The Beauty & Ingenuity of the Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Preserved Monument: An Introduction

Asked to name our favorite con­crete build­ing, many of us would strug­gle to hold back a sneer. Though the copi­ous use of that mate­r­i­al by mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry style known as Bru­tal­ism has late­ly gained new gen­er­a­tions of enthu­si­asts, we still more com­mon­ly hear it lament­ed as a source of archi­tec­tur­al “mon­strosi­ties.” But as a build­ing mate­r­i­al, con­crete goes back much fur­ther in his­to­ry than the decades fol­low­ing World War II. To find a uni­ver­sal­ly beloved exam­ple, we need mere­ly look back to sec­ond-cen­tu­ry Rome. There we find the Pan­theon, look­ing much the same as it does in twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry Rome today.

The best-pre­served mon­u­ment of ancient Rome, the Pan­theon (not to be con­fused with the Greek Parthenon) has remained in con­tin­u­ous use, first as “a tem­ple to the gods, then sanc­ti­fied and made into a church. Now, of course, it’s a major tourist attrac­tion.” So says schol­ar Steven Zuck­er in the Khan Acad­e­my video above, a brief pho­to­graph­ic tour he leads along­side his col­league Beth Har­ris.

“As soon as you walk in, you notice that there’s a kind of obses­sion with cir­cles, with rec­tan­gles, with squares, with those kinds of per­fect geo­met­ri­cal shapes,” says Har­ris. “Because of the Roman use of con­crete, the idea [obtained] that archi­tec­ture could be some­thing that shaped space and that could have a dif­fer­ent kind of rela­tion­ship to the view­er.”

You can go deep­er into the Pan­theon (built cir­ca 125 AD) through the tour video by Youtu­ber Gar­rett Ryan, cre­ator of the ancient-his­to­ry chan­nel Told in Stone. Call­ing the Pan­theon “arguably the most influ­en­tial build­ing of all time,” he goes on to sup­port that bold claim by exam­in­ing a host of struc­tur­al and aes­thet­ic ele­ments (not least its sub­lime­ly spher­i­cal rotun­da) that would inspire archi­tects in the Renais­sance, a time ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing use of ancient Greek and Roman knowl­edge, and in some sense ever after. This may come as a sur­prise to view­ers with only a casu­al inter­est in archi­tec­ture — more than it would to the Emper­or Hadri­an, com­mis­sion­er of the Pan­theon, who seems not to have been giv­en to great doubts about the dura­bil­i­ty of his lega­cy.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

What Hap­pened to the Miss­ing Half of the Roman Colos­se­um?

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

Roman Archi­tec­ture: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Ital­ian Street Musi­cian Plays Amaz­ing Cov­ers of Pink Floyd Songs, Right in Front of the Pan­theon in Rome

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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