The Pantheon is brilliant in its simplicity, a combining of the circle and square, with man as part of the equation. “The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny” by William L. MacDonald, discusses this as well as the dome’s place in the ancient and modern world, why and how it was built, and its influence on architecture down to our day. While short (132 pages) and well illustrated (b&w photos), it’s not a book to breeze through. It’s a book that rewards careful reading.
It was the Roman architect Vitruvius, who lived approximately 130 years before the Pantheon was built, who first wrote about the relationship between man and architecture. MacDonald writes: “(Vitruvius) speculated about proportions in both architecture and the human figure . . . in something like circle-and-square terms: Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of these Vitruvian suppositions, illustrates reciprocities between the circle and the square, on the one hand, and the reach and theoretical spatial envelope of an idealized human figure, on the other. These concepts appear dramatically enlarged in the Pantheon, where sweep of the limbs of the Vitruvian figure are expanded to colossal dimensions. This sympathy between the forms of Roman vaulted architecture and the spatial potential of the human figure is perhaps one of the principle keys to understanding the long life and continuing influence of that architecture.”
Around 117 A.D. Roman emperor Hadrian commissioned the building of the Pantheon. While the architect’s name is not known, he was the first Roman to break with Greek architectural influence and design something wholly original—a domed rotunda. It was built as a temple, possibly to honor the planetary deities—Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn. Historian Cassius Dio thought so, and the void seen through the oculus (the round hole in the center of the dome), would make it appear so. Later, after the fall of Rome, the Pantheon became a christian church, which helped preserve it.
Remarkably, it has stayed preserved, and is one of the few buildings of antiquity that has survived complete.
It’s influence on architecture is universal, notably in the Dome of St. Peter’s, and particularly in the buildings of Palladio. Thomas Jefferson was entranced by the dome, and adopted it in the design of Monticello, and particularly in the Library Rotunda at the University of Virginia. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. is a near duplication of the Pantheon, but on a smaller scale.
“Angelic, not human,” is how Michelangelo described the Pantheon. Indeed, as with all great domes, the Pantheon draws the eye heavenward, especially from the inside. The oculus lets in light, and lifts our thoughts outward and upward. Like all great art, the Pantheon inspires the imagination and invites us to comprehend things celestial, to a world free of restraint where anything seems possible.