The Pantheon

I find myself confused as to why I never visited Rome before. Was it too mainstream for this traveller to far-flung countries; too ‘on’ the beaten path? The name itself, certainly, seems almost incomplete when not followed by ‘3 Nights. £349. Flights Included.’

Regardless, after my first day of correcting this lifelong mistake there are two possible ways to think. The first would be to castigate myself for time wasted. The second would be gratitude at having waited so long, since I not only have so much more to which Rome might be compared, but also – by extension – a greater realisation of its unique magnificence. 

Are there aesthetic parallels to be drawn with the great old cities of Europe, and Italy in particular? Naturally, but none are Rome. None give you the sense, somehow, that this is it; that this is the city. You can’t say that it’s the beginning of everything, not historically, and yet that remains the indisputable sense you get. This is where so very much of the money and art and architecture and – most of all – the religion has been, for so very long. And, of course, there is the history. 

It is one of those places where you can feel the sense of history so forcefully that it is almost a physical thing; you can sense, as you walk, the centuries, the millenia, that have passed in this specific place. The density of the history is almost overwhelming. The knowledge that – on walking down a single street – you are doing so ignorant of such untold numbers of stories is frustrating and wondrous in equal parts. Partake in as many tours as you please; there is the sense that a life passed attempting to catalogue the history of these streets would hardly scratch the surface. 

Nowhere is all of this better exemplified than in the Pantheon. It is a place of sheer wonder, and surely one of the most remarkable buildings on this planet. 

That wonder comes not only from the sumptuous geometric perfection of the structure’s interior, but from the concentration of that weight of history into one, magnificent place. Almost two thousand years have passed since the Pantheon was built, and it has been in continuous use – firstly as a Pagan temple, then a church – ever since. There are older places, but few indeed that could boast such a track record. 

This combination of not only longevity, but continuity too, is difficult to comprehend, in a similar way to galactic distances or geological timescales. Those, at least, feel abstract, since they are so impossibly far removed from the human experience. We do not have this  luxury of abstraction with the Pantheon. It is human beings, like us, who have trod those marble floors and gazed up at the gorgeous, graceful dome above. And they have done so without fail for two millenia. The emperor Hadrian oversaw the final construction of this temple. One thousand four hundred years later, Michelangelo would visit to sketch the dome as inspiration for the nearby St. Peter’s Basilica. Some five hundred years have passed between then and our visits today. It is a scale of footfall and human life which – because it is so concentrated into that one, modestly-sized space – becomes incomprehensible. 

You try, and you struggle, and you probably fail to picture the visitors from ancient times, through the middle ages and the renaissance and all the way up to the present day. You give up, and make your way outside through the bronze doors and past the towering, fifty-feet tall columns brought all the way from Egypt. You climb the small hill to put a little distance between yourself and the Pantheon, then turn back and realise that you spent so long and lost yourself so deeply inside that you forgot entirely about the vast, imposing exterior: the Greek-inspired portico atop those mighty columns, and the great, brick, cylindrical drum behind, under whose stoic, almost utilitarian appearance it’s hard to believe lies such delicate, curving beauty. 

The whole experience is quite moving. And it is one which could take place in very few buildings, and in very few cities, in the world. 

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