Hadrian's Rome
Hadrian's Rome

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Hadrian's Rome

2.1 Introducing the Pantheon

Some of the monuments associated with Hadrian pre-date him, while others belong to a later period, and most were restored by multiple emperors. The most iconic of these monuments is the Pantheon (Figure 2).

Described image
Figure 2 The Pantheon, Rome, 126 CE. Photo: Ullstein Bild – CHROMORANGE/TipsImages/Guido.

The Pantheon survives due to its novel architectural design and because it was transformed into the Church of St Mary of the Martyrs in 608 CE. You might assume that such a well-preserved building is well understood, but the Pantheon illustrates the point that while many of Rome’s ancient monuments survive – in this case, almost intact – there is much we don’t know about their construction, chronology, meaning and purpose.

Activity 4

Listen to the audio recording ‘The Pantheon’, in which Mark Wilson Jones discusses the disputed aspects of the Pantheon: its date, phasing and design coherence, and look at the accompanying images.

As you listen to the audio recording, make some notes in answer to the following questions:

  1. What do we still not know about the Pantheon? Does it surprise you that a standing monument such as this one is not fully understood?
  2. How was the Pantheon constructed? What was novel about its design and construction? How does Wilson Jones explain the architectural incongruities?
  3. What debates are there about the meaning and purpose of the Pantheon?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: The Pantheon
Skip transcript: The Pantheon

