We went twice. It is really astonishing – amazing – to stand in a complete building that was constructed 2000 years ago. It makes one realise that all the other buildings in Rome that are now in ruins didn’t really fall down by themselves; they were taken down by later builders. Recycling, I suppose. In the Pantheon’s case, having been built as a temple for all the gods, it was then taken over as a church in the 6th century, which presumably preserved it.
From the outside it looks quite unimpressive: a big round building made of chewed-looking bricks, grimy after a couple of millennia of exposure to smoky city life. It once had marble on the outside, but this was pinched; some time ago, I imagine. At the front, there’s rather incongruous-looking but very large portico, which hides the rest of the building. But once you go inside – you just stand there, open-mouthed, you and another thousand or so tourists. A thousand people say “Wow!” in forty different languages as they gaze around and above.
The Pantheon is HUGE. I mean COLOSSAL. It’s 142 feet (43.3 metres) in diameter and the same 142 feet to the top of its enormous dome. The dome is made of concrete, with recessed panels in circles, decreasing in size towards the top. These panels are very decorative but also reduce the weight of the dome, which means that it doesn’t collapse. I have to confess that, being a person who likes to consider all eventualities, I did wonder whether it was a good idea to spend such a long time under a huge, ancient, very heavy concrete dome. After all, it has to fall down some time. But then, what a way to go! “My mother died in the great Pantheon disaster.” Beats saying, “My mother died when a pig fell on her head”, doesn’t it?
The Pantheon still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture. And it was built – did I mention this? 2000 years ago. 2000 years! What were British people building 2000 years ago? Quite. (Well, Stonehenge, possibly. But it’s a bit rough and ready compared to the Pantheon.)
The whole building is lit by a big hole at the top of the dome – the oculus – which is 30 feet (9 metres) across. This means, of course, that when it rains, water comes in (much like in our hall) but the floor is slightly convex so that it flows towards the outside walls, where there are drains. Unlike our hall.
How on earth did anyone that long ago design and build something so enormous, so intricately calculated, so durable? It’s also very beautiful. It’s lined with marble of various colours – I think there’s been some restoration, but this just means that you can really imagine being there as an Ancient Roman worshipping in this enormous space.
Well, thanks for reading this far. I realise that you’ve probably all been to Rome and seen it for yourselves, but if not – go. It’s big. It’s free. You need to see it. Twice.