Sunday photoblogging: Pantheon

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2015

Possibly the greatest building in the history of the world ….

Rome: The Pantheon



Alan White 05.17.15 at 3:44 pm

Wow! If god were Bogart: “here’s looking at you kid.” I love this.


Stephen 05.17.15 at 4:38 pm

“Possibly” does seem uncharacteristically timid.


Harold 05.17.15 at 4:47 pm



Colin Danby 05.17.15 at 5:55 pm

Really? It was built for that one effect: the light streaming through the oculus into that big domed interior. Which is striking I grant you (and the photo is lovely). Other than that it’s a pretty awkward building, especially from the outside.


Anon 05.17.15 at 6:07 pm

“If god were Bogart”

If *the gods* were. “Pan”-theon, after all. I appreciate that this photo keeps the later-added, tacky Christian bric-a-brac out of the shot.

“Other than that it’s a pretty awkward building, especially from the outside.”

True, but that magnificent interior ceiling makes up for everything else by miles. It’s the only truly glorious piece of architecture in Rome.

Contrast, for example, that hideous, giant white monstrosity. What’s it called, the Vittorio something? No, wait, my mistake. It’s called St. Peter’s. I always get those two mixed up.


Theophylact 05.17.15 at 6:17 pm

“Contrast, for example, that hideous, giant white monstrosity. What’s it called, the Vittorio something? ”

You mean the Typewriter?


Theophylact 05.17.15 at 6:29 pm

No, I think the Pantheon looks pretty good from the outside, especially from a cafe on the piazza, or in The Belly of an Architect. Too bad Urban VIII stripped the bronze ceiling off the pediment, though: ” Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini“.


Anon 05.17.15 at 6:36 pm

No, this one:

The typewriter’s almost tasteful in comparison.


Harold 05.17.15 at 6:40 pm

The Wedding Cake — people called it when we lived in Rome.

@4 “It was built for that one effect: the light ..” Exactly so. And that’s what makes it so magnificent. Sometimes hyperbole is appropriate.


michael metz 05.17.15 at 7:21 pm

Sorry for asking here, but is there an RSS feed for this website? Many thanks.


lige 05.17.15 at 8:19 pm

Nothing wrong with St. Peters – the Vittorio Emmanuel on the other hand – it overshadows the Campidoglio, a true masterpiece, and it’s made of an exotic marble that clashes with the travertine and ochre of the rest of Rome. I did like it in the Belly of an Architect though.


William Berry 05.17.15 at 8:21 pm

@michael metz: top right-hand corner of this (or any other CT) page.

Our judgment of what is great wrt to surviving examples of classical architecture is relative to physical condition, I think.

If the Parthenon, say, were in as relatively good a condition as the Pantheon, would there be any question as to which was “the greatest”?


Sasha Clarkson 05.17.15 at 8:38 pm

I love the Parthenon: it remained in pretty good nick for 2000 years until someone used it as an ammunition dump. But I think the dome, and the audacity of its construction in concrete, wins it for the Pantheon.

Great pic Chris! :)


Anon 05.17.15 at 9:20 pm

“If the Parthenon, say, were in as relatively good a condition as the Pantheon, would there be any question as to which was “the greatest”?”

No question, the Pantheon would win then. The Parthenon would be much worse in its prime. Its best features are accidents of time: its elegant simplicity, thanks to the loss of those ugly classical roofs, its balance of weight and weightlessness, thanks to the empty spaces left among the columns in the absence of the walls, its lovely simple contrast of blue and sharp white, possible only because its gaudy original paint is gone and the sky shines through its bones. In its prime it’s just a big shoebox, relying on scale, on quantity not quality, like so much western architecture.

If we really want to talk “greatest in the history of the world” we obviously have to leave Europe. The greatest architecture is always eastern: Japan, India, China, the middle east. If we must stick to Europe, then obviously the greatest buildings are Moorish and Islamic palaces and mosques.

The wedding cake is ugly but at least interesting. St. Peter’s is ugly and dull. And like so much western architecture it relies on the cheap, anti-aesthetic power of quantity over quality: more scale, more detail, more garish bric a brac.

The mathematical sublime is, Kant’s claim to the contrary, precisely not the *aesthetic* sublime, it’s the sublime for accountants. If you must go with tasteless western overkill, then there’s always the cathedral in Seville. It’s both mathematically and aesthetically sublime.


bob mcmanus 05.17.15 at 9:42 pm

The greatest architecture is always eastern

I would by no means go that far, but am more attracted to the Silver Pavilion and Yugao-tei in Kanazawa.

Funny and interesting about self-described egalitarians revealing preferences with the admiration of the monumental.


