The Pantheon, for me, is Rome. For some people it is St.Peter’s, for others the Colosseum but after many years in Rome the Pantheon still thrills me. I live in the neighbourhood, in Palazzo Doria, so I must pass it most days of the week. But ‘pass it’ is not the correct term. I always find myself slowing down and even being compelled to sit down and have a cappuccino among the tables of tourists. One of the special charms of Rome is the unexpected. Other capital cities seem to announce their great buildings well in advance by wide approach roads or significant minor edifices but Rome catches you by surprise. At night, walking down one of the old, dimly-lit narrow streets on my way home, I turn a corner and am suddenly confronted by the calm, splendid portico with its great Corinthian columns and inscribed pediment. It is the highlight of the evening.
In fact the inscription is misleading –‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, third time Consul, built this.’ Marcus Agrippa, a boyhood friend of Augustus built an earlier temple on this site and in one year built no fewer than five hundred fountains, but the Pantheon as we know it today was built much later around AD120 by Hadrian, using some of the original stones. He was responsible for this great engineering achievement yet he modestly left the name of the earlier builder in place. The Pantheon has survived with its majesty intact although it has been plundered and vandalised over the ages. The wall veneers of precious stones were stolen and the gilded roof tiles were stripped off to be lost in a shipwreck on their way to Byzantium. Urban Vlll, the Barberini Pope, had the precious portico beams taken down to be used in St.Peter’s, which provoked the pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini” ‘What the barbarians didn’t do the Barberini did.’
Until 1847 a fish market was held in the square around the lovely Renaissance fountain and Ramses ll obelisk, and we can still the holes made in the portico columns for poles used to support an awning for a poultry market. It was only on the popes’ return from exile in Avignon that the Pantheon was cleaned up and its dignity restored.