Transcript: The Pantheon

Eleanor Betts
Hello, I’m Eleanor Betts, lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University and a member of the A340 module team.
Visitors to Rome still flock here to the Pantheon, one of the city’s most iconic buildings, completed by the emperor Hadrian in 125 CE and converted into a church in 608. It is remarkable for its architecture, which was unparalleled until the Renaissance. And until 1958 its domed roof was the largest concrete span in the world.
Standing here inside the building, despite the crowds, the most striking aspect I can see is the hole, or oculus, in the coffered dome. This opening, 30 Roman feet across, lets in sunlight, moonlight, rain and the birds. The circular oculus makes sunlight cast a beam, like a floodlight, on the wall, and, like a floodlight, this beam moves around the interior, whereabouts it does that depends on the season and the time of day. The coffering now has been stripped of its bronze gilt, but a Roman visitor would have been dazzled by the reflected light and this would have allowed them to see the multi-coloured marbles on the walls and the floor. Most of the marble we can see here today has been replaced since the second century, but we get a flavour of the Hadrianic Pantheon and what it would have looked like, with its surfaces covered in yellow and white, grey and green, red and purple stone. And its floor patterned with alternating circles and squares. And all this brought from the furthest reaches of the empire, from Turkey, Tunisia, from Greece and Egypt. We also get a great sense of the sounds: the circular space is great for acoustics.
If we go outside, we find that the structure of the Pantheon is incredibly complex. If I walk out into the porch, between the Egyptian granite columns which are each 40 Roman feet high, I need to go across the piazza to get a good view of the exterior. The Pantheon is essentially made up of a circular drum (the rotunda), with its amazing roof, and a porch with the appearance of a traditional Roman temple. The section which joins these two architectural features looks a bit strange, as if it’s there to join the two parts which don’t quite fit together. I think the architects had some fun with this building! From one angle the low profile but massive 150 Roman Feet dome and rotunda dominate the square, but from another angle, all I can see is the porch, which looks like the entrance to a traditional, rectangular, Roman temple. The triangular pediment of the porch is emblazoned with a Latin inscription, M. (for Marcus) AGRIPPA. L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul 3 times, made this). But we know the building is Hadrianic, but that inscription tells us that it was built to replace the Pantheon built by Agrippa, the emperor Augustus’ right-hand man. This is not the only unusual feature. If we look closely at the porch, the proportions seem all wrong – it’s too low.
To find out more about these peculiarities, I’m going to go and talk to Mark Wilson Jones, who has devoted much of his career to studying the Pantheon.
So, Mark, my first question that I’d like to ask you is what was it that first interested you in the Pantheon?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well the pantheon is one of those buildings that compels architects. I was a young architect in Rome and you go round you see lots of monuments, but you just get drawn back to the Pantheon time and again. It’s a kind of magnet, you get a buzz in the building and you basically feel good and I think that’s an essential part of it.
There’s also, it’s been a favourite building of so many architects. Whether you take it back in time to the Renaissance, so at the top of their shopping lists if you like. And then even an architect like Louis Khan in the twentieth century would be inspired by the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a kind of ancestor for so many progeny, so many different periods, that you get mini pantheons here and there all over the world. So even if you haven’t seen it before, you have this sense of déjà vu when you approach it. So it kind of feels like an old friend. It’s got so many wonderful spatial qualities, particularly the interior. When you watch people inside, they go in and they hang around. They move around, they’re just fascinated and they take quite a long time before they come out.
Eleanor Betts
OK, so I would have thought we knew everything there was to know about a standing building like the Pantheon? Is that the case?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well I call the building an enigma, because it really is. It poses as many riddles as it answers and it has strange features. You read such a thing as the inscription on the front says effectively Agrippa did this, only he didn’t, at least he didn’t do the actual building. And you just start from there and you get a whole series of puzzles: it’s not like a temple but it is like a temple in some ways; it’s visually wonderful in parts and others it’s a bit curious, if not to say maybe flawed. So it poses the whole range of questions.
Eleanor Betts
The building we see today is usually referred to as the Hadrianic pantheon, because we know it was completed by Hadrian. But as you’ve just said with the inscriptions, so there’s a mismatch here. So what evidence have you found that the phasing is more complicated?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well, it’s a controversy as well because they only discovered that the building was built in the imperial period in the late nineteenth century. So you have that name Agrippa there on the front to contend with. And then the bricks were originally attributed to the time of Hadrian and then there’s a big grand specialist block in the twentieth century who realised some of the bricks were from the reign of Trajan, but he still liked the idea of Hadrian building it, so he rationalised that by thinking that they were stockpiled, these bricks were stockpiled. And then recent reappraisals show that actually most of the bricks that we can definitely identify in terms of date, often to within an exact year, are in fact Trajanic. So it suggests yes that Hadrian completed the building but he wasn’t the mastermind behind the project.
Eleanor Betts
OK, so tell me a little bit more about that. So, maybe what was Trajan’s involvement?
Mark Wilson Jones
