ROMAN ITINERARIES – PIGNA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 34
PIGNA DISTRICT – ITINERARY 34
With the Pigna District Itinerary 34, which you will start from the Burcardo’s House (described in Itinerary 32 of the St. Eustace District), you will enter even deeper into the Pigna District, exploring two of its most famous attractions, such as the Pantheon and the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva. You will go through an area that was always very densely populated, in a mixture of peasants and nobles, and many aristocratic families lived there (Orsini, Colonna, Capocci, Frangipane) as well as many cardinals, also due to the fact that it was crossed by the already mentioned Via Papalis.
Via di Torre Argentina – Via dell’Arco della Ciambella – Via di Santa Chiara – Via de’ Cestari – Piazza della Minerva – Via di Santa Caterina da Siena – Piazza della Pigna – Via delle Ceste – Piazza della Rotonda
THE CHAOTIC ATMOSPHERE OF THE PIGNA DISTRICT
The most vibrant and lively section of the area that you will cover in this Itinerary naturally took place around the Pantheon, around which until the 19th Century there was a real assemblage of every kind of stalls, which invaded even the imposing portico of the temple. On the other hand, the clergy who managed the sacred place gladly endured the invasion of the merchants, because of the huge profit they derived from the rent of the land.
It is enough to look at the numerous prints, the various photos and the several paintings that until the end of the 19th Century depicted the square and the Pantheon with its surroundings, to realize the situation: artists such as Bartolomeo Pinelli, Jean Baptiste Thomas and Giovan Battista Piranesi, as well as dozens of other less famous ones, clearly showed the chaos and confusion around the magnificent monument, better than any book or article could ever tell.
To make the Pantheon Square even more crowded and chaotic, until the end of the 16th Century the two huge Egyptian lions, now in the Vatican Museums, were also in front of the monument, as well as the removable platform for the executions, which took place here for most of the 17th Century. This should not surprise you, considering the proximity of the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva, which at that time was the seat of the Holy Inquisition.
In 1667, thanks to the proclamation of Pope Alexander VII and the consequent sturdy iron gate that fenced the portico, the area in front of the Pantheon was turned more austere, also lowering the level of the square, so as to make even more impressive the standing out of the ancient building. Going to read the text of the announcement, you could smile at the subtle poetic and romantic vein of the Pontiff who, with very colorful expressions, recreated with undoubted liveliness the confusion that had to be in the area until the drastic step: grocers, apothecaries, shoemakers, fishmongers and street artists were piled up near the monument, spreading their wares on the ground or on unstable wooden stalls.
However, the outcome of the intervention was very poor, and gradually vendors and street artists began to swarm again in a short time, despite the transfer of the fish market to Via delle Coppelle. Only in the mid-19th Century the situation was purified, leaving more room for tourists, cafes and luxury hotels.
Take via di Torre Argentina and reach Via dell’Arco della Ciambella, which you must take while observing the ancient remains of the famous Baths of Agrippa: the road was opened in 1621 by Pope Gregory XV, partly demolishing the old Roman building. What you can see today, about halfway down the road, is a small portion of a circular hall of the Baths that clearly shows a huge curvature, similar to a doughnut (“ciambella” in Italian language).
The Baths of Agrippa, of which there are still some remains in this District, were the oldest in Rome: they were fed by the Virgin Water, which still feeds many fountains of the District. The area of this structure, truly unique in antiquity, stretched for about one hundred meters wide for over one hundred and twenty meters long, and from Via dell’Arco della Ciambella reached the back of the Pantheon.
Take now the right, along Via di Santa Chiara, where there is the church of the same name, built in 1582 by Francesco da Volterra and commissioned by St. Charles Borromeo, already mentioned in previous Itineraries. In front of the church there is the palace, today covered with a 17th Century façade, where in 1380 St. Catherine of Siena died: the body of the Saint is since then in a crystal case placed under the high altar of the adjacent St. Mary Over Minerva. The walls and floor of the small room where St. Catherine died have been inside the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva since 1637.
Leave now Via di Santa Chiara, cross the Minerva Square and arrive in front of the Dominican church.
THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY OVER MINERVA
According to tradition, the church was built in the 8th Century by Pope Zechariah, who gave it to the Basilian nuns who came from Constantinople. The settlement of the Dominicans took place just in the middle of the 13th Century.
In 1280 the Dominican friars Sixtus and Ristoro commissioned the construction of a large Gothic church with three naves, thanks to the funds donated by Pope Boniface VIII and many worshippers. The work was literally endless, and only in 1453 the main nave was covered by the roof; in the same year, thanks to funds from Count Francesco Orsini, the façade was also built, but left in a rustic state. It remained simple and unadorned until 1725, when Pope Benedict XIII, on the occasion of the Jubilee, decided to have it decorated with a simple painted plaster covering. The only decorative element, in addition to the portals of the 15th Century, is represented by the Orsini family coats of arms, one simple and the other with the crest.
In 1808, with the Napoleonic occupation of the city and the suppression of the religious corporations, more than two thousand soldiers quartered in the convent, so when in 1814 the Dominicans regained possession of their headquarters, they had to start a series of works to remedy the damage caused by the troops and in this climate matured the idea of a complete restoration of the church. In 1848 were then made considerable restorations in Romanesque-Gothic style, with prejudice for the austerity and for its own architectural line, obtaining a decorative heaviness and a dark magnificence that badly fit with the original style, completely obliterated.
Before entering the church, observe on the walls of the church the numerous plaques that refer to the floods of the Tiber, which in this point (among the lowest in Rome) were particularly disastrous. These are the floods of 1495, 1530, 1557 and 1598.
THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The interior of the church has three naves, separated from each other by twelve huge pillars, and ends in the transept, equipped with a chapel and a choir. Despite the tortuous historical events, of which the building still bears visible signs, the basilica is the only example of a medieval Gothic church in the city of Rome and the most important families of Rome (who had their noble chapels in this church) contributed to its construction.
THE FUNERARY MONUMENTS
The Church of St. Mary Over Minerva houses tombs of absolute importance for the history not only of Rome, but of the entire Italy. Start with the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, masterfully restored on the occasion of the Jubilee of 2000, when the sculpture was freed from the oil colors that in the 19th Century had transformed it into a wax statue and took up the white marble of the 15th Century.
You can also admire the tombstone of the most illustrious of all the Dominican artists, the painter friar Giovanni from Fiesole, known as Beato Angelico, declared in 1984 by Pope John Paul II “Universal Patron Saint of Artists”: the tombstone, made by Isaiah from Pisa and slightly raised above the floor, depicts the great Dominican painter dressed in his habit, cape and hands crossed on his chest.
There are also several Popes buried inside the church: behind the high altar you can admire the majestic funerary monuments of two Popes of the Medici family, Leo X and Clement VII, while in the various chapels stand out the monuments dedicated to Urban VII (died in 1590 and remembered above all for being the shortest pontificate in history, which lasted just twelve days), Benedict XIII (who died in 1730) and especially Pope Paul IV, who died in 1559 and very famous for his persecutions against the Jews and the creation of the Jewish Ghetto.
The list of cardinals and artists buried in this church is then almost endless, including key names for Rome and Italy such as Cardinal Torquemada, the humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo, the venerable Maria Raggi (with the wonderful simulacrum designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini) and the architects and sculptors Filarete and Andrea Bregno.
THE MAIN CHAPELS
Do not limit yourselves, however, to observe the wonderful funerary monuments of the church, but stop to look at the amazing works of art that embellish it.
Start from the Chapel of the Annunziata, located along the right aisle and deeply modified by Carlo Maderno, with a wooden panel of 1485 by Antoniazzo Romano depicting the Annunciation (in which there is also Cardinal Torquemada, founder of the Confraternity of the Annunziata, born to provide gifts to young poor girls); the Aldobrandini Chapel, designed by Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno and decorated by the admirable painting Institution of the Eucharist by the Urbino painter Federico Barocci (1594).
