The Pantheon as an Architectural Success Essay
The Roman Pantheon is the most preserved building in Rome despite all the additions and restorations to its original form. The original Pantheon was built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa after the conclusion of the Battle of Actium. The monolithic structure seen in Rome today, however, is no longer the original Pantheon from Agrippa’s time. The 27 BC Pantheon burned down in the historic fire of 80 AD and was completely reconstructed by Emeperor Hadrian in 125 AD with the present day structure. Hadrian, however, attributed the construction to the mind behind the original Pantheon as attested to by the inscription on the portico Hadrian left on the building itself, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made it.” (Ward-Perkins, 111).
The Pantheon continues to amaze thousands of individuals daily. Tourists as well as Roman locals are held enchanted by the buildings façade and dome. The interest stirred up by the Pantheon, however, doesn’t involve just tourists and curious eyes of onlookers. The architectural accomplishment that is the Pantheon has evoked many debates and researches as to its resilience to weathering and time. The Pantheon is a wonder of the modern world, a success story that continues to urge minds of the academe to unlock its secrets. This paper intends to delve into the more physical aspect of the Pantheon and unearth the factors that contribute to the greatness of the structure’s architectural design and composition.
The Pantheon exemplifies the best of what the Roman architectural revolution put forth during the first century. The Pantheon has within its frame some of the most advanced innovations Roman architects of the first century could provide. Its construction was made possible through the development and utilization of a new type of expert concrete that is now known as Roman concrete. Roman concrete allowed for buildings and architectural structures that were more curvilinear in form. This is most evident in the Pantheon’s configuration (Mark & Hutchinson, 24).
Roman concrete used material that was very similar to the material used today in making concrete. The difference is seen in the way the Romans utilized these materials. The basic technique employed in Roman construction at that time consisted of only a few steps. First, a semi-fluid substance of lime, pozzolan, and small stones are poured in. Then a layer of stones is put on top this mixture. A second batch of the semi-fluid substance is then poured over which another layer of stones are placed. This technique is generally accepted by those studying Roman architecture. Debate continues, however, regarding the placement of the mortar on whether it was poured or tamped (Herring, 14).
Roman pozzolan-based concrete proved to be advantageous because of the extra aspects it added to the possibilities of design which were not available with lime mortar. One of these aspects is the fact that Roman pozzolan-based concrete did not need to be dried out for them to set. Roman concrete would set even when immersed. These would also cool relatively faster than lime mortar and had an added factor of increasing compressive strength, although tensile strength was low. (Mainstone, 25)
The pozzolan base of Roman concrete, however, was not the only factor that made this material superior to all others available during the time of construction of the Pantheon. There were three other factors that played into the excellence of Roman concrete. Romans were very skilled in choosing the best quality of lime for the concrete. It was essential for them to ensure that only the best quality of materials went in to creating their concrete. The early Roman construction workers were also strict in enforcing that the same relative amounts of materials went into the concrete production process.
This was to ensure that the concrete they produced would always have the same first-rate quality. The ratio of water mixed with the cement material was also monitored. The Romans made sure that water was minimal in the mixture. The process of placing and compaction of the mortar was also perfected, ensuring that almost no spaces were present in the aggregate. This was to ensure that the structure for which the concrete was being used would attain the highest possible strength and therefore be one that would last under weathering and other corrosive factors (Herring, 16).
The construction of the Pantheon was not a simple task. The yard, from which the blocks used to construct the structure, was located 800 meters away from the actual site of the Pantheon. Delivery of the blocks from the building yard to the construction site must have required many laborers. The distance, however, may have also been counterbalanced by the Tiber River via which most of the blocks must have been shipped. With all the work involved in the construction of the Pantheon, it is certain that care and skill were essential in the construction. Only with extra caution and true skill could a monument such as the Pantheon truly stand and outlast its makers. (Hasselberg, 88)
Understanding the material which contributed to the strength of the Pantheon is only the first step in understanding the might of its design. Certainly, the Roman Pantheon has lasted the test of time and has undergone the weathering of ages due to the Roman concrete with which it was built. And certainly the Romans ability to come up with a plan for this construction and to follow through with these plans through careful execution and skillful craftsmanship added to this architectural success. However, the monolithic structure has continued on as a great architectural feat through time not only because of its durability but also because of its monumental design.
The well-renowned painter of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, Michelangelo, was one of the many people whose amazement and love for the arts were drawn forth by the Pantheon. He is known to have once described the building as having an “Angelic and not human design”, a design attributable to the competence and expertise of the ancient Romans (Lugli, 1). The Pantheon’s interior is one of the most concrete examples for the beauty and angelic appeal of the building.
