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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Pantheon

Interior View of the Pantheon, 1734, Giovanni Panini.
It must have taken a brave draughtsman to tackle a round interior with a
coffered dome on a rectangular canvas before the age of photography.
For the college undergrad taking his or her first timid steps into art history or art appreciation, the effect is like opening a book titled: The History of the World (the Untold Story). I'm quite familiar with this feeling, from both sides of the lectern. Not only that, but each chronological chapter is somewhat redundant--the history of painting, the history of sculpture, the history of music, literature, drama, architecture--the list seems endless (though it really isn't). There is some degree of parallelism, of course, but each medium of creative expression has its own cast of characters, timeline, and list of masterpieces, all of which tread dangerously close to the realm of Alex Trebec and Jeopardy trivia. Artists in each area of creative expertise, if they are to attempt greatness, must know and understand the past as related to their own art, but also have some working familiarity with that of their close art relatives.

Only in an aerial view can one gain
some feeling for the immense size and
engineering prowess required in erecting
 a structure that has survived virtually
intact for some 2,000 years.
For example, in taking my first art appreciation course as a college freshman, the Ohio University College of Fine Arts very wisely put together a course called "Comparative Arts" in which painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, and drama were all studied side by side. The first three interested me intensely...the others, not so much. Still there was the confusion regarding Manet and Monet, Bellini and Bernini, Pietro Lorenzetti and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and finally the Parthenon and the Pantheon. I think the reason Art Appreciation 101 students find the the two architectural landmarks so confusing, other than the names, is that they were both ancient temples and both represent the high water mark of the cultures which built them.

A cross section of the Pantheon gives some indication as to why the building has survived
floods, fires, wars, earthquakes, not to mention the invading hoards (of tourists).
The name, Pantheon, simply means all gods. Some sort of Pantheon temple was built on the present structure's site as early as 27-25 BCE. However, in 80 AD it burned to the ground (the gods must have been displeased). The emperor Hadrian is said to have designed the present structure in its place though building apparently didn't get underway until around 125 AD. The new and improved Pantheon was much larger than the first, which was rectangular and about the size of the new Pantheon's front porch. Hadrian's Pantheon functioned as a pagan temple for two centuries with statues of the various gods filling the niches around its circular perimeter. The distinctive 27-foot hole in the center of the dome (called an occulus) not only served to admit light but to allow smoke to escape from burnt offerings on an altar centered under the daringly flat concrete dome.

The Pantheon is notoriously hard to photograph at street level due to its being hemmed
in on all sides by modern day buildings and Rome's horriffic vehicular traffic.
After the year 346, when pagan worship in Rome was banned, the Pantheon fell into disuse until 602 when the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface IV for use as a Christian church (a not uncommon practice at the time) dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all Christian martyrs, thus continuing its pantheonic tradition. Though some 1500 years older, the Pantheon rivals St. Peters Basilica across the Tiber in size and scope, its non-reinforced concrete dome soaring some 142 feet above the floor, which non-coincidentally is the exact diameter of the rotunda. Hadrian (or his architects) knew their geometry. The outside walls of the rotunda rise exactly half the height of the dome. Originally, that dome was covered with gold-plated bronze and must have been quite spectacular. However, bronze, not to mention the gold, were much to valuable to have survived the millennia. A Byzantine emperor "stoled the gold" in 663 A.D. while Giovanni Bernini confiscated the bronze to melt down in fabricating the giant Baldacchino hovering over the high altar under Michelangelo's much taller St. Peter's dome.

Unlike the Parthenon and Notre Dame de Paris, the Pantheon is downright ugly from
the rear, owing in large part to its having been merely the centerpiece to a much
larger temple complex in Roman times.
Touring the Pantheon by boat.
It's hard to overstate the influence Hadrian's revolutionary concrete cylinder with a dome and a front porch has had on architects down through the ages. Andrea Palladio had his Villa Rotunda while Thomas Jefferson had his Monticello and more noticeably his design of the library at the University of Virginia. Stanford White was, in turn, influenced by Jefferson's library in designing the Gould Memorial Library in the Bronx, to name only a few. In referring to the Pantheon earlier as the high water mark of Roman architecture (high water literally being a problem in the lowland area near the Tiber where it's located, left), some might argue that the somewhat younger Roman Coliseum deserves this designation. I might agree, if the Coliseum had featured a dome.

Jefferson's Pantheon, University of Virginia,


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