We can never be too precise who does what. But we do know the building burnt down in 110. So that’s the previous manifestation either built by Agrippa, possibly remodelled by Domitian. But anyway we have the pre-existing building burning down in 110 AD. So then there’s presumably some gap while they clear the site and devise the new project and building gets underway, we presume about 113, 114, that’s the current working assumption and then we have Hadrian only say 3, 4 years later after it started coming to power. And at that point you may have various problems we can identify in terms of physical structure may coincide with this transition. And then Hadrian of course invests a lot of energy behind the building: it’s the grandest interior ever built. I think we can imagine major festivals, events, carried out at the Pantheon with Hadrian there.
Eleanor Betts
OK, great, so let’s think a little bit more then about the architecture. So can you tell me a little bit more about the way the porch in the rotunda fit together and why do you think there’s a bit of a mismatch between these two parts of the building?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well when you approach the Pantheon, especially if you say come from the other side of the portico, the rotunda is vast, it’s absolutely huge. And when you come that way, the portico is strangely small. Of course if you come straight into the portico and you look up at it, the columns are huge and so on. It’s when you get a distance, it’s when you can go away from a perspective view or from the roof level or from in the air you see that actually the portico is rather small. And it’s surprisingly small given the grandeur of the interior. But then it’s particularly the junction that’s problematic, you get these elements if you like crashing together, colliding. You could think of the junction as a dog’s breakfast: it looks improvised, it looks casual, it doesn’t look deliberate.
Eleanor Betts
So why do you think that is?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well, I think it’s interesting to start with other people’s opinions like Michelangelo, people like that. They thought that the building couldn’t have been built in one go. And he had the theory that the lower part of the interior was built by an architect that was as good as an angel, then there was a second architect, and then a third who added the portico. So this kind of idea that there are different parts of the building and to make sense of that in your own mind you can imagine these different phases. And the idea of phases has been used time and time again to explain it. But the problem is that when it got to the late nineteenth century and the building could be shown by the study of the brick stamps and then the foundations as well, that it was all built in one go, then people were stuck and there’s a kind of crisis. People come up with strange explanations: oh well, the Romans didn’t really worry about neatness in our sense, they weren’t so academic their architects, or that perhaps even Hadrian, he designed it and he wasn’t so good as an architect, he wasn’t a full-time architect. Or you get ideas like the portico was a Greek concept and the rotunda is a Roman concept, therefore they’re difficult to combine and this is the result we get. There are various explanations like that.
Eleanor Betts
So what’s your own view?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well I came to this just as a young architect with a curious mind looking at the building, and I thought it looked really kind of odd without knowing all these things that I now know. So I would just ask well-informed friends – art historians and so on – what’s the explanation? And then you read Fasar, you learn about Michelangelo’s opinion, you come across people like Fontana or these other great names down the centuries and in a sense you kind of grapple with their interpretations. But fundamentally I just couldn’t believe that it was meant to be as it was. It didn’t strike me as possible that the building was actually intended to be like this. So as an architect, we know that things can go wrong on building sites for whatever reason. There can be legion, of a very disparate nature. Quite often buildings are not the same as the plans were originally devised: something happens, something maybe goes wrong, people change their minds, and I kind of had the intuition that it was something like that that lay behind these things, because to repeat it’s not built in phases, it’s all built in one go, but it still looks somewhat weird.
Eleanor Betts
So what is it that’s going wrong there?
Mark Wilson Jones
Really the problem is with the height of the portico. And if it were simply bigger and taller – taller being the key point – it would then sort of fit the rotunda, both in terms of general scale but also in terms of particular details. And there’s various technical details, that when you look at them, such as strange capitals that are asymmetric and if you like lopsided that would simply not have existed in the original building with a taller portico. Now the columns are in three parts: bases, shafts and capitals. The critical thing are the shafts, they’re monoliths, those of the present building are 40 foot tall, they come from Egypt, they weigh 50 tonnes, there’s 16 of them: that’s extremely impressive in its own right. However, what we have to imagine is that they wanted 50-foot shafts, they would have weighed 100 tonnes each and they’re still coming from Egypt presumably. So that’s an enormous feat of building which the Romans could do because a few other 50-foot shafts did arrive in Rome from the same granite. So we can imagine that they could do it, they wanted to do it also for the Pantheon, and something went wrong with that plan.
Eleanor Betts
That’s fairly understandable, I mean carving those columns and transporting them must be a really feat of engineering and transportation.
Mark Wilson Jones
It is an incredible feat. It’s almost unimaginable. In terms of building today, people get extremely exercised about weights of 2 tonnes, 5 tonnes – 20 tonnes is a very big deal. So we’re talking originally they would have wanted each piece, 100 tonnes, had to be moved to the Nile, from one quarry that’s over 70 km away, transferring to the Nile barges, shipping down to Alexandria, and then they need to be moved onto sea-going vessels, shipped to the port of Rome, and then the same process inverted so to speak, in reverse, to then get the columns up the Tiber, dock them near the Mausoleum of Augustus and then erect them. It’s an extraordinary business.
Eleanor Betts
It must have been quite a spectacle as well?
Mark Wilson Jones
I think it’s one of the ways that the Romans demonstrated the power they had, their dominion over the world, it’s part of the demonstration of their balls and bravado.
Eleanor Betts
