This is the eighth in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Rome, Italy: Landscape and Cityscape in Ancient Rome program this summer with Professor Kate Shea. Emily Chargin ’21 is undecided.
The first time our group visited the Pantheon was on our first day in Rome. It was part of a preliminary tour of the city that, though full of interesting sights, was also overwhelming and hard to appreciate with jet-lagged minds. We had left Seattle nearly 36 hours before, and I was more overwhelmed by the sheer size of the foreign city than by any history I knew I should be appreciating. Then our group turned a corner in a residential area and saw not only the throngs of tourists and the vendors that were already becoming an accustomed sight, but the Pantheon itself.
This was, without any warning, a genuine icon of Rome; there was no image on a computer screen or instruction to imagine what once was. I was in front of it. And then inside it. At that point, I, along with much of the group, had very little idea what the building was – Vittorio Emmanuel was only a king in a tomb, Agrippa was a vaguely recognized name on the front of the building. But I was still undeniably in Rome, and it was beautifully preserved. I am not religious, but between the modern church itself and the sheer history of the building, the atmosphere was undeniably spiritual in a way that was foreign to me. I didn’t want to leave.
When we visited again two weeks later, I knew more and was less dazed by the building’s existence. The presence of the marble and art was marred by the knowledge that they should have been present on so many of the now-bare sites we visited. The transformation into a Christian church, though it allowed the building to survive, seemed an unjust intrusion. Every immaculate Christian statue and painting was a reminder of an unknown statue that had once stood in its place and was now destroyed. There was a slight bitterness in my appreciation.
This trip was also more academic: we knew more of the building’s history, and spent most of our time listening to an audio tour of the various historic and artistic features rather than simply admiring the building. The structure now seemed less isolated than it had when we first stumbled upon it, as I knew where to place it in history and in relation to other monuments. It wasn’t actually so far from other monuments Augustus had built in the flood zone, nor was it far from the part of the city I knew. Furthermore, our lessons had made the building’s very survival even more impressive. A dome larger than in Saint Peter’s Basilica, built with ancient technology and materials, had outlived grounded and massive structures that had been built to last, such as the Circus Maximus. Walls covered with marble and gold had been preserved through centuries of looting. And hundreds of buildings of similar grandeur would have existed in the city at the height of the Roman Empire. These accomplishments remained just as striking after I had seen so much more of the city in ruins as the first time we wandered through the doors. The Pantheon remained a welcome reference point for the rest of the course, and no amount of historical context removed the pure spectacle of the interior.