Daily Dose of Europe: Roman Pantheon

The Pantheon gives you a feel for the magnificence and enlightened spirit of ancient Rome better than any other monument.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) of the gods (theos). It was a one-stop-worship place for ancient pagans who could come here to honor Jupiter, Venus, Mars, or any of the thousands of other Roman gods — the god of bread-making, of fruit trees, even the god of manure.

The temple was built by the Emperor Hadrian around AD 120. Hadrian was a voracious traveler, sophisticated scholar, and amateur architect, and he may have personally helped design it. Hadrian loved Greece, and gave the Pantheon the distinct look of a Greek temple — columns, crossbeams, and pediment.

The facade’s enormous columns — 40 feet tall, 15 feet around, and 55 tons — are each made of a single piece of red-and-gray granite. They were quarried in faraway Egypt, shipped across the Mediterranean, then carried overland to this spot, where they were lifted into place using only ropes, pulleys, and lots of sweaty slaves. It’s little wonder that the Romans — so organized and rational — could dominate their barbarian neighbors.

But what makes the building so unique is what’s on the inside — a soaring interior dome. Stepping inside, your eye is drawn upward, where the dome completely fills your field of vision. The dome was the ancient world’s largest, a testament to Roman engineering. It’s exactly as high as it is wide — 142 feet from floor to rooftop, 142 feet from side to side. You can put it into an imaginary box that’s a perfect cube. Even if you’re not a mathematician, the perfection and symmetry of the building makes a strong subconscious impression. Modern engineers still admire how the Romans built such a mathematically precise structure without computers, fossil fuels, or electricity.

The dome is made from concrete, a Roman invention. The dome gets lighter and thinner as it rises to the top — from 20-foot-thick walls at the bottom to five feet thick at the top, made with light volcanic stone. The square indentations, or coffers, reduce the weight as well. At the top of the dome is an opening 30 feet across. This sunroof is the building’s only light source. So what happened when it rained? They got wet.

With perhaps the most influential dome in art history, the Pantheon was the model for Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, Michelangelo’s at St. Peter’s, and even the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

As ancient Rome crumbled, the Pantheon was spared. This pagan temple to “all the gods” was converted to a Christian church to “all the martyrs.” Over the centuries, it became a revered burial spot for “secular saints” like the artist Raphael and Italy’s first modern king.

The Pantheon is the only ancient building in Rome continuously used since its construction. Visitors from around the world pack the place to remember the greatness of classical Rome. And the Pantheon contains the world’s greatest Roman column: the pillar of light, shining through the sunroof, spanning the entire 142 feet, connecting heaven and earth.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at our online Travel Store. You can also view bonus content online with short clips that give context and dimension to the art at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Pantheon.