If you’re heading off for a short or long break in Rome, then the Pantheon will likely figure among your must see spots in the city.
This ancient temple, while less trumpeted than the Colosseum and the Forum, is one of my favourite buildings as its initial simplicity belies incredible ingenuity and complexities in construction. Conceived by Marcus Agrippa as part of his private complex, it was later completed by Hadrian around 126AD.
It’s thought that the temple is built in recognition of all Gods, as the name comes from the Greek words ‘pan’, meaning all, and ‘theos’, meaning god. Indeed, the temple was originally surrounded by statues of gods; however, some believe that ‘Pantheon’ was just a nickname for the building.
Here are 5 things you should know about the Pantheon in Rome before you go.
1. The Oculus in the ceiling
Within the dome is one of the most distinguishing features of the temple. The large circular hole, or Oculus, is the only source of light within the building asides from the doorway.
An atmospheric experience when it rains, the water pours into the centre of the building; draining away through 22 well hidden holes in the floor.
2. It was a temple, and now it’s a church
First built as a pagan temple dedicated to all Gods, in the year 608 Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV.
The Pope went on to strip the building of all evidence of paganism, and consecrated it as St Mary and the Martyrs Church. As destructive as this move might seem, it may well have protected the temple from even greater damage, as so many of the disowned buildings of Rome suffered from abandonment and plundering over the years, as their materials were repurposed elsewhere.
3. Raphael is buried here
Italian painter and architect Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael was laid to rest here. The inscription on his marble sarcophagus reads “Here lies the famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”
4. The dome ceiling is kind of special
Measuring an incredible 142 feet, the dome comprises of concrete mixed with tufa and pumice to keep the large structure as lightweight as possible. Visitors have to imagine it’s past magnificence, as it was once covered in Bronze, and must have looked incredible when reflecting the Italian sunlight.
For more than 1300 years it was regarded as the biggest dome in the world, until an inspired Brunelleschi created the Duomo in Florence.
5. Venus, Cleopatra, and a pearl earring
Once containing statues of Venus, Mars, and Julius Caesar, there’s an interesting connection between one of these statues and Cleopatra.
In order to demonstrate her wealth, Cleopatra made a bet with Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. Removing one pearl earring, she dissolved it in wine-vinegar, and drank it – winning the bet. The other earring was said to have adorned the statue of Venus. Whilst the statue is no longer there, the story remains as an amusing insight into a legendary woman.
Best nearby vegan food
When we visit, we take the short 15 minute walk from the Pantheon to vegan eaterie Écru. Specialising in raw and organic food, the dishes are healthy, beautifully presented, and unpretentious. The prices are pitched more at the higher end, but the standard is high, and definitely somewhere for vegans to visit at least once during your visit to Rome.
It’s centrally located, so if you’re dropping by for lunch, head to the Castel Sant’Angelo after. If you’re heading there in the evening, head off for a gentle walk along the Tiber (I once ended up in an impromptu dance-off to a funk band that had set up on one of the bridges – but that’s another story!).