THE ORGANS AND THE SACRISTY
It is also necessary to mention the two organs, practically identical and both built in 1628 by Ennio Bonifazi, whose fate has been completely different over the centuries: the one on the right was destroyed by fire, while the one on the left is now in the Cathedral of Sutri.
Behind the Sacristy is the suggestive “Room of St. Catherine“, rebuilt in 1637 with the same walls of the room where she died in Via di Santa Chiara, with very damaged frescoes of the school of Antoniazzo Romano.
THE CARAFA CHAPEL
The second artistic masterpiece of the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva is the Carafa Chapel, located at the end of the right transept, which was built and beautifully decorated between 1489 and 1492 by the Neapolitan Cardinal Oliviero Carafa in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas.
On the interior walls is the splendid fresco cycle by Filippino Lippi, recently restored and considered one of the richest pictorial complexes of the late 15th Century in Rome.
On the back wall the Assumption of the Virgin and the altarpiece with the Annunciation and Cardinal Oliviero Carafa presented to the Virgin by St. Thomas connect ideally with all the frescoed stories in the chapel. On the right wall at the top the Miracles of the Crucifix see St. Thomas Aquinas being praised by the Crucifix, while at the bottom you can see The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over the Error, where the Saint is represented seated in the chair with a book in his left hand, while with his right hand he points out the defeated Error. The four female figures next to him personify Grammar, Theology, Dialectics and Philosophy, each one characterized by its own attributes; on the left you can see a view of the Lateran with the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then moved to the Capitoline Square.
On the left wall, you can admire the majestic monument to Pope Paul IV, erected by Pope Pius V in 1566 to a design by Pirro Ligorio.
THE RISEN CHRIST BY MICHELANGELO
The most famous work of art in the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva is the Risen Christ sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The Roman nobleman Metellus Vari commissioned Michelangelo a life-size Christ, represented standing and holding the cross. A first version of the work, despite having been brought to an advanced stage of realization, was abandoned in 1516 for the appearance of a black vein (an imperfection of the marble) on the neck and face. Three years passed and it took a lot of insistence on the part of the client for the artist to start making a new version of the statue, this time successfully completed despite Michelangelo was not fully satisfied.
The statue depicts Christ, with features reminiscent of a pagan athlete, holding the cross with both hands and the right leg carried forward, covering the lower end of the cross, while the left leg remains in the background; the entire mighty torso turns to the right, together with the left arm, while the head turns in the opposite direction. The elaboration of Christ’s posture is noble, elegant, lively and seems to involve the entire person of Jesus in an upward motion of ascension, with a complex but effective torsion that demonstrates Michelangelo’s continuous search for new compositional solutions.
Originally the figure was completely naked and the bronze drapery on the groin was a subsequent complement, linked to the Council of Trent, comparable to the similar pudic covers added after the author’s death, to the nudes of the “Last Judgement” of the Sistine Chapel.
On March 25th of each year, the entire area around the Minerva Square was festively decorated for the arrival of the papal procession, with the church completely covered with tapestries and festoons of vegetables, flowers and light sources.
The salient part of the ceremony, once the solemn papal mass was finished, included the delivery of a dowry to the probe, virgins and of good fame spinsters. The spinsters were chosen from among all the city districts and gathered at the Archconfraternity of the Annunziata, which was located in St. Clare’s Square.
From this place of gathering, two by two they went in procession with a candle in their hands to the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva, wrapped in white dresses with a very long veil.
Once the sacred function was over, the spinsters dressed in this way were made to approach the throne of the Pope, to whom they kissed genuflected the sacred slipper, receiving the special blessing, and directly from the holy hands, a silk bag, also white, with inside a money subsidy for the future dowry.
THE BERNINI’S ELEPHANT
Leave the church now, to enter the square in front of you and observe the curious statue of a small elephant carved in marble designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, probably with the help of Ercole Ferrata, one of the great sculptor’s pupils. The small elephant supports a modest obelisk five and a half meters high, dating back to the IV Century B.C. and unearthed in 1665 in the main cloister of the Dominican convent: it certainly belonged to the Iseo Campense, the great temple of Isis and Serapis of which we have already talked about in previous Itineraries.