Colin Danby 05.17.15 at 10:31 pm

Re 14, yes, e.g. the Blue Mosque is a lot smarter about integrating domes and rectangles. The biggest problem with the Pantheon is that hideous portico. It’s discussed in chapter 10 of Mark Wilson Jones _Principles of Roman Architecture_ (Yale 2000).

But surely numerous Gothic cathedrals do a better job than the Pantheon of being compositionally unified and interesting inside and out, from almost any angle. If architecture is about impressive enclosed volumes we should be admiring John Portman’s Hyatts.


floopmeister 05.18.15 at 1:23 am

A beautiful building for sure, but can’t hold a candle to the Hagia Sophia. It:

“does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation, but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain.” Procopius

Walked into that immense vaulted dome the first time and burst into tears. The impact is overwhelming.


floopmeister 05.18.15 at 1:25 am

If architecture is about impressive enclosed volumes we should be admiring John Portman’s Hyatts.

Or the Hagia Sophia… :)


dn 05.18.15 at 1:40 am

Yeah, the churches of Byzantium are aesthetically far more impressive to my mind than any classical architecture. Although it would be fair to knock Hagia Sophia down a notch or two given that the dome has, you know, collapsed on a half-dozen occasions or so.


floopmeister 05.18.15 at 1:53 am

Funny and interesting about self-described egalitarians revealing preferences with the admiration of the monumental.

Not really sure of what point you are making here. Is it that we all have a hankering to hierarchic tendencies due to a love of monumental architecture? All with an inner Speer aching to break forth?

Seems a long bow to draw.

I mean, you can admire the stunning Lutyens layout of New Delhi as majestic and imperial in scope whilst deploring and rejecting the racial superiority and triumphalism it is drenched in. The architectural apogee of the British Empire (and something Speer might well have admired – I have no idea).

Yet none of it has changed after Independence, least of all the nauseating quote Lutyens had inscribed upon the Secretariat building:

Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves to liberty; it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.

Or is it simply from a cultural perspective that some sense of ‘egalitarianism’ is shallow at best? This seems more defensible – for example it’s clear that no one has yet mentioned that obvious choice of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps that’s because it is a tad gauche and obvious for this rarifed company?


e abrams 05.18.15 at 2:20 am

anon @ 14

as they say on slashdot. mod up

saying any western building is the greatist is like those movie film lists that go back to 1985..


SN 05.18.15 at 5:41 am

It does have really great reviews on Yelp.


Harold 05.18.15 at 5:42 am

I think it would be a shame to make it into a contest and a list of best and better.
and if our brains bring associations to our perceptions that adds to our emotional response, why not?

I have never seen the Parthenon, but I have seen and been very moved by Paestum and Segesta. I don’t think these are mere shoeboxes by any means. They are heart-stopping.

On the other hand, the Alhambra really does seem to be constructed out of light, nor can I forget seeing Saint Chapelle for the first time as a child — all aglow seemingly from within on a dark November day.

I love the Gendarmenmarkt also, and other buildings by Shinkel, because of their human scale.


Belle Waring 05.18.15 at 9:22 am

The Taj Mahal is better than it looks in pictures. Really, so incredible. Also, the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri, particularly the big mosque Buland Darwaza (similarly domed in a way) and the saint’s tomb. The marble screens carved into intricate filigree are like stone lace. Ste. Chapelle though… Oh but Angkor Wat! That’s a bit cheating, even, because it’s as if fifteen of the best cathedrals in Europe were located next to one another in a huge green park, so the cumulative effect is extra magnificent. When I went to Cambodia the first time in 1994 it was still not safe to travel to places like Sihanoukville or the Thai border because they were held by the Khmer Rogue and there were “hi this is a minefield” signs everywhere. So one day when it was deluged with rain my boyfriend and I were the only people there in the main complex aside from a few monks. It was an awesome experience I will never have again.


Belle Waring 05.18.15 at 9:24 am

I didn’t see floopmeister’s comment above…so, pwned on the Taj Mahal.


Anon 05.18.15 at 1:24 pm

The Taj Mahal’s an interesting case. I haven’t seen it in person, but it strikes me a very elegantly designed building–and somehow I’m not surprised that it’s been raised somewhat apologetically in this thread. In fact, I’d even say it’s a good comparison case to St. Peter’s. Similar in some ways, but so much more tasteful. It avoids the Western tendency to ruin the monumental–too much scale–with too much of everything else. Great scale needs simplicity, like the pyramids.

e abrams @21: “saying any western building is the greatist is like those movie film lists that go back to 1985..”

Or like those best novels lists that are 95% English-language, 80% men.

bob @15:
I exaggerated, of course, in saying “always.” I have to admit, for example, that the Hagia Sophia is arguably more awe-inspiring than the Blue Mosque.

