BMCR 2022.03.13

Pantheon. Architettura e Luce

, , Pantheon. Architettura e Luce. Studi de archeoastronomia, 1. Castagnola (Ticino), Switzerland: Rirella Editrice, 2021. Pp. 60; 50 plates. ISBN 9788894661804 €20,00.
, , Pantheon. Architecture & Light. Studies of Archaeoastronomy, 1. Castagnola (Ticino), Switzerland: Rirella Editrice, 2021. Pp. 59; 50 plates. ISBN 9788894661811 €20,00.

The item under review may surprise habitual readers of the BMCR: with its slim text and colorful appearance, it may resemble a brochure rather than a regular book. Yet some important information in it is relatively unknown, such as a concise history of the building’s vicissitudes after the imperial period, the useful list of the depredations of its precious marbles through time, primarily by the Roman Popes (pp.18-23), and a photographic commentary truly worthy of attention.[1]

To be sure, the Pantheon is one of the better preserved and better known monuments of imperial Rome. First built under Augustus, as a dedication by his son-in-law, Agrippa, then completely rebuilt under Trajan and Hadrian, the spectacularly domed structure has enjoyed continued use up to present day—from a pagan temple to a Christian church.[2] The new emphasis here, however, consists in its connection with specific astronomical phenomena related to various divinities (“all the gods” of its ancient name) to whom the building was originally dedicated.

In 1955, when professor William B. Dinsmoor, the famous architect of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, was lecturing to students on the Akropolis, he pointed out that the orientation of the Parthenon corresponded at dawn to a certain solar axis that pinpointed the time and meaning (to Athena) of its dedication. Few of us, however, retained that information at the time. But over the years —and more recently in classical studies —a series of investigations, by archaeologists but especially by astronomers, has convincingly shown that various ancient cultures took into account astral manifestations in erecting their structures. Marina De Franceschini has devoted most of her research to the correlation between such events, in particular at Villa Adriana in Tivoli,[3] and has recently focused on the Pantheon together with Giuseppe Veneziano, her co-author.[4]

That the large opening in the center of the Pantheon’s dome (the oculus) was used symbolically as well as structurally had long been acknowledged, including by Latin sources, but the sunlight penetrating the interior through it occurred at different angles and for extended periods, according to the seasons, and therefore resisted specific correlation with individual Roman divinities beyond a general allusion to the celestial vault and the cosmos (p. 29). Repeated visits to the building, however, drew the two authors’ attention to two striking forms of “illumination”: in the interior, an “Arc of Light” corresponding to the structural arch above the great portal, and, in the exterior, a “Square of Light” on the central pavement of the porch in front of the portal itself. Both events took place simultaneously twice a year: on April 6-7-8 and on September 4-5-6. Calendric correlations for these two solar manifestations with Roman games and festivals could then be suggested; most importantly, no changes to the fabric of the Pantheon in those specific locations had occurred despite various depredation and alterations through time, so that original meanings could be credited even today. Several deities are then proposed and illustrated by generic Roman depictions, to conclude the publication.[5]

This second half of Pantheon is perhaps more meaningful for the general reader than for the archaeologist. A statue of Diana/goddess of the Moon (from Villa Adriana) stands to allude to her feast on April 6; that for Apollo, on April 7, is illustrated by the Belvedere marble in the Vatican Museum. The April span corresponds moreover to the celebration of the Ludi Megalenses in honor of Cybele who, like Isis, was a mother goddess connected with a resurrection (Cybele for Attis, Isis for Osiris). Therefore images of the former (illustrated in fig. 36) and the latter (fig. 39) are compared with a statue of the Mother of God, the Madonna in Genoa (fig. 40) with moon crescent and snake, emphasizing continuity of symbols despite changes in dedication.

During the span September 2-5 (corresponding to the second cycle of illumination), the Ludi Romani were held in honor of Jupiter Optimus Maximus—whose head is shown (from what statue?) on fig. 38. This event connects also to the various emperors—in this case, primarily, Augustus (fig. 46) and Hadrian (figs. 48, 51-52). The Roman supreme ruler held, besides his military title, also that of Pontifex Maximus. This observation leads the authors to reconstruct images of both the two personages involved as if standing within the “kiss of the sun,” and to the mention by an ancient source that in the Temple of Serapis at Alexandria, Egypt, a similar solar illumination was seen around a statue of that god in the fourth century CE (p. 48 and fig. 50).

