The banner at the top of this blog is a photo Michael took of the Pantheon one evening in June. M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIUM·FECIT means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, during his third consulate, built it.”
Since my first trip to Rome in 1970, my favorite building has been the Pantheon. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica are fascinating and awe-inspiring, but I love the Pantheon. It’s a good thing I do, because any time I walk through the Centro Storico, I somehow end up there, whether I mean to or not.
Usually I pass the Pantheon too early to step inside, but on my morning ramble last Thursday, I turned a corner, and there, unexpectedly, was the Pantheon, and it was open! I walked through the two original 20-ton bronze doors and joined maybe 15 or so people who were staring up at the oculus (opening) in the dome. I can never resist that, so I stared up with them. (In case you were worried about what happens when it rains, the floors of the Pantheon are slightly sloped so the water can run off.)
The Pantheon, one of the most ancient buildings in Rome, was first built in 27 BC as a temple to all the gods. Because it was a temple, animals were sacrificed and burned in the center (the smoke escaped through the oculus), so you won’t be surprised to learn that it was destroyed twice before the Emperor Hadrian constructed the current building in about 125 AD. In 609 it was converted to a Catholic church and services are still held there. The building is simply a dome standing on a cylinder, and it’s still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. You can easily see its influence on Western architecture—St. Peter’s Basilica, the rotunda of the University of Virginia, Monticello, San Francisco’s city hall, and the U.S. Capitol, to name a few.
From the outside the Pantheon looks dim and drab because the only sources of interior light are the oculus and the entry doors. The interior is quite bright and ornate, however, and the oculus spotlights whatever section the sun falls on, so I notice different things every time.
It’s not just the building that I like though. I also love Piazza della Rotunda, the piazza in front of the Pantheon. Colorful old buildings rise around it, and it’s lined with restaurants and crowded with people and vendors (although not at 9 a.m., thank goodness). We ate dinner close to the Pantheon with friends in June and when we left the restaurant, a police band was playing classical music in front of the Pantheon and the piazza was jammed with people.
Speaking of that dinner, one of my favorite restaurants in Rome is just steps from the Pantheon, down a side street toward the Piazza Navona. Michael, Al, and I ate at Armando al Pantheon in 2006, and that’s where we and our friends had dinner in June. I had gnocchi with four cheeses and grilled anchovies (I know you’re surprised). I can’t remember what everyone else had, but the food was wonderful. I remember my first bite of carciofi (fried artichokes) at Armando in 2006—divine! It’s not artichoke season now, but when it is, I’m there!