“Funny and interesting about self-described egalitarians revealing preferences with the admiration of the monumental.Funny and interesting about self-described egalitarians revealing preferences with the admiration of the monumental.”

I think there’s something to this. True, well-educated, well-travelled liberals don’t, like gauche middle-American tourists, loudly greet every tourist site in Europe with “ooh, I wonder how much that cost!” But on the whole they still tend, just as much as the philistines, to goggle more if it’s bigger, more sparkly, and more expensive.

Saint Chapelle, for example (“that perfect jewel of gothic architecture,” for any Queneau fans out there.) It’s lovely, but somehow too much and not enough, yet always on the top of everyone’s favorite list.


NickM 05.18.15 at 1:39 pm

Whether or not it’s the greatest building in the world, I find it hard to think of one more exquisite than the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan.

Unless it’s the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. (I don’t mind at all that it’s a 1955 to-the-millimetre reproduction of the original, or that the gold leaf was replaced even more recently, and four times as thick as before.)

The Silver Pavilion may have more spiritual depth — partly due to its complete lack of silver (intentional or not). And it may have been even more influential on subsequent
Japanese aesthetics (or at least on the wabi sabi strain of them so celebrated in the west).
But it doesn’t provide the same perfect balance of instant and lasting gratification.


Ugh 05.18.15 at 6:44 pm

Agree Belle, Hard to beat Angkor Wat.


Stephen 05.18.15 at 7:09 pm

“If we really want to talk “greatest in the history of the world” we obviously have to leave Europe”.

The force of “obviously” is not so great to me as it seems to be to you. Europhobia, maybe?

Mind you, Hagia Sophia does seem to me to be an obvious contender, which is why I didn’t say “possibly” was timid. I wouldn’t agree to “obviously”.


Luke 05.18.15 at 7:09 pm

If every palace had a sign reading ‘palace of the people’, would it be better? What about the fabled, glittering retirement homes built by Croesus? For that matter, isn’t a church or a mosque for all believers?


Stephen 05.18.15 at 7:11 pm

ps. How far can we consider Byzantine architecture as being non-European?


Chris Bertram 05.18.15 at 7:30 pm

Wow. Sunday photoblogging usually attracts about 5 comments. I shall have to chuck in a controversial throwaway remark more often. Obviously there are lots of different criteria for buildings but I think that a dome in concrete (which we think of as a very modern material) that has lasted two millennia is pretty cool. YMMV.


Anon 05.18.15 at 8:47 pm

Stephen @29 & 31,

As I admitted in @26, I was intentionally exaggerating with “obviously” (since overstatement was already the dominant style of the thread, and since the apparent excessive Europhilia of the discussion needed some counterbalancing Europhobia).

To clarify: I’d suggested Hagia Sophia as an *exception* to my claim about the superiority of non-European architecture.


gio bruno 05.18.15 at 8:48 pm

Biggest Dome? Its diameter was regarded as magical/canonical . Pumice in the concrete? Diameter not exceeded until Brunelleschi, Dome of the Cathedral of Florence. … and he only dared by a metre or so… And that dome was not exceeded until 1899, by some US steel baron.


DCA 05.18.15 at 9:25 pm

AFAIK (hey, it’s a comments section), Hagia Sophia was also influential (much copied): that’s where most domed mosques derived from. Of the candidates so far, I’ve seen Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and would definitely go for the first; I think the Blue isn’t as good (inside aesthetics) as the Rustem Pasha.


Donald A. Coffin 05.18.15 at 11:28 pm

“Possibly the greatest building in the history of the world ….”

I would tend to agree. Standing inside it is a truly moving experience.

BTW, were you lying down when you took this picture?


Alan White 05.19.15 at 2:25 am

I might remark that my 1st comment was–that was a great pix.


DHMCarver 05.19.15 at 3:21 pm

Great photo – and an interesting discussion. Discussions like these are what makes CT such a great place.

Two — perhaps contradictory — points: 1) If the Pantheon is to be considered a European monument, I think it is a fair question as to whether Hagia Sophia is a non-European monument, given that what we know as the Byzantine Empire was, in fact, the Roman Empire (a point raised a couple of times above); and 2) I think one could challenge the notion that a Roman monument is European, as Rome was primarily a Mediterranean culture, and its art and architecture reflected the tremendous mélange of cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire. We think of Rome simply as the progenitor of Europe – we forget how profoundly cosmopolitan Rome truly was.

