Pantheon - Uncensored Rome
The Best of the Pantheon
I have been a student of antiquity for as long as I can remember. I immersed myself in Roman and Byzantine history while in college and have even begun weaving some of this history into the religious class I teach at the Episcopal Church.
Nothing can prepare you for the emotional experience at the first site of the Pantheon - rounding a medieval corner you are visually stunned by the site of this most ancient of edifices demanding your full attention. I nearly had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat while I intellectually processed what I was seeing. It is a magnificent structure - created in the year 126 ce as a commission by Emperor Hadrian - yes that same Hadrian who was responsible for a plethora of building projects throughout the empire, among them that little wall in northern England.
The present building is a rebuild of a previous structure burned in a fire in 110 ce which was a rebuild of another structure destroyed by what has been described as a huge fire in the year 80 ce. Rome was a 'hot' place to visit even then.
The Pantheon, located on the Via della Rotonda, was built as a pagan temple and later converted to a Christian church during a period of Roman Christian enlightenment. Byzantine emperor Phocas, in the year 606, gave the structure to Pope Bonaface IV for the conversion - Rome, at the time, being under the control of Constantinople. Perhaps the dire circumstances the empire found itself in during the rule of Phocas influenced his decision. He could be seen with his shocking red hair and the angry scar across his face leading excursions against the Avars or the Persians during his eight year rule. It is also interesting to note that Phocas was the emperor who brought forth torture using the rack, burning at the stake and the gallows to foreign as well as domestic enemies.
As improbable as it may seem - this present structure is created out of poured concrete - concrete in the year 126. It is a domed circular structure with an opening at the top of the dome called the oculus. This oculus lets light into the dimly lit interior projecting a spotlight on different parts of the interior as the sun moves through the sky. The dome was created in such a way with planned indents to lessen the weight in the upper parts of the structure. The concrete is also thinner as your eye ascends to the oculus. The Roman engineers and architects incorporated into the wet cement small empty bottles (or amphora)used at the upper most reaches to form air pockets. I can't help but wonder if they knew this remarkable building would still be standing almost 2,000 years later!
The front portico is covered with a two story roof supported by timbers harvested from ancient and now non-existent Roman forests. Corinthian columns welcomed the pagan worshipers of the first millennia.
There are a few famous Romans buried within the Pantheons walls with the most famous being the artist Rafael. He can be seen in a modestly adorned crypt at the far side of the rotunda - his statue benignly greeting visitors. Italian King Vittorio Emmanuel II and Umberto I are also interned here - the 15th century 'Coronation of the Virgin' can be seen near Emmanuel's tomb.
We had to eventually pry ourselves from the Pantheon since hunger was loudly calling. We had been in Rome for only a few hours after waking from an overnight flight from New York's JFK, taking a cab after negotiations on price at Fiumicino airport - the Roman subway was nixed earlier due to unfamiliarity and a motley crew viewed down the corridor to the platforms.
What and What to Eat
Well - we heard much about the remarkable Roman cuisine - my mouth was watering at the thought. But what was near? The neighborhood was old - medieval old - not ancient as the out of place Pantheon finds itself. We avoided the tourist spots adjacent to the Pantheon as we proceeded to stumble upon an outdoor cafe up a side street.
The cafe Zio Ciro on Via della Pace is just north of the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona - that large square which mirrors the footprint of the circus or competition stadium which stood here in the first century. We sat down under an awning right off the sidewalk. A tall, we fed, professional waiter appeared at our table suggesting that we start with the bruschetta and a bottle of reasonable house Chianti Classico. The wine arrived first and was mellow with a hint of cherry, violets and roses - delicious for 5 Euros. Three bruschetta came perfectly toasted and not only with the tomato topping we are familiar with stateside but also one with eggplant and another with mushrooms, olive oil liberally applied - the flavors were captivating. We finished with the second course of linguini with mushroom and fish in a light olive oil sauce. I don't know how the Italians do it but the pasta was perfectly done, fresh and more delicious than anything I have ever tasted.
Where to Stay
We watched the street life pass as we finished our wine. Strolling over to a small corner deli we picked up more wine, some prosciutto carved before us from a huge hanging leg, a selection of cheese and some fresh baked bread. We would take this back to our room at the Palazzo Cardinal Cesi located just steps from St. Peters Basilica. It was an oasis in the hot city, with a courtyard where you could take wine and cheese, a friendly staff and reasonably sized rooms. Our only complaint was that the walls were thin. One night I had to use the earplugs to drown out the noise from a set of adolescent sisters in the next room. My wife actually banged on the wall at midnight which was met with 'What the @#$% was that? from the two lovelies. At breakfast the next morning they looked all prim and proper dining with their parents. We surmised that the parents had a separate room - not adjoining!