The Pantheon stands as the most complete Roman structure on earth, having survived 20 centuries of plunder, pillage, and invasion.
Facts About the Pantheon
The original Pantheon was a rectangular temple built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, as part of a district renewal plan in 27-25 BC. What tourists see as they relax in front in the Piazza della Rotonda is radically different than that original temple. Hadrian rebuilt the structure; maker's stamps in the bricks allow us to peg his restoration between 118 and 125 AD. Still, the inscription on the architrave attributes the construction to Agrippa during his third councilship. The portico in front of the Pantheon is what remains of Agrippa's original temple.
The Pantheon contains the tombs of Rafael and of several Italian Kings. Pantheon is a Greek word meaning "to honor all Gods."
Dimensions of the Pantheon
The giant dome that dominates the interior is 43.30 meters or 142 feet in diameter (for comparison, the White House dome is 96 feet in diameter). The Pantheon stood as the largest dome ever until Brunelleschi's dome at the Florence Cathedral of 1420-36. It's still the largest masonry dome in the world. The Pantheon is made perfectly harmonious by the fact that the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal to its diameter. Adytons (shrines recessed into the wall) and coffers (sunken panels) cleverly reduce the weight of the dome, as did a lightweight cement made of pumice used in the upper levels. The dome gets thinner as it approaches the oculus, the hole in the top of the dome used as a light source for the interior. The thickness of the dome at that point is only 1.2 meters.
The oculus is 7.8 meters in diameter. Yes, rain and snow occasionally fall through it, but the floor is slanted and drains cleverly remove the water if it manages to hit the floor. In practice, rain seldom falls inside the dome.
The massive columns supporting the portico weigh 60 tons. Each was 39 feet (11.8 m) tall, five feet (1.5 m) in diameter and made from stone quarried in Egypt. The columns were transported by wooden sledges to the Nile, barged to Alexandria, and put on vessels for a trip across the Mediterranean to the port of Ostia. From there the columns came up the Tiber by barge.
Preservation of the Pantheon
Like many buildings in Rome, the Pantheon was saved from pillage by turning it into a church. Byzantine Emperor Phocas donated the monument to Pope Boniface IV, who turned it into the Chiesa di Santa Maria ad Martyres in 609. Masses are held here on special occasions.
Pantheon Visitor information
The Pantheon has a website that details the most up-to-date information on opening hours and special events. Admission is free.
One special event that you may enjoy if you visit Rome in the spring is the celebration of the Mass of Pentecost (50th day after Easter). In a feature of the event, firemen climb to the top of the dome to drop rose petals from the oculus. If you get there early (hours before the mass) you may be able to find a few inches of floor space from which to observe this extremely popular event.
How to Experience the Pantheon
The Piazza della Rotonda is a lively square filled with cafes, bars, and restaurants. In summer, visit the Pantheon interior in the day, preferably in the early morning before the tourist throngs, but return in the evening; the piazza in front is especially lively on warm summer nights when the Pantheon is lit from below and stands as an enormous reminder of the grandeur of ancient Rome. The penny-pinching backpack crowd floods the steps of the fountain surrounding one of Rome's trophy obelisks, while tourists throng to the bars that edge the piazza. Drinks are expensive, as you might expect, but not outrageous, and you can nurse one for a long time without anyone bothering you, one of the simple delights of European life.
The restaurants are mostly mediocre, but the view and atmosphere are unparalleled. To experience good solid Roman food at a good restaurant close by, try Armando al Pantheon, in a small alleyway to the right of the Pantheon as you're facing it. The best coffee at the Tazza d’Oro nearby.