The first and most conspicuous aspect of the Pantheon’s interior that invites its visitor to exclaim in wonder is not the walls or ceiling but rather the amount of space that welcomes all to take a step inside. Roman architecture considered space to be something more than just a gap between two objects. Rather, space was considered as a concrete object, as something with volume, with equal weight as the human body. The Pantheon provides modern-day proof of the Roman architects need to place room and make space in the architectural designs of the buildings constructed at that time (Semes, C1.1).
The extensive space seen in the Pantheon is not complete to be considered as remarkable if left by itself. It must always be considered with relation to a context, the structures forming the boundary of that space. It is then essential for the Roman architects to ensure that the walls and domed ceiling of the Pantheon will do well to complement the space they wish to portray in the building (Semes, C1.2). In the case of the Pantheon, Roman architects chose a round shape to serve as a boundary of the space within the interior of the Pantheon. The circular shape adds to a feeling that the Pantheon’s interior is indeed spacious.
The Pantheon’s walls are ordered by an array of extravagant structures such as the building’s columns, lintels, niches, doorways, and of course the wall itself seen between the earlier mentioned structures. The structures involved in the Pantheon’s walls were not only varied in type but were also varied in terms of the subtypes. The additions to the wall were formed into varying shapes, thus forming subtypes, to add to the intricacy of the beauty of the Pantheon’s interior (Semes, C1.2).
Take a moment now to scrutinize one of these features which exists as an aspect of the design of the Pantheon celebrated by contemporary architects as a link to early architectural concepts of beauty. This is seen in the three basic dimensions of the Pantheon’s wall. These three dimensions include the diameter of the columns, the space between each column, and the height of the columns.
These dimensions are in the ratio of 1:2:9.5 in the Pantheon. Hermogenes, a popular architect during the Hellenistic age, considered these dimensions and ratio to be the makings of a perfect façade. Vitruvius, the engineer during the 1st century in Rome, is most likely the one to bring to life through the Pantheon the concepts introduced by Hermogenes (Hasselberg, 89).
The round wall contains many niches as well creating an impression of the wall containing numerous chambers at different levels. These niches contain some of the most reputable men of the Western world including kings of Italy, popes, and famous painters such as Raphael. All niches as well as openings in the wall are framed by an arch of bricks which serve more than just beautification purposes.
These arches add to the support of the wall above the openings and niches and were called relieving arches because of this feature. These arches only went so far as the wall and did not invade the Pantheon’s dome. Creating structural support through the use of relieving arches was very common with Roman architects during the time the Pantheon was built (Lugli, 30).
Roman architects showed their prowess by the careful placement of these structures, the columns, the lintels, the niches, the doorways, and the wall itself. They alternated solid structures with spaces creating an interaction between the two which worked to increase the Pantheon’s appeal as an architectural masterpiece. The differing shapes in the structures, therefore, did not give a sense of disorder but rather an overall impression of organization in the face of diversity. The walls and its complementing features thus give an observer’s eyes a feast both as individual pieces and as an integrated whole (Semes, C1.2).
One of the most acclaimed features of the Pantheon is its domed ceiling. It is celebrated world-wide for its being built. The Romans were known for their addition of arches in their structures. The creation of the Roman Pantheon’s domed ceiling gives evidence to the development of the Roman architectural concept of arches. Roman architecture evolved to improve the concept of the arch, modifying it and making it more complex with the resulting structure of a dome.
The Roman concrete based on pozzolan is acknowledged by many to be the reason for the Roman architects’ success in building a domed ceiling. At the time, the new form of concrete made the construction of the ceiling an accomplishable feat. Lime mortar would not have been an easy material to use in the construction of the Pantheon’s ceiling, thus the use of the new pozzolan-based concrete, which had many features of modern Portland concrete, contributed greatly to the monumental task of building the dome-shaped ceiling. However, there are those who believe that although the concrete is one of the main factors involved in the dome’s success, it is not the only factor.
Robert Mark and Paul Hutchinson believe that the concentric stepped rings placed in the outer surface of the Pantheon dome add to the success of the ceiling (26). It is believed that the steven step rings helped to bring stability to the entire structure of the Pantheon by adding to the compression of the structure. This is evidenced by the oculus at the center of the dome which serves as a compression ring.
The positioning of the ring or oculus effectively distributes the compression of the structure about this point. The compression ring attests to the skill of the Roman architects and engineers. They not only had the skill and knowledge required to create the colossal Pantheon but they also had the expertise and comprehension of modern engineering to create it in such a way that it would remain standing as a solid and stable structure for a long time.
