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MONDO ARC

No.2: The Pantheon

issue 31 June / July 2006


In the second building of the series, Kevin Mansfield of The Bartlett, UCWL has chosen that icon of greek architecture, the Pantheon. Use this series as study notes. As a lover of light, they should be important to you and you should at least know the basic facts about them, if not traveling the globe to stand within them. You will be tested!

In May 2006, The Pantheon ranked 4th most visited building in the world. Located in the busy centre of Rome, the plain facade hides a breathtaking interior that revolves around the penetration of natural light. Yes – it’s the one with the hole in the roof!
The building originated as a temple to twelve of the most important Roman gods and the name Pantheon (Latin) and Pantheion (Greek), means ‘Shrine of all the Gods’. The Pantheon was built in about 125AD during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian replacing an earlier building constructed by Agrippa. This is commemorated in the inscription on the portico ‘M AGRIPPA LF COS TERTIUM FECIT’ and originally encompassed adjoining baths and water gardens.The building owes its survival to the fact that it was dedicated as a Christian church in 609 after being presented to the Pope and renamed The Church of Mary and all the Martyr Saints.
The front of the Pantheon looks like a Greek temple with pillars and a triangular entablature on top. There are three rows of eight pillars, each 14m high, which are topped with Corinthian capitals. Originally, the portico ceiling and its beams were made of bronze but greedy old Pope Urban VIII had the whole ceiling removed and melted down, in order to make sculptures for St Peters.
Through the doors is the main and only room of the temple. Essentially the Pantheon consists of a cylinder with a hemispherical dome on top. The sense of architectural harmony inside the Pantheon is partly due to its perfect proportions; the dome’s diameter is equal to its height from the floor, creating the potential for a perfect sphere. The dome was the largest dome in the world for more than 1,000 years and is still the largest dome made of mass concrete. The dome varies in thickness, being 5.2m thick at the base narrowing to only 1.4m thick at the top helping to distribute the weight. The builders also mixed volcanic tufa and pumice into the concrete in order to reduce its overall weight.
The interior of the roof is intended to symbolize the heavens. The 8.7m diameter opening or oculus at the apex of the dome is known as the Great Eye. Surely the simplest lighting scheme in the world, this is the source of all light within the temple and is symbolises the sun. Even in the 21st century, standing in the centre of this ancient temple and looking up to see the clouds moving overhead, it is easy to understand the spiritual significance that this link to the heavens would have originally possessed. As the sun moves, striking patterns of light illuminate the walls and floors of porphyry, granite and yellow marbles.
The interior surface of the dome features recessed coffers which originally contained bronze star ornaments to give the impression of the sun shining against a background of stars. This coffering was not only decorative, but also reduced the weight of the roof, as did the elimination of the apex by means of the Great Eye.
The Oculus is uncovered, so that the building is open to the sky. When it rains, water cascades through the roof and slowly drains from the floor. The floor dips slightly towards the centre so that any rain that comes in through the opening in the dome flows into the centre and drains away.
At ground level, there are seven alcoves around the walls of the main space, which originally held statues of the Roman gods. It is thought that the gods represented were the gods of the seven planets: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. The Romans considered the Sun and Moon to be planets or wandering stars, because they did not follow the same course in the sky as the fixed stars.
In later centuries the Pantheon became the final resting place of artists and kings, including Raphael and Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first king of united Italy. Today the Pantheon is still a consecrated church.

“Greek architecture was primarily an exterior architecture but in the Pantheon you see an architecture working in full spatial terms. The conventional, incongruous Greek portico at the entrance to the temple gives no hint of the huge Rotunda beyond that is Roman in intent. It is unvarnished - the whole effect depends upon the building opening itself up to daylight directly. The interior is lit by a single oculus, at the very zenith of the dome - a most solemn and impressive effect. Occasionally a shaft of sunlight will play on the recesses below and if you are lucky, soft rain will drift onto the floor.”
Kevin Mansfield – The Bartlett, UCL

 

The Pantheon

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