So something then went wrong, but even so we’ve still got 40 foot tall columns. It’s still going to impress the people of Rome. OK, so is there anything else you want to say about the portico and the rotunda?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well, there’s still lots of things to learn. I’d love to know how the dome was built: whether you had centring, whether you didn’t. The dome strikes you immediately because it has this oculus at the centre, no other source of light, so that gives it this mystical, transcendental quality: you only see the clouds through it or the moon and the stars. You get no views of normal things, so it’s got this inevitable cosmic reverberation about it. And the light changes throughout the course of the day. So that is a large secret of the presence it has, of the compelling quality. And then there’s the size, because it’s almost a span of 44 metres – that was not far short of 150 Roman feet – and that’s done with unreinforced concrete, so there’s no metal there as there would be in modern concrete. It is a triumph of engineering. There’s the grading of materials that’s very significant, the rotunda is 20 foot thick, but it’s not all built solid: there’s these chambers inside that serve to lighten the amount of the sheer weight of the building and allow the concrete to go off. There’s all kinds of ingenious technical devices that allow this apparently very simple structure to actually stand.
Eleanor Betts
Amazing. So what do you think the Pantheon was actually for?
Mark Wilson Jones
The purpose of the Pantheon is one of these puzzles. We don’t really know: we don’t know if it’s a temple, it has many temple-like qualities. There’s a text that implies that the building was to have been a temple for Augustus but Augustus declined the offer. This shows you, you are dealing with a very tricky edge between divinity and mortality, that the building was, if you like, negotiating. So on the one hand, it’s got temple-like features, particularly the pediment at the front, that sort of announces a temple. But it has a very strange inscription not like other temples and it has this great round hall not like other temples, because the gods generally did not share the same interior. So many things that are not, if you like, standard.
Eleanor Betts
So a normal temple would just be dedicated to one god, rather than all the gods?
Mark Wilson Jones
Yes a normal temple, one god, there’s the Venus and Rome, two gods, there’s the Capitoline Triate, three gods, but the Temple to the Capitoline Triate is three separate spaces, and they are usually rectangular so the circular concept goes back to Hellenistic models where effectively what they’re doing is they’re putting the ruler and perhaps members of his family and associates in the company of the gods. So the divine qualities of the gods are rubbing off on these mortal figures, especially in the context of Rome. They don’t actually want to claim immortality and divinity for Augustus in his own lifetime, but he’s going to become divine when he dies. The axis of the Pantheon points at the Mausoleum of Augustus, so there’s all this implicit negotiation on the edge of what is acceptable.
Eleanor Betts
And so how does the Pantheon fit in with the rest of the architectural landscape of the Campus Martius?
Mark Wilson Jones
What’s important to realise here is that the Pantheon isn’t born in the centre of Rome as we would think of it. The Campus Martius was the field of war, military exercises and it was marshy. It’s surrounded by the Tiber and it wasn’t until it was drained in the first century BC that you start getting it populated by buildings. They tend to be freestanding complexes that were clearly designed and set out and often symmetrical in character, quite different to what was happening in the rest of the city. So you have these grand complexes and a particularly important part is that in terms of where its location is: this was the land that belonged to Agrippa, so Agrippa is Augustus’ right-hand man, so you have this kind of union there and then it’s pointing to the Mausoleum of Augustus. And there’s other particular features of this, is that we, that the spot that the Pantheon rises on might be that, that you can identify with the Paras Caprae, so that’s the marsh of goats and this is the spot where according to legend – or one legend, there were others – this was the spot where Romulus had his apotheosis, so he rose to the heavens and became to god Cronus. So possibly Agrippa and Augustus, and I think we must see this as a combined venture, so Agrippa nominally the patron is grasping for Augustus, an identification with Romulus. So this is another aspect that sort of important for the site itself.
Eleanor Betts
In which case we see maybe Trajan and/or Hadrian then sort of emulating that, trying to piggyback on that Aggripan-Augustan reference back to the foundation myths?
Mark Wilson Jones
Yes, I think that the Pantheon, it starts off let’s say as a dynastic statement for Augustus and then also Agrippa who becomes united in the family through marriage, in effect. So it starts off as a dynastic statement but then with the passage of successive emperors it becomes a more general celebration of empire. So as people come along and you’re building up the inheritance, so naturally Trajan would want to consolidate that, Hadrian too, and then successive emperors. So it becomes a natural thing to sort of join the club.
Eleanor Betts
So OK, one final question. Is there anything else then that you still want to know about the Pantheon?
Mark Wilson Jones
Well I would love to know how it was built. I’d love to know what the original bronze roof of the portico looked like because that was only dismantled in 1628 – a total cultural disaster that there existed a bronze roof with vaulted ceilings in the portico and it came down until 1628 and it was dismantled to make a cannon would you believe. So I’d love to know that, we never will know the details, and I’d love to know the relationship with the Pantheon and Agrippa and ideally get into the spaces underneath the Pantheon floor, try and work out things about the junctions. I dream of anyone investigating the Pantheon would start drilling into bits of the fabric where you could to get core samples and be able to dissect it and work out certain things that would refine the story. It would be lovely to have an anatomy exercise and take it apart but of a course we can’t, it is after all a church and the tomb of kings and great artists including Raphael and so on.
Eleanor Betts
So there is still plenty that we could learn about this standing and amazing building.
Mark Wilson Jones
There’s still more it can teach us.
Eleanor Betts
Well thank you very much Mark, thanks for talking to me today, it’s been very interesting.
Mark Wilson Jones
It’s been a pleasure.
End transcript: The Pantheon
The Pantheon
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Figure 3 The Pantheon, Rome. Photo: Mark Wilson Jones.

