Cemetery of the Week #29: the Roman Pantheon

The Pantheon from the Piazza della Rotonda

The Pantheon
Piazza della Rotonda, Rome, Italy
Telephone: +39 06 68300230
Established: 27 BC
Number of Interments: 5
Open: Monday to Saturday: 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and May 1.
Admission: Free

The Rough Guide to Italy reports that the Pantheon is “the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city.” Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law, built the Pantheon in 27 BC, the year after Augustus found himself entombed in his mausoleum nearby (subject of a later Cemetery of the Week). That first Pantheon burned down, to be replaced by Hadrian in 125 AD.

In 609 AD, the abandoned building was re-consecrated as St. Mary of the Martyrs. Shortly afterward, the Byzantines stole the gilded bronze roof tiles to adorn Constantinople. The tiles traveled to Alexandria, before being finally lost to history. Plummeting from the splendor of Imperial Rome, the Pantheon’s portico slummed as a fish market during the Middle Ages.

In the 21st century, the Pantheon still isn’t much to look at from the outside. Its stone walls looks rotted and soft as butter. An embankment embedded with miscellaneous pieces of half-excavated architecture surrounds the building. Although no longer a fish market, the church’s shadowy portico remains uninviting.

Inside, the church glows with natural light. It is famed for its oculus — the eye of Heaven — an opening in the summit of the dome that allowed sunlight in. Polished marble of seemingly every shade from peach to red faces the walls. Inset panels of yellow-and-cream stone look like frozen flames and smoke trails. The antico giallo — yellow marble — had already become rare in Hadrian’s time. Its use demonstrated how much he treasured this place that he used it here.

Originally, the Pantheon honored the cult of the twelve gods, a holdover from Greece. Jove stood in the center of the room, surrounded by his family. Other niches held statues of Augustus and Hadrian. Being emperor made them divine.

The grave of Victor EmmanuelTo the right of the modern altar stands the grave of Victor Emmanuel II, first king of all Italy. His epitaph reads “Padre Della Patria”: Father of the Nation. With the help of Napoleon III, Victor Emmanuel unified the cities of Italy. Culbertson and Randall’s Permanent Italians: An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy reported that the king expected to be buried in his family’s tomb in Turin, but was deemed too much of a national treasure to be allowed to leave Rome.

When I visited, the black granite balcony that bore his name and epitaph looked very somber. Bright bouquets of orange lilies and birds of paradise softened it a little. An honor guard stood near a book where you could sign in to say you’d visited.
On the opposite side of the room stretched a monument to King Humbert I and Queen Margherita. Humbert was Victor Emmanuel II’s son. After his death, Margherita nursed soldiers in her home during World War I. Their grave sported a fascinating metal pillow supporting a scepter and crown.

Later, while re-reading Permanent Italians, I learned that the painter Rafael also rests in the Pantheon. I’m not sure how I missed him, except that a couple hundred stacking chairs lined up in front of the altar made it challenging to get around the room. The chairs were roped off, so I couldn’t sit and write and get a grasp on the place. In addition, dozens of people milled around as tour groups fought to stick together. A constant susurrus echoed from the high dome.

Rome Access reminds us that the Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the world solely because the Catholic Church took care of it.

Useful links:

Architecture of the Pantheon

Aerial view of the Panthenon

Historical information about Hadrian

Other church burials on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #20: Napoleon’s Tomb

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey

Cemetery of the Week #70: Salisbury Cathedral

Richard the Lion-Hearted in Rouen Cathedral