Carved in 1667, the pachyderm (as indicated by the Latin inscription on the base) represents “the robust mind necessary to sustain a solid wisdom“: the proverbial memory of the elephant would serve in this sense to support the burden linked to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. In reality, after having squared the work, the Roman people immediately nicknamed her “the Minerva’s Porcino“, because the animal was so clumsy that it resembled more a large pig than a pachyderm. Over time the nickname was changed to “Pulcino” (Chick), as it is still called today by Roman citizens.
The reason for this clumsiness derives from the fact that the Dominicans, perhaps envious of Bernini or more likely upset by the choice of the anomalous subject, harshly criticized the sculptor for not having inserted, under the belly of the pachyderm, a cube to support the structure; in their opinion, in fact, the weight of the obelisk would have weighed entirely on the legs of the elephant, threatening the stability of the obelisk. Although Bernini demonstrated the absolute solidity of the monument, he finally had to surrender to the Dominicans’ insistence: he then made a stone filling under the animal’s belly, trying to camouflage it by sculpting a saddle and a long and elegant gualdrappa on its back.
According to the tradition, Bernini conceived the elephant in order to rebuke it so that it would turn its back towards the Dominican convent, accentuating its irreverent pose with its slightly shifted tail and with the backward movement of the trunk, indicating the backrests in a sort of impertinent greeting to the friars who had opposed it.
BUYING AND SELLING THE ELEPHANT
The small monument is also famous for having been “sold” during the American occupation of 1946. In fact, a Roman citizen evidently with a good dose of sarcasm and nerve, managed to sell it to an American officer: however, when the Americans showed up on the square with a truck and all the equipment and laborers necessary for its removal, they were stopped by the doorman of the Minerva Hotel, who, having learned of the absurd purpose, informed the Municipal Police just in time, thus bringing to light the ridiculous deception perpetrated against the American officer and preventing the loss of a priceless treasure.
THE MINERVA HOTEL
Speaking of the Minerva Hotel, it is still located on the right hand side of the church, inside the Fonseca Palace, an oriunda family from Portugal. The hotel is very famous for having hosted, among others, the writer Stendhal, Pope Pius IX and the liberator of Argentina, José de San Martin.
THE NUNEZ PALACE
At the number 57 of Via Santa Caterina da Siena there is the Nunez Palace, a very noble building of the end of the 17th Century designed by the architect Antonio De Rossi; you can see the large family coat of arms at the corner with Vicolo della Minerva.
THE FRANGIPANE-CAPOCCI PALACE
In the little square between Via Pie’ di Marmo and the beginning of Via Santo Stefano del Cacco there is the Frangipane-Capocci Palace, two of the oldest Roman families. The Capocci sold the building to the Frangipane in 1570. The access to the palace is adorned with two caryatids on a plinth, with an architrave decorated with heraldic ornaments.
THE SIMONETTI-GUERRA PALACE
In Via del Gesù, at number 85, you can see a beautiful Renaissance portal, which leads into the Simonetti-Guerra Palace: at the end of the entrance hall you can see an ancient column and a capital, but also the courtyard is very picturesque, with a lovely fountain that throws water into an ancient sarcophagus.
THE CHURCH OF ST. JOHN OF THE PIGNA
After a very short walk you will arrive at the Pigna Square, the real center of the homonymous district, which was once called Porcari Square, an ancient family that owned several properties in the place. On the square, on the right, there is the church of St. John of the Pigna, already mentioned in the papal bull of Agapito II in 955. Having fallen into ruin, Pope Gregory XIII granted it in 1584 to the Archconfraternity of the Piety towards the prisoners, who rebuilt it starting from the foundations, entrusting the construction of the new church to the architect Torroni. However, it was restored again in 1837 under the direction of Virginio Vespignani. The church has a tripartite façade with pilasters and composite capitals, and a portal with an angel’s head on the tympanum. The interior has a single nave with a high altar and is the result of 18th Century renovations: approach the high altar to admire, between two pairs of Corinthian columns, St. John the Baptist by Baldassarre Croce and, higher up, the Pietà by Luigi Garzi.
