The Influencial Architecture of the Pantheon in Rome

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History of the Pantheon in Rome

Pediment of the Pantheon, Rome, Italy
Pediment of the Pantheon, Rome, Italy. Photo by Cultura RM/Franck Sauvaire/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images (crop)

The Pantheon in Rome was not built in a day. Twice destroyed and twice rebuilt, Rome's famous "Temple of All the Gods" began as a rectangular structure. Over the course of a century, this original Pantheon evolved into a domed building, so famous that it has been inspiring architects since before the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists and historians debate which emperor and which architects designed the Pantheon we see today. In 27 BC, Marcus Agrippa, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, commissioned a rectangular Pantheon building. Agrippa's Pantheon burned down in 80 AD. All that remains is the front portico, with this inscription:

M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT

In Latin, fecit means "he made," so Marcus Agrippa is forever associated with the Parthenon's design and construction. Titus Flavius Domitianus, (or, simply Domitian) became Rome's Emperor and rebuilt Agrippa's work, but it, too burned down in about 110 AD.

Then, in 126 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian completely rebuilt the Pantheon into the Roman architectural icon we know today. This Roman Pantheon survived many centuries and wars. The Pantheon remains the best-preserved building in Rome.

Pantheon or Parthenon?

The Pantheon in Rome, Italy should not be confused with the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Although both were originally temples to gods, the Greek Parthenon temple, atop the Acropolis, was built hundreds of years before the Roman temple.

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From Temple to Church

Floor plan of the Pantheon as an Ancient Roman Temple
Floor plan of the Pantheon as an Ancient Roman Temple. Photo by Kean Collection/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

The Roman Pantheon was originally built as a temple for all the gods. Pan is Greek for "all" or "every" (e.g., Pan-American), and theos is Greek for "god" (e.g., theology).

After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD established religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire, the city of Rome became the center of the Christian world. By the 7th century, the Pantheon had become St. Mary of the Martyrs, a Christian church.

A row of niches lines the rear walls of the Pantheon portico and around the perimeter of the dome room. These niches may have held sculptures of pagen gods, Roman emperors, or Christian saints.

The Parthenon was never early Christian architecture, yet the structure was in the hands of the reigning Pope. Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) pilfered precious metals from the structure, and in return added two bell towers, which were removed in 1833.

 

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The Amazing Dome at the Roman Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.
Sunlight shining through an oculus illuminates the interior of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. Photo by Mats Silvan/Moment Open/Getty Images

The Ancient Romans were skilled at concrete construction. When they built the Pantheon around 125 AD, the skilled builders of Rome applied advanced engineering to the Greek classical orders. They gave their Pantheon massive 25-foot thick walls to support a huge dome made of solid concrete. As the height of the dome rises, the concrete was mixed with lighter and lighter stone material; the top is largely pumice. With a diameter that measures 43.4 meters, the dome of the Roman Pantheon ranks as the world's largest dome made of unreinforced solid concrete.

The ceiling of the Pantheon dome has five symmetrical rows of 28 coffers (sunken panels) and a round oculus (opening) at the center. Sunlight streaming through the oculus illuminates the Pantheon rotunda. The coffered ceiling and oculus were not only decorative, but lessened the weight load of the roof. The oculus is open to the elements, as rainwater enters into the dome room and drains through the floor openings.

The geometry of the dome and the oculus sunlight moving throughout the interior walls have inspired authors, filmmakers, and architects. It was this domed ceiling most of all that influenced a young Thomas Jefferson, who brought the architectural idea to the new country in America.

Film Locations:

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Architecture Inspired by Rome's Pantheon

Piazza della Rotonda with 18th century fountain, Fontana del Pantheon, and the Pantheon
Piazza della Rotonda with 18th century fountain, Fontana del Pantheon, and the Pantheon. Photo by J.Castro/Moment Mobile Collection/Getty Images

The Pantheon portico is a symmetrical, classical design with three rows of Corinthian columns—8 in the front and two rows of 4—topped by a triangular pediment. The granite and marble columns were imported from Egypt, a land that was part of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Pantheon with its classical portico and domed roof became a model that influenced Western architecture for 2,000 years. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was one of the first architects to adapt the ancient design that we now call Classical. Palladio's 16th century Villa Almerico-Capra near Vicenza, Italy is considered Neoclassical, because its elements—dome, columns, pediments—are taken from Greek and Roman architecture.

Why should you know about the Pantheon in Rome? This one building from the 2nd century continues to influence the architecture we use. Famous buildings modeled after the Pantheon in Rome include:

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Learn More About the Pantheon

Tourists visit the Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Tourists visit the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

The Pantheon in Rome has become a destination not only for tourists and filmmakers, but also for architects, designers, and artists from around the world. Its geometry has been measured and its building methods have been studied.

Learn More:

  • How to Visit the Pantheon - Rome's 2000 year old monument
  • The Roman Pantheon: The Triumph of Concrete, David Moore, P.E.
  • The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny by William L. MacDonald, Harvard University Press, 2002
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  • The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present edited by Tod A. Marder and Mark Wilson Jones, Cambridge University Press, 2015
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  • The Pantheon (Great Building Feats) by Lesley A. DuTemple, 2003 (ages 9 +)
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