The meaning and purpose
Opinions on the meaning of the Pantheon differ greatly. And yet there is consensus on a number of points. As we have already seen, the floorplan is a circle with a diameter of 43.3 meters, which is also the exact height. In addition to the circle, the cella will also fit an equilateral triangle, running from the exact centre of the entrance to the two corners of the niches. One could also draw a square in the cella. These dimensions and shapes are of course no coincidence. Cicero (De natura deorium, II, 53) wrote the following about the sphere, cube and pyramid:
“You say that a cone or a cylinder or a pyramid to your eyes is more beautiful than a globe. Let’s assume that these others shapes are more beautiful, in their appearance that is, even though I contest that. Because what could be more beautiful than the shape that comprises and encompasses all others? A shape that has no imperfections, does not offend the eye, has no sharp edges and not a single angle, projection, indentation or deviation. There are, in fact, two optimal shapes: among solid bodies this is the solid globe or ‘sphere’ (sphaira), as it’s called in Greek, and among flat shapes this is the ring or ‘circle’ (kyklos), as the Greeks would say…Don’t you understand that such a regular movement and stable order as exists in the universe, of necessity assumes a globe? These solid (heavenly) bodies are the expression of a divine intelligence: from the square to the cube, from the circle to the cylinder and from the pyramid to the cone, all of these shapes come together in the globe.”
Quoted and translated from: Henri Stierlin, Imperium Romanum Part I, Taschen, Cologne, 1996 p. 158.
From this perspective, the Pantheon is a building that represents the cosmos. Looking at the dome’s interior, you will see five rows of coffers. They were originally painted blue with gilded stars in each coffer. In Hadrian’s day people believed there were seven planets in all. These are the five rows of coffers plus the sun and moon shining through the oculus. The Pantheon, as the name suggests, is dedicated to all the gods and to the heavens.
“The dome’s coffers (inset panels) are divided into 28 sections, equaling the number of large columns below. 28 is a “perfect number” a whole number summed factors equal it (thus, 1+2+4+7+14= 28). Only four perfect numbers were known in antiquity (6, 28, 496 and 8128) and they were somtimes held -for instance, by Pythagoras and his followers – to have mystical, religious meaning in connection with the cosmos.” Quoted from: Dr. Paul A. Ranogajec, The Pantheon Khan Academy (Wikipedia: Pythagoras religion and science).
The round opening probably refers to the idea that the Athenian Plato put into words as follows:
“The blessed race of the gods moves across the heavens along splendid paths where all sorts of magnificent things can be seen. Each god performs their own task, and everyone who is willing and able can join them, because envy has no place in the cosmic choral dance. When they go to attend a festive dinner, they ride straight upward to the top of the heavenly vault (…) When they (the immortals) reach the top of the vault, they ride outward and take up position on the back of heaven. They then turn with the (heavenly) revolution and see everything that is outside the heavens. The praises of the domain above the heavenly vault have not yet been sung by any poet from down here and no one will ever properly do so.” Quoted and translated from Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’ Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 293
Platonic philosophy came back in fashion during Hadrian’s reign. Lendering believes the emperor must have been familiar with those ideas. In that case the Pantheon’s oculus would not so much be based on the octagonal domed room in Nero’s golden house, but rather on Platonic philosophy and the ‘opening in the heavenly vault’ described by Plato in Phaedrus 247.
The Pantheon becomes a church
In 608 the emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV. This pope had 38 wagons full of martyrs’ bones taken from the catacombs to the Pantheon where they were enshrined. The Pantheon was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all martyrs. As a result, the building was reasonably well maintained.
Measures under Pope Alexander VII
During the Middle Ages, the Pantheon fell victim to neglect and deliberate destructiveness. The canons had a chapter house built on the left side of the portico. After some time, all of the columns on the east side (left) of the portico had been integrated into the adjoining walls. Two columns were eventually completely dismantled and removed. Several buildings were also built on the west side of the Pantheon (the right side when standing in front of the Pantheon). Flower sellers and other venders set up their stalls in the portico. Their presence was condoned because of the fees they paid for their stalls.
Pope Alexander VII wanted to restore the Pantheon to its former lustre. He had many plans. He wanted to buy up entire blocks of houses to restore the big square in front of the Pantheon that existed in antiquity. Many of these plans came to nothing. The pope had great trouble removing the venders from the portico. In his diary, Alexander made the following entry for January 1661: “For the third time we are having the flower vendors chased away from the left column of the portico of the Santa Maria Rotonda.”
The piazza in front of the Pantheon was full of traders, artists and suppliers of every kind conducting their business. Sometimes their space was curtailed by temporary tables and market stalls, but most of the time there was a lot of bickering and sometimes even fighting over the best places in the piazza. This went on for centuries. Over the centuries, the ground level in Rome kept rising and the Pantheon kept sinking. Maarten van Heemskerck’s drawings show how the plinths of the columns have disappeared below the sand. Another drawing shows that visitors had to go down a flight of stairs to get into the Pantheon. Because of all the adjoining buildings and the steadily rising ground level of the piazza, the building no longer stood out. In 1575 a fountain was built, but not along the axis of the Pantheon, i.e. not in the middle. The obelisk, just like the one for the S. Maria sopra Minerva, had been discovered during excavations near the monastery of that church.
In 1657 the pope decreed that all buildings that had been added to the Pantheon had to be demolished to achieve ‘greater decorum’ for the building. A major ’clean-up’ of St Peter’s square was initiated at the same time.For a while the canons were successful in their attempts to prevent the demolition of their chapter house. They mounted a legal defence in which a slew of official documents and concessions were brought forward. In response, Alexander VII brought a variety of accusations against the canons. They were put under a magnifying glass, and, lo and behold, all kinds of reprehensible activities came to light. The canons rented out rooms to prostitutes and closed the doors of the Santa Maria Rotonda even before noon, which made it impossible for the venders to attend mass. Meanwhile, a commission was appointed to investigate how the canons could be reimbursed for their loss of revenue and the loss of their chapterhouse.
