facts about the Pantheon in Rome

10 Fascinating facts about the Pantheon in Rome

Rome has many ancient buildings, but none are as awe-inspiring as the Pantheon. Recognized as one of the greatest architectural wonders from ancient Rome, it has inspired many other buildings that came after it. Virtually intact for nearly two millennia, this ancient Roman building still holds secrets from the past.

As a lasting testimony to the genius of Roman engineering, the Pantheon has been in continuous use since its completion in 126 A.D. Today, it is a popular destination for tourists and architecture lovers who come to Rome each year. Here are some fun and fascinating facts about the Pantheon in Rome that many don’t know. After all, there are bound to be some tidbits lost to history that are not visible today.

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Interesting facts about the Pantheon you probably don’t know 

Ancient Romans knew how to build impressive structures that reflected the glory of the Roman Empire. The construction of the Pantheon has fascinated many over the centuries. Combined with the fact that it’s still standing strong, it continues to impress visitors who come to the Eternal City in search of the past. 

It is not the first Pantheon 

One of the many facts about the Pantheon is that what we see today is the third incarnation of the same site. The original pantheon, built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C., burned down in 80 A.D. Emperor Domitian reconstructed a second version, but that building also burned down in 110 A.D. after being struck by lightning. 

You could say that the third time is the charm, as that’s what happened here. The third Pantheon is the one we see today and it has survived almost 2,000 years. It is generally accepted that this version of the Pantheon was completed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian sometime between 126-128 A.D. The architect Apollodorus of Damascus has been credited with the design of the Pantheon as well as serval imperial buildings erected under Emperor Trajan.

It has a puzzling dedication

The inscription above the front entrance of the Pantheon has puzzled scholars for centuries. Inscribed in large letters are the words “M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT.” This transcription translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three-time consul, made this.”

It’s not clear why Hadrian decided to use Agrippa’s original inscription. However, it’s been noted that Hadrian had a practice of dedicating buildings and monuments he restored to the original dedicators. It’s not a stretch then to assume that the inscription is a nod to the original builder and the original structure that was initially there. 

The Pantheon is an architectural wonder 

One of the facts about the Pantheon is that it is an architectural wonder. It consists of two main parts—the entrance with Corinthian columns, based on a classical Greek presentation, and the central rotunda, in Roman style. The Pantheon’s dome is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and its construction has awed people for centuries.

Portico of the Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome – Source: @kasiawrites

The entrance is decorated with 16 large monolithic columns (meaning created from a single stone) made from Egyptian granite. This porch supports a gabled roof with a triangular pediment. The columns measure 11.8 m (39 feet) in height and 1.5 m (5 feet) in diameter and weigh 60 tons. They are decorated with marble bases and Corinthian capitals (decorative tops) made from Greek marble. They were brought here from the quarries in Egypt, which wasn’t a small feat in those days.

The rotunda was built with brick and Roman concrete (mixed with volcanic ash) with relieving arches built into the 6-metre (almost 20-foot) thick walls. The most astonishing feature of the Pantheon’s design is its giant dome. It is the largest unsupported dome in the world, measuring 43 metres (142 feet) in diameter. That is also the same height of the building, meaning it is a perfect sphere. It’s the mathematical design and simple geometry that wow to this day. 

the dome of the pantheon
Oculus – one of many cool features of the Pantheon

In the center of the top of the dome lies the oculus, which means eye in Latin. This 8-metre (26-foot) wide opening distributes the dome’s weight and is the only source of natural light inside. The oculus isn’t covered, so when it rains, the water lands on the gently sloping floor, where 22 well-hidden holes help drain the water. 

Also impressive are the bronze doors leading inside. The doors, measuring over 6 meters (20 feet) in height, are ancient but not original. Even so, they are still imposing. 

It looked different in ancient times

The Pantheon used to look very different in ancient times than it does today. The drill holes left behind reveal that the pediment above the columns used to have an emblem decorating it. It would have been decorated with gilded bronze, symbolizing Jupiter. The interior of the entrance was also panelled with marble and decorated with reliefs. It has since been lost, revealing the brickwork. 

facts about the Pantheon it had decorations in the pediment above the entrance
Facts about the Pantheon: what it looked like in antiquity: SOURCE

The inner part of the dome was likely gilded to look like a heavenly sphere. You can see some of the Roman bronze still in there today. On the outside, the rotunda of the Pantheon was also covered in white marble to match the entrance. Although most of the marble and bronze decorations from the Pantheon are long gone, you can catch small remnants of it today. 

Like every other Roman building, the Pantheon was pillaged of valuable metals, marble, and statues. Most of the stolen decor was used as building materials in other buildings in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s rumoured that the bronze canopy over the altar was pillaged from the Pantheon. 