   

Figure 4 The Pantheon, cut-away view. Created by Robert Grover for Mark Wilson Jones.

   

Figure 5 Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, c.1734, oil on canvas, 128 × 99 cm, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.24, courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C..

   

Figure 6 Internal view of the Pantheon. Photo: © Penelope Davies.

   

Figure 7 Two level plan of the Pantheon. From MacDonald (1982).

   

Figure 8 Drawing showing the system of piers and relieving arches built into the rotunda wall. ‘M’ indicates the major system connecting the piers, and ‘m’ indicates the minor system within the piers. Drawing by Lynne Lancaster.

   

Figure 9 A drawing showing Pantheon brick stamps. 1–4 are from the Pantheon; 5 and 6 are from Hadrian’s Villa. From: De Fine Licht (1968).

   

Figure 10 Front designs of the Pantheon. Drawing by Mark Wilson Jones.

   

Figure 11 Comparison of the hypothetical original project for the Pantheon (left) and the building as executed (right). Drawing by Mark Wilson Jones.

Discussion

  1. The Pantheon as we see it today has inspired architects for almost the last 2,000 years. It is a well-studied monument, and yet we don’t know what the building was used for, why its structure lacks architectural cohesion, or who designed and built it. The inscription tells us it was built by Agrippa, but brick stamps date it to Trajan and Hadrian. Wilson Jones explains how the material evidence, both architectural and archaeological, has been interpreted and reinterpreted since the nineteenth century. The monument that stands today replaced one which burned down in 110 CE and may be the second or third Pantheon to have been built on the site.
  2. The Pantheon is often referred to as a temple to all the Roman gods (‘pantheon’ derives from the ancient Greek for ‘all the gods’) and certain features are suggestive of temple architecture, such as the pediment on the portico. But it also has unusual features, such as the unsupported domed roof with its oculus, which gives a particular perspective not found in other Roman buildings. Wilson Jones also discusses the possibility that the Pantheon may have been planned as a temple to Augustus, and he explores the relationship the building has with the other Augustan monuments in the Campus Martius.
  3. Debates about the architectural incongruities, phasing, meaning and purpose of the Pantheon continue. How convincing did you find the arguments put forward by Wilson Jones? Perhaps listen again to the recording and note what evidence he uses to construct and support his ideas.

You may have been more convinced by some hypotheses and arguments than by others. There are no right or wrong answers here, as long as your point of view is supported by evidence from the various types of primary sources we have for the Pantheon. If you are interested in pursuing some of the academic arguments presented in the audio recording, you will find suggestions in the list of further reading associated with this course.

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