THE MUTI-BERARDI PALACE
Near the small church there are the Gabrielli Palace, built in 1530 and today belonging to the adjacent Vicariate, and the Muti-Berardi Palace, built around 1565 by Giacomo della Porta and that once had on the façade decorations related to the stories of Ancient Rome, made by Polidoro da Caravaggio and now disappeared.
In case the entrance door is open, you can access the charming courtyard and admire the wonderful water clock designed by the Dominican friar Gian Battista Embriaco. The very delicate mechanism of the clock is the same in two other examples set up by the same religious: one is currently at the Pincio, the other at the Ministry of Finance.
THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY STIGMATA OF ST. FRANCIS
Taking Via dei Cestari you will come across the Church of the Holy Stigmata of St. Francis, which has taken the place of the medieval Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, nicknamed (as we have already said in previous Itineraries) “de Calcarario“, given the proximity of the large workshop that minced the old marble to make lime.
The Archconfraternity of the Holy Stigmata of St. Francis was founded by decree of Clement VIII in 1597, but the church was built only in 1714 on a project by architect Giovan Battista Contini, with Pope Clement IX laying the first stone. The façade, designed by Antonio Canevari, has two orders with three access portals between Corinthian columns, and is embellished by the beautiful statue of St. Francis, sculpted by Antonio Raggi. In the curved tympanum you can see an angelic head, and to crown it all there is the emblem of the Archconfraternity: to observe the elegant bell tower you will have to move to the Argentine Square, considering the grandeur of the façade.
The interior of the church, with a single nave after an atrium defended by strong grilles, is decorated with precious marbles linked to the munificence of the nobleman Luigi Della Torre: among the main decorations, you can admire the beautiful altarpiece, made in the 18th Century by Francesco Trevisani and depicting St. Francis Stigmatized, and then move in front of the Chapel of the Redemption, where stands out the admirable ivory crucifix, donated to the church by Cardinal Cybo and made by the great Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi, one of the most famous artistic rivals of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
From the sacristy, where a silver reliquary containing the blood of St. Francis of Assisi is kept in mighty wooden cupboards, it is possible to access the cemetery, which presents a disturbing familiarity with the earthly remains of the deceased confreres, thanks to the macabre decorations made with the bones of the dead ones.
THE MAFFEI- MARESCOTTI PALACE
The Maffei-Marescotti Palace, which is located on the Via de’ Cestari immediately after the Church of the Holy Stigmata of St. Francis, presents a particular history.
Erected in 1580 by Cardinal Marcantonio Maffei, in the place where there were ancient family houses, it actually remained unfinished for years, before being sold first to the Acciajoli family and then to the Marescotti family in 1746. The architect Ferdinando Fuga made some adaptations before the building passed first to the Papal State Bank and then to the Roman Bank, until it became the property of the Holy See in 1906, which installed here the Vicariate. After the Vicariate moved to the St. Callixtus Palace in 1964, the building now houses some Catholic associations and the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a true colossus of religious tourism. The main entrance is at number 13 of Via della Pigna, in front of the ancient Porcari Palace. It has a beautiful main door with festooned architrave and heraldic decorations, placed between two columns gathered in a niche; the windows are alternating tympanums, curved and rectangular with inserted deer heads.
THE MUTI-SACCHETTI PALACE
At number 34 of Via dei Cestari, just in front of this palace, there is the Muti-Sacchetti Palace, started by Virginio Vespignani around 1840 and finished only in 1869, where you could enter to admire the courtyard, which has a suggestive fountain with a fake grotto and a wide staircase decorated with a marble female figure.
THE BESSO PALACE
Returning towards the Argentine Square, dedicate a last minute to the Besso Palace, built on the ancient Strozzi Palace. Built at the behest of the Olgiati family and then sold in 1626 to the very rich Strozzi family, the palace was embellished by the architect Carlo Maderno, before being partially demolished in 1907 to make room for Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
At the beginning of the 18th Century the celebrated museum of rarity of Leone Strozzi was located here, with works of art, naturalistic, ethnographic, antiquities, and in particular gems, coins, marbles and shells: among the most prestigious works of art, there was the statue of St. Lawrence on the grill, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Inside the palace there is the seat of the Besso Cultural Foundation, open to the public with its more than one hundred thousand volumes, rich of a Dante’s library with incunabula and the rarest editions.