Originally there were steps to get inside 

One of the most obscure facts about the Pantheon is that it originally had steps leading up to the entrance. The building faced a rectangular colonnaded temple courtyard in Roman style.  As the elevation at the time was lower than it is today, there were five marble steps leading from the square onto the entrance of the portico. 

10 Fascinating facts about the Pantheon in Rome
The Pantheon in Rome had steps!

Over the years, as the buildings around crumbled, the debris eventually changed the ground level and buried the steps. Today, there is no elevation, so you walk inside on the same level as the square.

You might enjoy reading: Pantheon Sinkhole Reveals Original Ancient Roman floor

It was used as a temple and a church 

While it’s not entirely clear as to the original purpose of the Pantheon, the name and design suggest that it was a pagan temple dedicated to Roman gods. Based on the name, Pantheon (Panthenum in Latin and Pantheion in Greek) means “Temple of All the Gods.” 

It is also likely that in Ancient Rome, the Pantheon was where the emperor made appearances and reminded his subjects of his divinity, on par with the other gods. After all, Roman emperors fancied themselves as godly, so this idea isn’t a stretch.  There are also sources from Roman writers like Pliny, who mentions that statues of other gods – Venus, Mars and Julius Caesar – were also at the Pantheon. 

In 609 A.D., the Pantheon was converted into a church dedicated to St. Mary of the Martyrs (Sancta Maria ad Martyres). It was the first ancient temple that was transformed by the Catholic church from a place dedicated to pagan gods to one devoted to the Christian faith. That transition is the main reason the Pantheon avoided raids and destruction. The most ironic of facts about the Pantheon is that while it started as a tribute to all gods, it was then dedicated to just one god. Same idea, different religion.  

It once had bell towers 

Another thing most people don’t know about the Pantheon is that it once had two bell towers. After converting it into a church in the Middle Ages, someone added two towers to the Pantheon’s pediment. I guess the bell towers gave it more of a traditional church appearance.

Black and white image of the exterior of the Pantheon in Rome with bell towers
The Pantheon had bell towers: SOURCE

The hideous bell towers, nicknamed “asses’ ears,” have been attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, an Italian sculptor and architect. Eventually, after much ridicule, the bell towers were finally removed in 1883, and in my opinion, that was a great decision.

It is the resting place of many notable figures

Today, the Pantheon is the final resting place of prominent figures. As it became a common practice during the Renaissance, some of Italy’s most illustrious figures have been buried in the Pantheon. 

Here, you’ll find the tombs of painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci, the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, the composer Arcangelo Corelli, and various poets. It is also the resting place of Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II (the first king of unified Italy), as well as his successor Umberto I, and his wife, Queen Margherita. She is the famous inspiration behind the Margherita pizza

It influenced other buildings

If the Pantheon seems somewhat familiar to you, you’re not wrong. Many buildings in the world have taken inspiration from its design. Since the revival of the arts and interest in the classics during the Renaissance, many masters, including Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, have marvelled at how the Pantheon was designed.

florence cathedral, cathedral, night-4069756.jpg

The Pantheon inspired the Duomo of Florence and St. Peter’s Basilica. Other buildings inspired by the Roman Pantheon include the Pantheon in Paris, Manchester Central Library, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Low Memorial Library, the National Gallery of Art, and the U.S. Capitol. 

Even Piazza della Rotonda has stories to tell 

When discussing the Pantheon, we must delve into the piazza that stands before it. Despite its square shape, the piazza derives its name from the informal title of the Pantheon—the Church of Santa Maria Rotonda. This name, meaning ’round,’ is a nod to the Pantheon’s iconic dome. 

Over time, taverns, shops and sheds filled the original courtyard that once lined the way to the Pantheon. Legal and illegal vendors started filling the space, selling everything from fish and poultry to vegetables and birds. According to accounts of visitors from that time, the piazza was filthy, smelly and filled with dodgy characters and thieves preying on visitors. A far cry from the pretty and refined spot it is today. 

fountain in front of the Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome – Piazza delle Rotonda

The piazza underwent several modifications. Pope Eugenius IV (1431–39) laid it out and paved it. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Renaissance fountain, designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1575.  

The Egyptian obelisk in the fountain, constructed by Pharaoh Ramses II, was added in 1711 under Pope Clement XI. It was part of a pair of obelisks from the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis. The other can be found in Piazza della Minerva, just steps from the Pantheon. It sits on an elephant base. The obelisk in Piazza della Rotonda was moved from Piazza San Macuto, giving it the name ‘Macuteo.’

Clement modified the fountain, removing the original basin and adding additional flourishes. The last restoration of the fountain dates to the late 19th century, when Pope Pius VII finally cleaned up the square. 

Pantheon in Rome: summary

The Pantheon, a marvel of ancient architecture, first piqued our interest upon its completion under the reign of Hadrian. Despite our extensive knowledge, there are mysteries that continue to captivate us. But when it comes down to it, the Pantheon stands as a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the ancient world

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