I have not been able to verify any of these assertions; more expert commentators may do so, but the astrological coincidences are certainly striking and plausible. These features lead me to emphasize what I consider a second major contribution of this publication: its photographic apparatus. This comprises: five drawings and architectural sections, including a major plan color-coded to highlight the various structural features of the Pantheon; 17, mostly colored, images of various monuments from various sources (some derived from “the internet”); and especially 33 photographs—including front and back cover—by the main author that show not only parts of this and other buildings but also details of the interior and exterior of the Pantheon in vivid polychromy, even of those elements restored by modern paintings to imitate and replace the precious stone revetments robbed by earlier generations. It should be noted here that De Franceschini honed her investigative expertise in tracking down many of the mosaics stolen through the years from the ruins of Villa Adriana, many of them turned into elegant table tops for the Roman aristocracy, to which she gained access thanks to her persistence and research reputation.[6] Among the black-and-white images, I cannot refrain from mentioning one from 1925, derived from Life Magazine: fig. 5 (p. 13), the huge size of the dome coffers highlighted by the presence of two human figures.

I believe many scholars, all college students, and even casual visitors to Rome would profit from looking at the Pantheon with the help of this booklet.


[1] The publication has appeared in two editions: Italian and English. I am using the latter and therefore some of my page references may differ slightly from the Italian version. On the illustrations, see below.

[2] Already known as Santa Maria Rotunda, in 609 CE the building was renamed Sancta Maria ad Martyres, and has since served also as burial place for important Italians, e.g., the famous painter Raphael and some members of the royal family. For the Roman period, recently, besides the sources cited in the extensive bibliography, see the excellent (more specifically architectural) account in Mark D. Fullerton, Roman Art and Archaeology, 753 BCE to 337 CE (Thames & Hudson 2019) 266-71.

[3] See some of her publications listed in the book under review and cf., e.g., B. Frischer, BMCR 2012.08.43. After completing her Italian university studies, De Franceschini spent some time at Bryn Mawr College, from which she received an M.A. degree (1981) with a thesis on Villa Adriana’s mosaic pavements. From that moment onward that site became one of her special interests on which she has published extensively.

[4] Giuseppe Veneziano is one of the founding members and the president of ALSSA (Ligurian Association for the Studies of Archaeoastronomy), as well as belonging to the Astronomical Observatory in Genoa. In answer to my query about changes in the earth’s axis through time, Dr. De Franceschini answered me (on Feb. 4, 2022): “abbiamo calcolato (i.e., my collaborator and I) le variazioni dell’asse terrestre dal 125 d.C. ad oggi, lo avevamo fatto anche a Villa Adriana (che è alla stessa latitudine), e viene fuori una differenza di 20’ (cioè 20 primi di grado) che è assolutamente ininfluente e permette di vedere oggi gli stessi fenomeni che vedevano loro.”

[5] I use here the English nomenclature of Pantheon, but translation from the original Italian is usually quite good, despite a few awkward expressions or words. “Aedicules”, e.g., to describe features of the interior wall, would have been better understood if the original Latin term, “aedicula/ae” had been used. But there are no obvious misprints and the total layout is clear and elegant. Photographs, although duly attributed to each source, do not always explain where the individual item is located.

[6] See, for instance, M. De Franceschini 2013, “Uno straordinario puzzle musivo nell’Accademia della Villa Adriana di Tivoli,” Atti del xviii Colloquio dell’Associazione Italiana per lo Studio e la Conservazione del Mosaico (Cremona, 14- 17 marzo 2012), Tivoli, 739-748; M. De Franceschini 2014, “Villa Adriana, Accademia. I mosaici di Monsignor Furietti,” Atti del xx Colloquio dell’Associazione Italiana per lo Studio e la Conservazione del Mosaico (Roma, Palazzo Massimo, 19-22 marzo 2014), Roma, 95-106; M. De Franceschini 2019, “I marmi architettonici di Villa Adriana ‘murati per le case di Tivoli’,” Marmora, an international journal for archaeology, history and archaeometry of marbles and stones, Pisa/Rome, vol. 15 (2019) 123-54.