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Architecture of the Pantheon
The Pantheon fuses the architectural, religious and technical inheritance of the Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures. The version we see today was built around 123AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian possibly following his own ideas and plans.
Other buildings built by Hadrian, such as the temple to Venus and Rome or Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, show us that this kind of eclectic mix wasn’t unusual for the architect-philosopher-traveler Emperor. The whole interior of the Pantheon’s architecture, with the sphere at the heart of its design, echoes and re-echoes the perfection of the heavens.
What was regarded as the geometric perfection of the heavens was reflected in the building and in its self-similar use of geometry and proportions. This sort of philosophical notion regarding the universe’s nature, particularly that of a spherical universe is clearly more Greek in nature than it is Roman. The portico and pediment are also of Greek influence. Similarly, the thicket of columns leading into the temple is reminiscent of the hypostyle or “Hall of Columns” found in Egyptian temples. It has the effect of drawing the eyes up whilst making one feel small in relation to what lays beyond. The great bronze doors enhance that feeling.
The Egyptian comparison can be extended to the pyramids which were built and oriented according to cosmic dimensions with the purpose of taking the Pharaoh’s spirit up to the heavens. With the Pantheon, Hadrian fused the propaganda machine of Emperor Augustus with his own conception of architectural perfection. He created a building which in the same ideology of the Pyramids was intended to act as a crucible of divine, heavenly and imperial powers. Rather than taking the Emperor up to the heavens, the Pantheon used the Roman arch and dome to bring the heavens down to earth.
As a quick aside, this inside-out trick isn’t unique in Roman architecture: it repeats itself at the end of the Empire when the very Roman Triumphal Arch is brought inside the public basilica by the Christians in order to symbolize the Lord’s triumph over earthly life and death.
As buildings go, the Pantheon certainly gets extremely close to classical perfection, or in fact, establishes a landmark of classical perfection. Its achievements have been copied and grafted by many of the Western world’s greatest architects, making it a cornerstone of Western architecture. For over a thousand-two-hundred years, until Brunelleschi’s dome on the Florence Duomo (42.2m diameter), the Pantheon was the largest dome in the world (43.3m diam) and then went on to remain the largest single-span dome until the second half of the XXth Century when reinforced cement allowed construction of the Rond-Point dome at la Defense in Paris!
During the Renaissance, whilst Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon’s great dome, Michelangelo took inspiration for St. Peter’s façade. Michelangelo described the Pantheon as one of the greatest achievements of architecture, built by angels rather than men. Buildings such as the Pantheon in Paris (21m), Les Invalides in Paris (27.6m), St. Paul’s in London (30.8m) and even the White House in the US are in one way or another progeny of the Pantheon in Rome. The clever decoration on the interior of the dome aimed at making it lighter as well as providing a sober tromp-l’oeil effect has become such a common architectural device that it is quite divorced from the original.
If you wanted to take a dig or two you might complain about the angle of the pediment which seems a little steep. Also, the hypostyle (the colonnade which holds the portico up) gives you the sensation of being lost in a thicket. Perhaps the two effects are related and the wonderful Corinthian styled monolithic columns couldn’t quite make the height required, meaning that a shorter set had to be accepted hence forcing the pediment to be higher? Dunno. Perhaps Hadrian wanted to make the pediment look a little more like a Pyramid… Perhaps.
The bronze work which decorated the pediment has been long lost and if it were still there it might re-establish some sense of proportion, (or make it feel even more top-heavy!) It seems that the decoration, at least in part, included an eagle flying up to the heavens symbolising the “apotheosis” of the emperor Augustus.