The Timeless Masterpiece
by Nicole Ann R. Male
Time has been the witness of the grandeur and glory of that one enduring building in Rome that mirrors the greatness of the Roman civilization. Seemingly undaunted by destruction and change, the whole structure still rises today on Piazza della Rotonda, bestowing upon the place the true feel of the Roman classic. This architectural marvel that has mystified many and has proven the richness of the civilization which built it is the one called the Pantheon.
Back in time, there has been a different Pantheon built on the very site on where the present structure is standing. Originally built by Emperor Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, the building was rectilinear and T-shaped. However, a great fire during the 80 Ad burned it down. Emperor Domitian rebuilt it but the misfortune of the first had been replayed in history. The reconstruction was struck by lightning and burned again in 110 AD.
The misfortunes of the first Pantheons had given rise to the existence of what is now the Pantheon known to men. The true identities of the architects of this structure may still have been debated but one thing is for sure, that Hadrian, the emperor who had, in his power, materialized this structure, had a strong involvement in its conception. It is of importance to note that Hadrian had a fascination with the Greek and Roman cultures and that this fascination influenced his taste and choices.
The design of the Pantheon is undoubtedly original and a mixture of the Greek and Roman cultures, it means that it is truly Hadrian. The influence of the classical styles of ancient Greece on Roman architecture can be seen on its porticos with sixteen Corinthian columns supporting the pediment. Then before entering the main hall, which is linked to the portico by the rectangular transitional block, a huge towering bronze door greets. The door then opens up to the rotunda, which would create a perfect sphere since the height of the vault to the top of its dome matches its diameter: 142 feet. The rotunda makes up the supporting drum for the rounded vault or the copula which features a coffered ceiling containing bronze star ornaments during the time of Hadrian and an opening called an oculus which is the only source of light for the whole interior. These features are true Roman innovations and thus testifying to how Roman the Pantheon is.
Along with the standing structure is the mystery that added to the impressiveness of the already magnificent Pantheon. The question of how the dome was built and how this building withstood the test of time baffled engineers and architects of the present times. Considering the technology present during that period, the construction of this kind of structure entailed too much effort but that did not discourage the Romans. In fact, the sixteen gray granite columns used for the portico were quarried from Egypt and transported to Rome just for this project. For the structure itself, the Romans mainly used the pozzolana cement- the kind of cement that they discovered they could make by mixing lime and a volcanic product found at Pozzuoli Italy. The ingenuity of these people can be further seen at building of the unreinforced dome which they constructed in tapering steps that are thickest at the base and thinnest at the oculus. The Romans use mostly basalt at the bottom and lighter materials at the top such as pumice. Also, they embedded clay jugs to the upper part of the dome to further lighten it.
Now, the wonder of the Pantheon does not just end with its grand features or construction techniques because behind all of those is the motive why it was built and the underlying meaning of the new design. Hadrian had this desire to prove that the imperial order was part of the divine order and thus he envisioned a Parthenon which would proclaim that imperial institution rather than individual dynasties just like how Agrippa envisioned it to be. Hadrian also believed that the gods got mad on Agrippa’s placement of Augustus beside the statues of the deities that’s why the first two Parthenon were burned down. Hadrian’s desire to bring back the gods to their side was also one of the reasons why he rebuilt the Pantheon. This new Pantheon is also filled with symbolisms, all of which relates to the gods. The dome symbolizes the heaven and the oculus at its center, the only light source of the interior, recalls the sun, the light giving body at the center of the universe.
Today, the Pantheon still stands not as an honor to the gods of the ancient Romans but as a church consecrated by Pope Boniface IV and dedicated to Mary and the Martyr Saints in 609. The consecration was perhaps another secret why the Pantheon endured.
The great Michelangelo once remarked that the Pantheon is one that is heavenly and not built by human hands. Truly, this great timeless masterpiece of the Roman civilization had lived to that.