THE PANTHEON (THE HISTORY)
We have deliberately left at the end the description of the Pantheon, due to the exceptionality of the monument which, with respect to the Itinerary and in general to the Pigna District, has a unique history. If you want to discover it in every detail, book the Rome Guides City Center Tour, that includes in the Itinerary the entrance in the Pantheon too.
THE ORIGINS OF THE PANTHEON
The Pantheon, nicknamed by the Roman people “the Rotunda“, was originally built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus, around 27 B.C. and is still today the monument that carries with greater vigor and vividness the sense of ancient Romanity. Originally, on the basis of archaeological investigations, it was conceived as a rectangular building but, after it had been destroyed (probably during the fires of 80 and 110 A.D.), it was rebuilt at the time of the Emperor Hadrian, as is testified by the “brick stamps”, the marks found on the handmade bricks. This explains the elegant inscription placed immediately under the tympanum, to be intended as a tribute made by Emperor Hadrian to the builder of the original structure: M-AGRIPPA-L-F-COS-TERTIVM-FECIT translatable as “It was built by Marco Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time“.
The Pantheon was restored several times during the Roman Empire: the sources recall an impressive restoration under Emperor Antoninus Pius (II Century A.D.), while the inscription engraved on the trabeation of the front recalls another restoration that took place under Septimius Severus in 202 A.D.
In ancient times, the monument must have been much higher, giving the viewer a sensation of majesty that today, although it has not disappeared, has weakened. You should also imagine the Pantheon in front of a very large rectangular square, decorated with suggestive porticoes that embraced the building, which gave a perspective view of the building, while the current square (although characteristic in its late medieval buildings) forces it into a more compressed and reduced space.
THE TRANSFORMATION IN A CHURCH
The term “Pantheon” comes from the Greek language and indicates a building dedicated to all the gods: until 608, the building maintained this primitive function. Just in 608, however, the Byzantine Emperor Foca gave it to Pope Boniface IV, who naturally transformed it into a Christian church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Christian Martyrs, with the name of St. Mary ad Martyres: the title comes from the relics of anonymous Christian martyrs who were moved from the catacombs in the basement of the Pantheon.
THE PLUNDERING OF THE PANTHEON
Despite the cession made to the Church by his predecessor, the Emperor Constant II in 655 had all the gilded bronze tiles removed from the roof of the dome, probably to reuse them to build a giant bronze statue. Only one hundred years later, by Pope Gregory III, the roof was restored by much cheaper lead sheets, which still cover it today.
In the Middle Ages, as easily predictable, the Pantheon was transformed into a fortress, and Pope Anastasius IV in 1153 began, next to this manor, the construction of his papal palace, then completed to house the Canons, who began to manage the area with considerable profit, renting to street vendors both the ground of the square and the ambulatory of the temple: as mentioned in the introduction, the chaotic gathering was eliminated only in the 19th Century.
The plundering of the Pantheon was not finished at all, however, and indeed reached its peak under the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII, a member of the Barberini family and known for the destruction and alterations carried out in Rome against ancient and medieval monuments. In 1632, in fact, the Pope gave the order to remove all the bronze coating of the beams of the pronaos, to melt eighty cannons with which to weaponize the St. Angel’s Castle and build the twisted columns that still adorn the canopy that surmounts the papal altar of the St. Peter’s Basilica. Now, try to imagine how much bronze has been stolen, and how such vandalism could be avoided simply by purchasing the same amount of material, without plundering it from an ancient monument so important for the city of Rome. For this reason Pasquino, one of the sarcastic “talking statues” of Rome, witnessing this operation so unwise and disrespectful of ancient monuments, commented with wit and civil bitterness: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did).