Many of the imitations of the Pantheon add such stepped rings to the dome of their derivative structures probably for the same purpose of stability and compression. The dome was also a successful architectural feat with the help of the coffering. Coffering is the placing of sunken panels of different shapes in accordance with the structures in the ceiling.
This serves aesthetic purposes as well as reinforces structural strength. The dome’s underside was also made stronger with the use of lightweight aggregate in the upper part of the building’s edifice. The aggregate was of lower density than the aggregate used in the lower parts of the building such as the walls, floor and columns. It is evident then that a lot of though went into the creation of the Pantheon’s dome (Mark & Huthcinson, 26).
Because of the addition of an oculus in the domed ceiling, the Pantheon provides a perfect example of an architect’s use of light to emphasize the appearance of space. The Pantheon’s dome has an oculus or opening in the middle which makes a circular form across the Pantheon’s interior, the floor and the walls. Sunlight streams in through the open oculus and gives an enchanting chiaroscuro effect, a term indicating the alternating effect of light and dark, via the columns and niches in the room (Semes, C1.2). The shadows created by the columns and niches plays with the light coming in from the oculus to create the effect of irregular but successive alternations of brightness agains darkness.
However, a simple addition of an opening in a spacious room is not enough to create such a marvel as the Pantheon’s interior. There must always be the consideration of the features within the structure’s interior and how these features would interact with the light. The different materials used in the construction of the Pantheon add to the mystery created by the illumination entering from the opening in the dome’s oculus. The classical interior welcomes the streaming in of light from the sun or perhaps even from the moon. The walls, the columns, the niches and even the arches add to the effect given by the streaming glow from above. The marbles with all its colors, the golden gleams from the ornaments, allow for the light to play inside the Pantheon and create different effects (Semes, C1.2).
The columns in the Pantheon’s interior are created with different types of marble. Those in the lower zone are of a material called giallo antico. This is a type of marble that is of a yellowish-orange color. Some of the other columns in the lower zone are made of marble with an off-white color streaked with reddish-purple hues, called pavonazzo. The walls and floor are covered with marble of white, green, and green-gray colors. Although it may seem to one who has not seen the Pantheon up close that these colors would clash and cause quite an unattractive display of shades, this is not the case in the Pantheon.
The architects and engineers of the Pantheon were so skilled that even in the mixing of these hues; the Pantheon creates a sense of intricate beauty and intimate splendor. These add to the attraction of the Pantheon’s interior for visiting tourists and even for the locals. The colors are so well balanced that the interior creates a sense of energy and of unity despite the variation (Semes, C1.2). The Pantheon lends this energy to its visitors, encapsulating them in its color-induced aura once they step inside the great structure’s walls.
The Pantheon came to be used for different purposes, attesting to the flexibility of its architectural design. Historians speculate that the Pantheon may have been initially used as a dedication to the Roman gods and goddesses worshipped by many at that time. It may also have served an astrological purpose which may have been the reason for the oculus or hole at the rooftop of the Pantheon. The structure continued to served as a church in 608, as a funerary afterwards, and as a place where the busts of artists not laid to rest in the Pantheon were placed (Howell, 34).
The end of the Roman civilization signaled the replacement of Roman architectural design. The Dark Ages was a time of little growth in architectural design but new architecture was conceptualized by the succeeding Renaissance minds. If not for structures such as the Pantheon, Roman architecture would have been all but forgotten.
Today, many historians, architects and researchers continue to study the Pantheon to try and uncover the secrets lost during the downfall of the Roman Empire. It provides modern architects are now returning to the foundations of classical architecture and the Pantheon is a treasure trove of knowledge regarding classical design. The Pantheon provides these architects with aspects of classical design that are no longer visible in modern structures. It is clear that the Pantheon continues to be a legacy of the skill and capabilities of the Roman architects who made it (Semes, C1.2).
Lugli, G. “The Pantheon and Adjacent Structures.” Rome: Giovanni Bardi Publisher, 1971
Hasselberg, Lothar. “Deciphering a Roman Blueprint.” Scientific American 272 (1995): 84-89
Herring, Ben. “The Secrets of Roman Concrete.” Constructor Magazine September 2002:13-16
Howell, Peter. “Pantheons: Transformations of a Monumental Idea.” Apollo Magazine September 2005: 33-36
Mainstone, Rowland. “Letter On the Structure of the Roman Pantheon.” The Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 673-674
Mark, Robert, and Paul Hutchinson. “On the Structure of the Roman Pantheon.” The Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 24-34
Semes, Steven. “Pantheon Inside.” Architecture Week 254 (2005): C1.1-C1.2
Ward-Perkins, J.B. “Roman Imperial Architecture.” New York: Penguin Books, 1985
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