the oculus. The oculus is the only natural light source in the Pantheon, and it measures 27 feet in diameter. One might wonder what happened when it rained. The problem of flooding was solved with the gentle sloping of the marble floor to allow for drainage.

The walls on the inside of the rotunda contain many cavities and niches on various levels. The niches have an archway of bricks over them to support the upper wall over their openings. There are seven major niches that are home to paintings, sculptures, and statues of the Virgin Mary and various saints. Also present are royal tombs including those of King Umberto I and Italian artist Raphael. The architectural genius of the Pantheon was not only remarkable for its time, but its design also influenced European and American architects from the Renaissance through the 19th century.

Before constructing the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, artist Michelangelo studied the dome of the Pantheon. Other buildings that were influenced by the design of the Pantheon include the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, and the British Museum Reading Room. There is an overwhelming sense of permanence and supremacy in the structural design of the Pantheon. It is no wonder why the Pantheon is praised for its architectural feats, and why it remains a constant symbol of strength and beauty.

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