The Pope Urban VIII, however, did not limit himself to plundering the bronze from the Pantheon but, perhaps dragged by an ill-concealed sense of guilt, he decided to “embellish” the monument by adding, on the sides of the tympanum, two small side bell towers, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; the Romans, who judged them clumsy and very little elegant, immediately renamed them “donkey ears”. Moreover, in an attempt to stem the invasion of the temple by the merchants, he built two massive gates that closed the area flush with the pronaos. Finally, he inserted two pink granite columns, found near the Church of St. Louis of the French, on the left of the pronaos, where they were missing being probably collapsed during the earthquake of 1348.
To Pope Clement XI, reigning between 1700 and 1721, it is owed the arrangement on the square of the present central fountain, embellished by the Egyptian obelisk coming from St. Macuto. The atmosphere must have been decidedly suggestive, as shown by the reading of Goethe’s tales, who wrote “the grandeur of the Pantheon, both outside and inside, has aroused in me a joyful sense of reverence”.
THE RENOVATIONS IN MODERN TIMES
The 19th Century saw great renovations in and around the Pantheon. In 1853, Pope Pius IX had all the hovels that were leaning against the temple knocked down, and in 1883 the Minister of Education Guido Baccelli had the small bell towers raised by Bernini knocked down, eliminating the gates and restoring the inscription in bronze letters on the façade of the temple. From 1878, then, the Pantheon became the shrine of the Italian sovereigns, so that even today Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I are buried inside it.
THE PANTHEON (THE ARCHITECTURE)
Enter the Pantheon, passing through a solemn portico (33 meters by 16) of eight monolithic granite columns with wonderful Corinthian capitals; the surface of the portico is 33 meters by 15.30. On the architrave there are two Latin inscriptions: the first, already mentioned, recalls the original construction of the monument by Marcus Agrippa, while the second, smaller and a little faded, commemorates the restoration of Septimius Severus in 202 AD: “Emperor Lucius Lucius Septimius Severus and Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, restored the Pantheon, ruined by age, with every care“.
The imposing bronze entrance door, with an African marble frame, measures 12.60 by 7.50 meters; on its sides there are marble slabs that repeat the ornamental motifs of the portico pilasters and have inscriptions dedicated to the various Pontiffs who restored the building. On the two sides you can see two large niches, destined to house the statues of Augustus and Agrippa; from the left niche, through an ancient staircase, you could access the seat of the so-called Virtuosi of the Pantheon, which we will talk about in the appropriate paragraph.
THE PANTHEON – A MASTERWORK OF ENGINEERING
The Pantheon, which is striking for its grandiose and suggestive interior, no less than its monumental exterior, has a diameter of 43.30 meters. For this reason, the dome of the Pantheon is absolutely the largest in the world: the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica, for example, measures about one meter less in diameter, and that of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower in Florence is about two meters smaller.
The construction of the Pantheon was a masterpiece of engineering. The dome rests on a concrete support over 7 meters wide and 4.50 meters deep; the wall of the cylinder is 6 meters thick and is built through three different layers of masonry. As the dome continues to rise, the material used is gradually lighter and lighter in order to put as less weight as possible on the building below, in an admirable game of thrusts and counter thrusts: the highest part of the dome, for example, is made of simple plaster, amalgamated with pumice stone.
Internally, the vault presents five orders of coffers that are shrinking towards the apex, represented by the famous “oculus“, a sort of eye open to the sky, so as to create a perspective game of great lightness. The “oculus” has a diameter of 9 meters.
The niches on the perimeter wall are alternately semicircular and rectangular, with architraves supported by monolithic columns made of pavonazzetto marble or yellow marble: these rooms once contained the simulacra of the gods worshipped inside the temple.
THE FLOOR OF THE PANTHEON
The floor of the temple is decorated with squares and rounds of porphyry, granite and marble of various colors. It is not the original one, because it was rebuilt in 1873, but the effect is that of the Hadrian period, being slightly convex towards the sides, with the highest part raised about 30 centimeters, while it is concave in the center so that the rain falling inside the Pantheon through the oculus placed on top of the dome, flows towards the 22 drainage holes placed in the middle of the floor.