The improvements to the Pantheon consisted of refurbishing the portico and a reconstruction of the chapter house. The columns that had been removed were replaced by new columns and new capitals. These restorations are still clearly visible today. Both the new columns and the entablature above bear the inscriptions of the Chigis. The square near the portico was lowered so that the steps and plinths became visible once again. Venders and their stalls were restricted to an area behind the fountain.
Bernini, pope Alexander VII and the Pantheon
Because all of his grand schemes for the exterior of the Pantheon had failed, Alexander VII decided to focus on the interior. Contrary to what is often alleged in literature, the most recent insights argue that Bernini did not implement the changes to the Pantheon.
The two 17th century bell towers that were added to the Pantheon have been wrongly attributed to Bernini. Much of the available information points to Borromini and Fontana as the most likely architects. Bernini refused to make the alterations that Alexander VII had in mind. The pope wanted to close the oculus with a glass pane and decorate the coffers with all kinds of ornaments.
We know from a letter he wrote in 1672 that Bernini three times refused Alexander VII’s request to alter the Pantheon’s dome. He replied he did not have the required talent for the job. The pope’s ambitions collided with Bernini’s notion that the Pantheon could not really be improved upon. However, he did offer the pope to paint the pilasters near the attic if there was not enough money to replace them with marble ones. The fact of the matter was that Bernini did not want to mar the Pantheon’s beautiful design, there was simply no why he could improve it. Just like Michelangelo out of respect for the Pantheon deliberately designed his dome for St Peter’s just a little smaller – about 50 centimetres. As a result, the Pantheon to this day has the biggest domed room. The dome spans an interior space of 1,520 square meters with a volume of 46,000 cubic meters.
Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) commissioned Bernini to make a Baldacchino over Peter’s tomb. For a long time it was thought that Bernini used the bronze from the portico of the Pantheon for casting the four pillars of the Baldacchino. However, recent research (2008) shows that only 1.8 percent of the bronze that was destined for the twisted columns comes from the Pantheon. Even this amount of bronze was returned to the Fabbrica di San Pietro (public works Vatican). The bronze from the Pantheon is mainly used for casting guns. Bernini did not trust the alloy. (Louise Rice, “Bernini and the Pantheon Bronze,” in St. Peter in Rom 1506-2006) Beiträge der internationalen Tagung vom 22-25 February 2006 in Bonn, ed. Georg Satzinger and Sebastian Schütze, Munich 2008a, pp. 337-352 Essay is from 2008 Download pdf).
“A well-known satirical lampoon left attached to the ancient ‘speaking’ statue of Pasquino on a corner of the Piazza Navona, said: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini or ‘What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” Source: Wikipedia
Measures under Benedict XIV and Mussolini
In the 18th century, when neo-classicism came into fashion, architect Paolo Posi was commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV to redesign the second register with a series of small pilasters. Posi’s plan consisted of an unimaginative succession of niches with triangular pediments, hiding from sight the illogical transition from the ground floor to the dome.
Bernini had always strongly opposed this sort of idea. In 1925, under Mussolini’s reign, tears in the coffers were restored and finally, by 1932, a small portion of the attic was restored to its original condition.
Raphael and the opening of his grave
Before we go outside, we will take a look at Raphael’s grave (in the niche between the second and third chapel on the left) who lies buried here between many other artists and two kings. Raphael’s friend Cardinal Bembo wrote the following epitaph: Ille hic est Raphael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori, or ‘Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.
“Raphael’s bust is located left above the grave in a niche. To the right is a gravestone for Maria Bibbiena (with one B on the stone), the person Raphael was set to marry. She was a cousin of cardinal Bibbiena [Raphael], one of Raphael’s patrons. The niche that was supposed to house her statue stayed empty. She passed away three months before the planned wedding. Incidentally, in the Accademia di San Luca, not far from the Trevi Fountain, a skull was worshipped for a long time under the assumption it was Raphael’s. This skull was donated to the president of the Accademia by the painter Carlo Maratta (1615-1713). The precious gift was gratefully accepted and even led to an official celebration. When the artist’s grave was opened in 1833, it became clear that Raphael’s skeleton in the Pantheon was complete. Goethe even visited to admire Raphael’s supposed skull and used his connections to get a replica of it, much to his satisfaction.” Cited and translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘SPQR Anekdotisch reisgids voor Rome’ Rainbow, Amsterdam 2019 pp. 123 – 124
The skull of Raffaelle
“Is preserved as an object of great veneration in the Academy of St. Luke, which the students visit as if in the hope of being inspired with similar talents; and it is wonderful that, admiring him so much, modern painters should so little resemble him. Either they do not wish to imitate him, or do not know how to do so. Those who duly appreciate his merits have attempted it, and been successful Mengs [Self-portrait 1728 – 1779] is an example of this observation.” Source
“The Renaissance artist Raphael was a cult figure in the 19th century, and some uncertainty as to where the famous painter was really buried led to the opening of his assumed tomb in the Pantheon on 14 September 1833. 75 distinguished figures had been invited. There were representatives of art, the Church, the City of Rome and, most important of all, medicine, who acted as judges. Thorvaldsen (THE MET) was naturally among the artists, the figure with the white hair behind the seated papal representative, Cardinal Vicario Zurla. As emerges from the painting, the tomb turned out to contain a skeleton, and it was determined by those present that these really were Raphael’s earthly remains.”