In the Campus Martius, the plain which stretches west from the Quirinal and Capitol hills to the Tiber, stands the best-preserved of Rome's ancient temples and the only one winch is still used as a place of worship. This is the Pantheon, originally completed or dedicated, according to its inscription, in 27 B.C., by Augustus' friend, general, colleague, and son-in-law, Agrippa, victor over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. Surrounded by the hum of modern Roman life, its time-blackened mass, with the forest of dark columns which forms its portico, confronts the visitor at unexpected moments with a sudden vision of immemorial age. The narrow streets leading to it seem to deflect the eye rather than to attract it toward the great building lost in their labyrinth. To emerge from them into the Piazza della Rotonda, which surrounds the temple, is a surprise. As Hawthorne wrote almost a century ago it 'often presents itself before the bewildered stranger, when he is in search of some other objects'. It seems equally often to withdraw itself into some hidden world from those who seek it, only to confront them finally with a closed and secret air.
The temple was dedicated especially to Mars and Venus, the patrons of the Julian family, to which Caesar and Augustus belonged; statues of these deities were set among those in the niches of the interior. 'Agrippa, for his part,' says Dio Cassius the historian, 'wished to place a statue of Augustus there also and to bestow upon him the honour of having the structure named after him; but when the emperor would not accept either honour, he placed in the temple itself a statue of the former Caesar and in the vestibule statues of Augustus and himself.' The statue of Venus in this temple, according to Pliny, wore in her ears the cut halves of one of two famous pearls which had belonged to Cleopatra; the queen had dissolved and drunk the other, says the author, to win a wager from Antony.
The Pantheon was burned twice; after the second fire, about A.D. 110, it was completely rebuilt by Hadrian, who, scrupulous about claiming for himself a structure which he had merely rebuilt, had the original inscription bearing the names of Agrippa and his father copied on the new building.
So, for nearly two thousand years, while the names of emperors have been almost forgotten, men have read that of a great Roman, humbly born, who rivalled Augustus in beautifying the city and in popularity, yet was known in his time for his rare loyalty and modesty. The ancient bronze letters disappeared long ago but their matrices remained, their size making them the most clearly legible of any Roman inscription. The hollows were refilled with modern letters in 1894.
Septimius Severus made repairs in the third century, but on the whole it is Hadrian's brick-faced concrete structure which stands today, with its forest of grey and red granite columns, forty-six feet high, surmounted by Corinthian capitals of time-greyed marble. Bronze tiles once covered the outside of its dome and a bronze cornice still surrounds the circular opening in its centre. Walls and dome stand as in imperial days, but the marble facings of the interior are gone, and of the ancient glitter of bronze only the cornice around the opening in the dome and the bronze-covered doors of the vestibule remain. In 663 the Byzantine emperor Constans II carried away the tiles from the dome, and in the seventeenth century the bronze roof trusses of the portico were melted down and recast, much of the metal being used in cannon to defend the Castle of Sant' Angelo.
The pagan temple was already a Christian church when its shining tiles were removed. In 609 it had been dedicated to Mary and All Saints or Martyrs under the name of Sancta Maria and Martyres. Later it received the name it bears as a church today--Santa Maria Rotonda, or Round Saint Mary's. The Mirabilia knew it as both a temple and a church, and tells the story of its pagan founding and Christian dedication with a characteristic blending of truth and fantasy:
'In the times of the Consuls and Senators,' Agrippa, tired and troubled concerning the conduct of a war, fell asleep worn out by thinking. 'And there appeared to him a woman, who said unto him: What doest thou, Agrippa? forsooth, thou art in great thought; and he answered unto her: Madame, I am. She said, Comfort thee, and promise me, if thou shalt win the victory, to make me a temple such as I show unto thee. And he said, I will make it. And she showed him in the vision a temple made after that fashion. And he said: Madame, who art thou? And she said, I am Cybele, the mother of the gods: bear libations to Neptune, which is a mighty god, that he help thee; and make this temple to be dedicated to my worship and Neptune's, because we will be with thee, and thou shalt prevail.'
Agrippa was victorious and 'When he returned to Rome, he built this temple, and made it to be dedicated to the honour of Cybele, mother of the gods, and of Neptune, god of the sea, and of all the gods, and he gave to this temple the name of Pantheon. And in honour of the same Cybele
he made a gilded image, which he set upon the top of the temple above the opening, and covered it with a magnifical roof of gilded brass.
'After many ages, pope Boniface, in the time of Phocas, a Christian emperor, seeing that so marvellous temple, dedicated in honour of Cybele, mother of the gods, before the which Christian men were oft-times stricken of devils, prayed the emperor to grant him this temple, that as in the Calends of November it was dedicated to Cybele, mother of the gods, so in the Calends of November he might consecrate it to the blessed Mary, ever-virgin, that is the mother of all saints. This Caesar granted unto him; and the pope, with the whole Roman people, in the day of the Calends of November, did dedicate it; and ordained that upon that day the Roman pontiff should sing mass there . . . and that on the same day all saints, with their mother, Mary ever-virgin, and the heavenly spirits should have festival, and the dead have, throughout the churches of the whole world, a sacrifice for the ransom of their souls.'
The facts in this tale are the names of Agrippa, the founder; of Phocas, the emperor who gave the temple to the Church; of Boniface, the pope who received it; and its dedication to Mary and the Martyrs. According to traditional Church observance, however, the date of its consecration is celebrated on May 13 instead of on All Saints' Day, November 1. The Pantheon has achieved an added fame as the burial place for artists, including Raphael, and for the kings and queens of United Italy.
The Pantheon's glory is its interior with a dome more than one hundred and forty feet in diameter, soaring to an equal distance above the floor, and lighted only by the one great central eye, thirty feet across. No photographs can give as adequate an impression of this interior as Piranesi's etching, Pannini's painting, or the descriptions of Byron, Shelley, and Hawthorne.
'Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime--
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus--spared and blest by time.'
wrote Byron in the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold.
Shelley, least ecclesiastically minded of men, but equally reverent beneath the spell of its proportions and changing moods, wrote to Peacock in 1819:
'It is, as it were, the visible image of the universe; in the perfection of its proportions, as when you regard the unmeasured dome of heaven, the idea of magnitude is swallowed up and lost. It is open to the sky, and its wide dome is lighted by the ever-changing illumination of the air. The clouds of noon fly over it, and at night the keen stars are seen through the azure darkness, hanging immovably, or driving after the driven moon among the clouds.'
Hawthorne, staunch descendant of the Puritans, was also fascinated by its changing lights. 'It was pleasant,' he wrote in his French and Italian Notebooks, 'looking up to the circular opening, to see the clouds flitting across it, sometimes covering it quite over, then permitting a glimpse of sky, then showing all the circle of sunny blue. . . . The great slanting beam of sunshine was visible all the way down to the pavement, falling upon motes of dust or a thin smoke of incense imperceptible in the shadow. Insects were playing to and fro in the beam, high up toward the opening. There is a wonderful charm in the naturalness of all this; one might fancy a swarm of cherubs coming down through the opening and sporting in the broad ray.'