THE INFLUENCE OVER THE ARCHITECTURE
The Pantheon has always had an enormous influence on European and American architects: think not only about Italian architecture (the Villa Rotonda in Vicenza designed by Andrea Palladio, the Temple of Canova in Possagno or the Basilica of St. Francis of Paola in Naples) but also European (the rotunda of the British Museum or the Pantheon in Paris) and American (the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC).
THE PANTHEON (THE DECORATIONS)
Stroll now inside the majestic building, while we list the most valuable works that you can find in it.
The first chapel on the right, for example, houses the beautiful Annunciation made in the late 15th Century by the painter Melozzo da Forlì; in the second chapel is the tomb of the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II, opposite which, on the left side, there is the tomb of King Umberto I, which surmounts that of Queen Margherita.
Next to the tomb of Umberto I there is one of the most important funerary monuments of Rome, the tomb of the great Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio. The ancient sarcophagus, surmounted by the splendid Madonna sculpted by Lorenzetto, Raphael’s friend, bears the sublime Latin couplet by the Renaissance poet Pietro Bembo: “Here lies Raphael, from whom nature believed to be vanquished when he was alive, and to die when he died“.
In the Pantheon are actually buried many other artists of first level, overshadowed by the fame of Raphael: Annibale Carracci, who was the great antagonist of Caravaggio, Giovanni da Udine and Perin Del Vaga, who were two students of Raphael, as well as the painter Taddeo Zuccari and the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi.
THE PANTHEON (LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS)
The Pantheon, thanks to its antiquity and great suggestion, is the subject of an endless amount of popular legends, of which we will mention only a couple.
THE HIDDEN COINS…
The first legend concerns the construction of the dome of the Pantheon and is narrated by Jacopo da Varazze in his “Golden Legend“. Once the construction of the imposing building began, it was immediately clear that it was difficult to raise the dome with the systems known to the engineers, considering how large its circumference was. According to the legend, to remedy the problem, it was decided to fill the building with an enormous amount of earth in which numerous gold coins were hidden; once the monument was finished, which at this point was full of earth mixed with coins, the citizens were invited to remove all the soil, digging and keeping as compensation all the coins they had found. The citizens naturally ran immediately and in a very short time the temple was emptied and used for worship.
…AND THE DEVIL’S FURY
Another legend linked to the Pantheon tells of a famous necromancer, named Pietro Bailardo, who used a book provided by the Devil, called “The Book of Command“, for his magic. Unfortunately for him, even necromancers grow old, and apparently immortality is not part of satanic gifts: at the end of his life, Bailardo was overwhelmed by remorse and fear of the hell. At that point, he used his magical arts to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and finally to the Pantheon. Here he met the devil who demanded his soul as agreed, but Bailardo gave the devil a handful of nuts and quickly escaped to the church, praying sincerely repentant. In this way, Bailardo saved his soul: the devil, angry, ran several times around the Pantheon to unleash his fury, and such was the anger with which he ran that he dug the moat still visible today.
THE VIRTUOSI OF THE PANTHEON
In the church of the Pantheon, some feasts were periodically celebrated, the most sumptuous of which was the one in honor of St. Joseph of the Holy Land: honouring him, it was possible to gain the same indulgences obtained by going to Jerusalem. However, the Saint was also the patron saint of the Congregation of the Virtuosi, which had its headquarters in the Pantheon and its surroundings: the Congregation was founded in 1542 by the canon Desiderio d’Auditorio, who, among other things, had brought from Palestine a box of holy ground, which was placed as a relic in a chapel of the temple, later named after St. Joseph of the Holy Land.
Among the members of the Congregation of the Virtuosi of the Pantheon, among other sculptors and architects, were Antonio da Sangallo, Perin del Vaga, Domenico Beccafumi, Caravaggio, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi, Carlo Maderno, Luigi Vanvitelli and Antonio Canova. On the occasion of St. Joseph’s Day, a large exhibition of paintings and works of art was organized in the lobby of the Pantheon, which was also attended by artists of the very highest level, such as the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez. They also printed catalogs, and exhibitions were held there until the middle of the 18th Century.