PANTHEON

The Pantheon, or “temple of all the gods,” was erected in Rome under the emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 118 to 138. An earlier Pantheon, built between 27 and 25 B.C. by the Roman general Marcus Agrippa, stood on the same location but was destroyed by fire in A.D. 80. The Pantheon erected by Hadrian has been dated by the stamps on its bricks to the decade A.D. 118 to 128. It represents a complete redesign of the original and is one of the best preserved and most famous buildings of antiquity.

The Pantheon features a magnificent Greek-style portico*, or porch, of red and gray granite* columns, 40 feet high, in the ornate Corinthian order. Some people think that the number of columns chosen for the facade* (eight) is an intentional reference to the most famous Greek temple of antiquity, the Parthenon of Athens. Others note that without the columns, the massive porch would have effectively hidden the rest of the building that lies behind it. Upon crossing the threshold of large bronze double doors at the back of the porch, one enters a vast rotunda—a cylindrical interior space, with floors and walls covered with multicolored marble. This space is perfectly proportioned: its diameter and height both equal 142 feet, while the dome that covers the space appears as a perfect hemisphere. The concrete dome, the biggest in the world until the twentieth century, is testimony to Roman engineering skill. Recent studies of the building have shown that it cracked, although it did not collapse. Clearly, the Pantheon demonstrates how Roman engineers pushed their materials to the breaking point in the pursuit of an awe-inspiring interior space.

* portico roof supported by columns, forming a porch or covered walkway

* granite hard rock consisting of grains from other rocks and formed by solidification from a molten state

The Pantheon is a magnificent temple dedicated to all the gods and commemorating Augustus’s victory over Mark Antony at Ac- tium. A special feature is the “eye” at the top of its dome, that lets in rays of light as the sun moves across the dome.

The most striking feature of the Pantheon is the circular opening, or oculus (meaning “eye” in Latin), at the top of the dome. This oculus, some 30 feet across, supplies the only source of light for the building and allows a sun disk to travel across the vault* of the dome, just as the sun itself travels across the heavens. The careful orchestration of engineering, luxurious imported marble, and celestial* symbolism has led some to view the Pantheon as a symbol of the power and might of Rome. (See also Architecture, Roman; Columns; Construction Materials and Techniques.)

* facade front of a building; also, any side of a building that is given special architectural treatment

* vault arched ceiling or roof

* celestial relating to the heavens

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