January 24: One Dome to Rule them All

2016/01/24 § Leave a comment

On this day in 76 AD Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born.

Son of a provincial senator in Italica, not too far from what we now call Seville, young PAH distinguished himself with natural talents enhanced by his diligent studies and helped along by significant family ties.  He and was ultimately taken under the wing of the Emperor Trajan, upon whose death in 117 Hadrianus became, simply, Hadrian.

As one of architecture’s great patrons, ever, Hadrian (d. 10 July 138) had a broad education in his youth; his love of the Classics won him the nickname “Greekling.”  As emperor he traveled far and wide in his realm, and what a realm it was: stretching up to his eponymous wall in Britain, across the northern part of Africa, east to encompass Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, north to the edge of Germania.  During these rich and varied travels he collected, painted, and brought ideas for buildings back to Rome.  Outside of the city he directed the construction of his unparalleled villa; inside the city he built the greatest of all Imperial structures, the Pantheon (ca. 125).

Roman imperial architecture is sometimes described as being the first architecture to treat interiors with the same, or even greater, attention as exteriors.  Surely the Pantheon is a large and impressive thing from the outside, but its real impact is inside, and not just the precious marble and granite across the floor and up the walls.  Even in its impoverished state (bronze fittings removed in the seventeenth century to be melted down and recycled as Bernini’s great Baldacchino), the room is extraordinary, and no one is too jaded to be affected by it.  Tired of sports arenas with removable tops?  Bored of soaring Gothic churches?  Does not matter: the Pantheon is like nothing else.  No one with a pulse and any kind of perspective goes inside that thing and fails to look up with their mouth open.  It’s true for us, it was true for Kahn, and Jefferson, and Brunelleschi.

A simple idea, just enough concrete and stone to define a sphere resting in a cylinder, not at all simple to build.  And impressive as everything that is there is, it’s what’s not there that arrests the attention: the gaping hole in the roof, the eye up to the Heavens and the peephole for the gods back down to us.  During the day, the spotlight makes its course around the hemisphere; as day turns to night it fades, and the canvas beyond the oculus turns from blue to violet to black.  Buildings are supposed to shelter us from the weather yet this one is profoundly vulnerable, allowing all rain to pour in; surely some magical days have witnessed snow falling into the temple.  It’s a shelter, as all buildings should be, but at the same time, reminds us that we are not invincible, no matter what we build.  Few buildings, especially one so relentlessly enduring, remind us so much of temporality.

The Pantheon’s overall greatness and impact have inspired countless books, articles, theses, feverishly scrawled journal entries, and will continue to do so, since no one–not even Clio–can have the final word on this one.  Although we can’t ever put our finger on just what makes it,among so many great buildings, so great, and while we recognize that in the construction of greatness architects are crucial (which in this case may be Hadrian himself), we have to recognize, that there is no great building without a great patron.

image: Pantheon interior (Clio’s)

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You are currently reading January 24: One Dome to Rule them All at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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