In 1752 Giuseppe Vasi chose to depict Piazza della Rotonda from a high position, perhaps from the roof of one of the buildings on its northern side. He did so in order to show the key features of the Pantheon, i.e. its large circular hall and the dome above it. These characteristics made the Pantheon very different from traditional ancient temples. A view from the ground level would have called the attention of the viewer on the portico rather than on the peculiar structure of the building.
Because the view focused on the Pantheon Vasi added a small etching showing the quacks and charlatans who used to congregate in Piazza della Rotonda to sell their goods (you may wish to see a page on details of plates by Vasi showing scenes of everyday life and an etching by Bartolomeo Pinelli showing a charlatan at Piazza della Rotonda in the XIXth century).
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Panteon di Agrippa o Chiesa di S. Maria della Rotonda; 2) Fontana con Obelisco di Granito di Egitto; 3) Palazzo Crescenzi. 3) is covered in another page. The map shows also 4) Basilica di Nettuno. The dotted line in the map delineates the borders among Rione Sant'Eustachio (left), Rione Colonna (top right quarter) and Rione Pigna (lower right quarter).
The image on the right is a detail from the 1593 Map of Rome by Antonio Tempesta. It shows a Romanesque bell tower above the portico of the Pantheon. S. Maria sopra Minerva is depicted in the upper right corner
View in June 2009
Piazza della Rotonda is usually very crowded, but on an early Sunday
morning it offers a quieter view.
The two small buildings around the fountain shown in the 1748 map were pulled down in 1823 to enlarge the square.
In 1881-1883 a series of steps were taken to free the Pantheon from additions and to isolate it from other buildings:
a) the two small bell towers which were added in 1628 by Pope Urban VIII were demolished; these bell towers, the design of which is usually attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, were much criticized and they were derogatory called le orecchie d'asino (ass' ears), but they replaced a Romanesque bell tower which disfigured the front of the temple;
b) the façades of Palazzo Crescenzi and of the adjoining building were pulled down and rebuilt at a greater distance from the Pantheon;
c) excavations along the eastern side of the temple led to the discovery of Saepta Julia, a portico built by Julius Caesar;
d) the demolition of some old houses adjoining the southern side of the Pantheon showed that they incorporated some walls of Basilica di Nettuno.
Façade (see a closer view of the inscription)
The Church of Saint Mary Rotonda, was of old called Pantheon, and the building is most ancient and magnificent, being round in forme,
& having no window, but all the light comming from the open roofe, whence the water falling is convaied under the pavement, and it is about seventy walking paces large every way. The porch is borne up with fifteene marble pillars, each pillar being of one stone, and all of admirable beauty and bignes. The doore is of brasse, the wals of brick, with the inside covered with precious stones, and
the pavement is of marble and porphery.
Fynes Moryson - An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through .. Italy (in 1594)
The Pantheon was initially erected in 27 BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, when he was consul for the third time. It was completely rebuilt in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian and it was restored in 202 by Emperor Septimius Severus. The temple stood on a high platform, whereas today it is at a level which is lower than the rest of the square and this makes it less imposing.
Three columns on the left side fell and a wall incorporated their remains. Eventually Pope Urban VIII and Pope Alexander VII replaced them with columns which belonged to baths built by Emperor Alexander Severus. This explains their different colour (pink rather than grey) and capitals.
Though plundered of all its brass; (..) though exposed to repeated fires, though sometimes flooded by the river, and always open to the rain, no monument of equal antiquity is so well preserved as this rotondo. It passed with little alteration from the Pagan into the present worship. (..) The cell and the portal of the Pantheon are two beauties independent of their union. The portal shines inimitable on earth; (..) it is positively the most sublime result that was ever produced by so little architecture.
Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters in Italy in 1802-1803
In the XVth century the Pantheon was the only large monument of ancient Rome which had not been affected by collapses or major modifications and it attracted the attention of Early Renaissance architects who measured it and investigated its construction techniques. In particular in 1452 Leon Battista Alberti (the architect of Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini) in On the Art of Building showed special admiration for the way the dome was erected. In the XVIth century the development of printmaking produced many views of the building. Those who made them, including Gamucci, ignored the actual appearance of the Pantheon, but tried to depict its original architecture, especially that of the interior. You may wish to see the Panhteon in a 1588 Guide to Rome, the illustration is based on the work by Gamucci, although the focus of the guide was on churches.
The Christians prowled about in
every quarter for relics, and thought a church
could not be consecrated without such a recommendation. Eight and twenty cart-loads
of relics could not be procured for the Pantheon
without some diligence and damage to the repositories of the pretended saints; and we
know that the eagerness of the search extended
to sepulchres where the symbols of martyrdom
were very equivocal, or not to be discovered at
John Cam Hobhouse - Dissertations on the Ruins of Rome - 1818
The Pantheon was dedicated to all the gods; it was converted into a church in 608 when Byzantine Emperor Foca donated the building to Pope Boniface IV. The circular hall (la Rotonda) was easily modified for its new use. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to all Christian Martyrs and this second dedication clearly echoes the pagan one. The decoration of the building, at least that which has survived, was based on festoons and it was not unsuitable for a church.
My intention had been that this sanctuary of All Gods should reproduce the likeness of the terrestrial globe and of the stellar sphere, that globe wherein are enclosed the seeds of eternal fire, and that hollow sphere containing all. Such was also the form of our ancestors' huts where the smoke of man's earliest hearths escaped through an orifice at the top.
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian - Translation by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author - Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1954 - Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Interior of the Pantheon (ca 1768) with the main altar built by Pope Clement XI
The hours would make their round on that caissoned ceiling, so carefully polished by Greek artisans; the disk of daylight would rest suspended there like a shield of gold; rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below; prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods. M. Yourcenar
The shape of the main hall is a cylinder covered by a half of a sphere; the height of the cylinder is equal to the radius of the sphere. The dome was covered with gilded bronze tiles; they were removed and shipped to Constantinople at the request of Byzantine Emperor Constans II.
The dome of the Pantheon is larger than those of S. Pietro and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (see it in a XIXth century engraving), yet because it is not a pendentive dome resting on arches it does not fully convey the sense of its dimension.
Here a flood of light falling through one large orb was sufficient for the whole circle of divinities below, and impartially diffused on all. (..) The vast "lacunaria" now overpower us. (..) Vast as they appear, those deep coffers are really not disproportioned to the hemisphere, and diminishing as they ascend, they stop just at the point where they would cease to be noble or entire. Forsyth
The technique used for the construction of the dome is different from that used by Filippo Brunelleschi in S. Maria del Fiore in Florence, the first large Renaissance dome. In the latter the weight of a heavy lantern enhances the strength of the structure, whereas Roman engineers lightened as much as possible the dome of the Pantheon; not only its thickness progressively decreases, but the materials used in the upper part of the dome were lighter; its final section is a conglomerate of mortar and porous volcanic rocks. The decrease in thickness has the effect that while the interior of the ceiling is spherical, its exterior is slightly "flattened". Light comes from the oculus, a large circular opening at the top of the dome and there are no windows in the supporting walls in order not to weaken them. You may wish to see a page on the Domes of Rome and buildings with features of the Pantheon, e.g. the Rotunda of Galerius at Thessalonica, Tour Vésone at Périgueux, S. Maria dell'Assunzione at Ariccia and Sala Rotonda at Casino del Belvedere.
The interior underwent many changes meant to give it an appearance more appropriate for a church; in particular in 1747 the original decoration was replaced by stuccoes; part of it has been restored; many coloured marbles were used for it and in particular porphyry; the windows gave light to a corridor inside the circular wall.