I also want to write in support of Saint Peter’s after the maligning of that monument in the comments. I think that aside from some intrinsic biases because of whose building it is, there is also a familiarity with Saint Peter’s that causes people to overlook its magnificence. I had the experience a number of years ago of walking into Saint Peter’s with someone who knew nothing about it, might not even have seen a picture of it, and, to boot, was quite anti-Catholic, and he was overwhelmed as we stepped into the nave. “Oh. My. God,” he breathed, and he could not get enough of the place. In my humble opinion, the view of the colonnade embracing Saint Peter’s Square is one of the architectural marvels of the world, and a walk amongst the colonnade is one of the most pleasant ways to spend time in any edifice.


Anon 05.19.15 at 4:09 pm


When I originally opposed the Aya Sofia to the Blue Mosque, I did wonder whether Byzantine should count as European, but it seemed close enough for that particular contrast.

Now that I think about it, I like it so much in part because, like many great non- “western” buildings, its effect is one more of space and light than decoration or form. I find the many little alcoves and sculptures and flourishes of European architecture distracting, while the more two dimensional, less representational forms of decoration (patterns and colors rather than figures and shapes) characteristic of non-western buildings seem to complement space and light rather than compete with them.

From examples in this thread, I’d say Aya Sofia has that in common to a degree with the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal, and the Golden Pavilion. It’s not that they don’t have any such flourishes of figure and shape, but that they’re less of a focal point.

St. Peter’s is a good counterpoint, as are many Roman churches: every inch of space is crammed with a statue or a cornice or a curlicue, drawing your eye to surfaces and forms, and away from the space and light that those surfaces would otherwise frame and highlight.

Having said that, my excessive maligning of St. Peter’s was mostly in jest, since people take for granted it’s outstanding while being equally quick to claim that, say, the Wedding Cake is obviously horrible.

So while I definitely won’t vote for St Peter’s in a “best building in history” contest, it’s of course a very impressive and lovely building. I would happily exchange either it or the Wedding Cake any day for American strip malls or the Freedom Tower.


DHMCarver 05.19.15 at 5:24 pm

Anon @ 39, “I would happily exchange either it or the Wedding Cake any day for American strip malls or the Freedom Tower.”

Amen to that! I have been in Hagia Sophia and it is architecturally impressive, but to my eyes (perhaps it was just traveller’s tiredness, as I was at the end of a fairly gruelling two-week trip) it was less than what I had hoped and heard, and there was a sad air of neglect about the place. I need to go back when I am fresher. As far as the interior decoration, I imagine, from what I know of Byzantine architecture, that your opinion of Hagia Sophia would have been much different when it was the jewel of Constantinople! (See, for instance, the decoration of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.) I imagine your eye would have been drawn all over the place, away from the beautiful space and light — though perhaps Hagia Sophia would have been spared the excesses of the Baroque. . .


Stephen 05.19.15 at 5:50 pm

DHM Carver@48: granted, the Roman empire included a large number of cultures. When it comes to influence on Roman architecture, as far as I can make out the influence of these was:

Celtic, north African, Balkan, Egyptian, Asian: zero to minor.
Hellenic, Etruscan, native: major.

I am not a historian of architecture. Am I mistaken?


Stephen 05.19.15 at 5:53 pm

Anon@39: would you regard the lantern of Ely Cathedral as depending on space and light, or on decoration?


Anon 05.19.15 at 11:58 pm

Stephen, I don’t know, but I’d love to visit it in person, it looks amazing!

From other photos that show more of the interior, it looks to me like it has strong elements of both. A lot of the figurative details (like flowers and angels) are small enough to become more like a pattern, making them less of a distraction from the overall effect of space and light. (I’m a bit reminded of Sainte Chappelle, where the stained glass windows instead of drawing attention away from the overall space blend into it by being repeated to the point of being the very walls.)


bad Jim 05.20.15 at 4:16 am

The Pantheon was at least one of the most influential buildings in the world. It may be the reason so many important buildings have to have domes.

A few Halloweens ago I was at a party where I fell into conversation with a guy in the concrete business. The sort of engineering I used to do was of a far different sort, but we had enough in common for enthusiastic discussion. Of course he brought up the Pantheon, how it had stood up against the ravages of time, earthquakes, barbarians and Christians, and I knew that its builders had used big rocks as aggregate at the bottom of the dome and smaller stuff on top.


hix 05.20.15 at 9:31 pm

Let me reveal my authoritarian eurocentric anti egalitarian character by saying that i do like St.Peter for its sheer sice. Im not that much into architecture, so old churches even so they are basically damn impressive are rather dull for me because there are so many rather big and impressive ones close by to home. So i never get the long lines at say churches in Paris when there are so many very similar not much visited churches close to home in rather small towns. But then BAAAMMMMMM theres St.Peter, its the one church thats different because its sooooooo much bigger than even all those other already outsiced domes.

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