In a city renowned for its beautiful architecture, it takes something special to stand out. The Pantheon is one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable buildings in Rome and one of the greatest architectural achievements of all times — a vast unreinforced concrete dome with an oculus, and a monumental portico consisting of a pediment and rows of gigantic Corinthian columns. It’s been an inspiration to artists, architects and writers for nearly 2,000 years. The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who briefly lived in Rome, described the Pantheon as
“...the visible image of the universe”. (Percy B. Shelley)
But although the Pantheon never ceases to amaze Rome visitors, especially once you step inside during your Rome tour and gaze up at the oculus, it is not without its flaws. There’s one mistake that must go unnoticed by the majority of visitors, due to its location, but once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Stand outside in the piazza, and make sure you’re standing some distance away, slightly to the side. Look up at the pediment. What’s behind it? Another pediment, virtually identical but three meters higher. It’s the architectural equivalent of a computer glitch, with an identical image superimposed on another.
This double facade is clearly a mistake, and it’s a mistake that has been tantalizing historians. How could an otherwise perfect building have such a glaring error? The difference in level suggests that the “hidden” pediment is the original, designed for an even larger and more imposing portico than the one we see today. There are two possible explanations for the creation of the second portico. The granite was taken from quarries in Egypt, which may simply not have been large enough to provide such colossal columns — columns large enough to match the first portico. Alternatively, perhaps some human error, or the lack of time or money, led to smaller columns being sent to Rome. Whatever the cause, the result was the creation of a second portico, designed to hide the earlier portico, which matched the smaller columns.
The Pantheon once had twin bell towers (often misattributed to Bernini), which were widely derided by Romans, and nicknamed “asses’ ears”. These towers were removed in the 19th century, but the double pediment remains today, and is still clearly visible. Although it doesn’t make the exterior of the Pantheon ugly, it arguably prevents the Pantheon from being “perfect”. Yet the fact that the Pantheon still exists at all, in any form, is something of a miracle. Originally a pagan temple, the Pantheon avoided the fate of many other pagan temples in Rome — pillage and destruction — thanks to its conversion into a Christian church. It has played a pivotal role in the life of the city for centuries, as a place of worship for both Ancient Romans and modern day Catholics. In this light, perhaps the double pediment should be seen not as an unsightly mistake, but rather as a thought-provoking reminder of the humanity behind the Pantheon. After all, a building is so much more than concrete, and even more so when it’s a building as ancient and symbolic as the Pantheon.
Once you’ve admired the beauty of the Pantheon’s interior, marveling at its graceful symmetry, step outside to look at the exterior. Each of the 16 columns weighs 60 tons, and was transported from Egypt to Rome by slave labour. The enormous front pediment would have once been decorated with bronze relief statues (then taken away to build cannons and decorated other buildings). At some point during the construction of the portico a new portico was built. When we stand in front of the Pantheon 2,000 years later, we don’t just see a church or a temple, but something dreamt up and created by the effort of thousands of workers and artists.
Perhaps the Pantheon is all the more beautiful for this imperfection – a potent symbol of humanity’s genius and fallibility.
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