I had brunch today with a friend who recently returned from Italy on her honeymoon. She said that her favorite thing about Rome was the Pantheon, which explains why we are friends because the Pantheon is one of my most favorite places on Earth. I’ve been to Rome several times and the first thing I do after dropping my bags at a hotel is make a beeline for the Pantheon.
If you are not familiar, the Pantheon was an ancient Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The basic structure that we see today was completed by 126 AD, although the building has earlier origins. The interior was also modified later by the Roman Catholics who converted it into a church.
The Pantheon is an architectural marvel because of its dome. The main part of the temple, the rotunda, is round with a perfect hemisphere dome for the ceiling. The diameter of the dome is the same as its height from the floor – 142 feet or 34.4 meters. (Guidebooks are fond of saying that because of these dimensions you could fit a 142-foot diameter ball inside the rotunda, although I’m not sure why you would want to do that.) In the center of the dome, there is a round hole that is open to the sky, called the oculus. This opening allows sunlight, moonlight and, yes, even rain to stream inside the temple.
The first time I visited the Pantheon, I went because it was listed in my guidebook as one of the major ancient Roman sites. I had no idea what I was in for. The Pantheon is surrounded by other buildings on three sides and has a rectangular portico of columns in the front, so you don’t really notice the dome until you are inside it.
I remember it was a hot, dusty day when I walked across the portico and through the huge bronze doors, wanting nothing more than to get out of the sun and into the cool interior. As soon as I stepped underneath the dome, I literally gasped and almost fell to my knees. I had to immediately sit down because I didn’t trust my legs to support me.
But my physical reaction was nothing compared to my emotional one. I felt an overwhelming sense of connection which was totally unexpected. Despite the throngs of tourists around me, I felt as though I was alone in the temple, being held in a sacred space that was intimately bound to the sky. It was as though the oculus was an umbilical cord connecting Earth to the cosmos. That afternoon, I probably spent a couple of hours just sitting in the temple watching the beam of sunlight from the oculus slide around the dome and feeling at peace.
What I didn’t know then but I know now is that it is possible that the Pantheon may have been designed with specific astronomical purposes in mind. Some people have argued that the building was intended to be used as a sundial, or that the Roman Emperor used solar alignments on the equinox to reinforce his connection to cosmic order.
I will write more about these ideas in a later blog post, but for now I need to go check airfare prices to Rome. It has been far too long since I’ve visited the most perfect building in the world.