(left) Madonna della Clemenza (Umbrian School); (centre) Annunciation attributed to Melozzo da Forlì; (right) angel (school of Bernini)
The Pantheon was acquired by the Italian State to make it the Mausoleum of the Royal Family. In February 1878 the State funerals of (excommunicated) King Victor Emmanuel II were held at the Pantheon and eventually the King was buried there (and his body was never moved to the monument dedicated to him). Many of the additions which had turned the temple into a church were removed, but eventually some of them were placed back. Today Santa Maria ad Martyres (the official name of the Pantheon for the Roman Catholic Church) is a subsidiary location of S. Maria in Aquiro, a nearby parish church, and Mass is held twice a week.
Read Lord Byron's verses dedicated to this site. Dan Brown set here an episode of his novel Angels and Demons which was related to the tombs of the Kings of Italy and that of Raphael. Read some remarks on it.
(left) The fountain and of the obelisk; (right) detail of the fountain with Albergo del Sole in the background
The basin of the fountain was designed in 1575 by Giacomo della Porta for Pope Gregory XIII. In 1711, during the pontificate of Pope Clement XI, Filippo Barigioni
completed the fountain by adding an obelisk upon a high pedestal. The obelisk previously stood opposite S. Macuto and it belonged to Iseo Campense, a large temple dedicated to Isis and Serapis. It was originally erected in Heliopolis by Pharaoh Rameses II.
You may wish to see a page showing all the obelisks of Rome.
Details: 1) decoration of the time of Pope Gregory XIII; 2) a dragon, the heraldic symbol of the Pope; 3) a dolphin by Vincenzo Felici (1711); 4) the obelisk having on its tip a bronze star, one of the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement XI
The obelisk was not tall enough for the size of the fountain. Barigioni imitated Bernini in Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and managed to place the obelisk on a series of pedestals which made it reach the appropriate height. The image used as background for this page shows a snake by Vincenzo Felici which is similar to one in Bernini's fountain.
Students testing their drawing skills
Basilica di Nettuno (other images are shown in the historical section)
The northern wall of a large basilica dedicated to Neptune is visible at the back of the Pantheon: the decoration is based on dolphins, tridents and shells and it is a clear reference to the god. This pattern was used in other ancient buildings and it eventually influenced Renaissance arcitects as one can see at Palazzo Ducale di Urbino.
The basilica was built in 25 BC by Agrippa to celebrate his naval victory at Actium: it was not a temple, but a hall for meetings and it was located between the Pantheon and nearby baths also built by Agrippa. The construction of so many important buildings in this low part of the City, which was almost surrounded by the river, is an indication that the Romans had found ways to minimize the impact of floods by proper maintenance of the river bed and effective sewerage.
Next plate in Book 2: Piazza de' Crescenzi.
Next step in Day 4 itinerary: S. Stefano del Cacco.
Next step in your tour of Rione Pigna: Convento Domenicano.
Next step in tour of Rione Sant'Eustachio: S. Luigi dei Francesi.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Dalla rotondità del celebre Panteon prese il nome questa piazza, che li fa ornamento. Gregorio XIII. vi eresse il fonte, che le sta in mezzo, e Clemente XI. vi drizzò l'obelisco con disegno di Filippo Barigioni. Si fa in questa un continuo mercato di ogni sorta di viveri, specialmente di uccellami, e cacciagioni.
Questo maraviglioso tempio, secondo il sentimento comune, di sicuro non si sa da chi fosse eretto;
ma da Marco Agrippa genero di Augusto li fu aggiunto il portico, e si disse Panteon, perchè era dedicato
a tutti li Dei immaginati da' Gentili. Nella parte superiore, ch'è quella, che in oggi è cangiata in chiesa,
erano collocate le statue delli Dei celesti, e nel basso i terrestri, stando in mezzo quella di Cibele; è
nella parte di sotto, che ora è coperta dal pavimento, erano distribuite le statue delli dei penati.
E' molto probabile, che questo tempio, essendo nel più basso del campo Marzio, fosse stato eretto
nel sito della palude Capreja, appresso a cui fu ucciso, e nascoso Romolo, e perciò dai Romani tenuto
con grande superstizione,
dedicaronlo a tutti li Dei, quasi per farseli protettori nelle loro imprese, e nella loro sicurezza.