The best preserved monument of ancient Rome, and one of the most beautiful buildings of the modem city, is unhappily placed. The Pantheon stands in a narrow and dirty piazza, and is shouldered and elbowed by a mob of vulgar houses. There is no breathing-space around, which it might penetrate with the light of its own serene beauty. Its harmonious proportions can be seen only in front; and it has there the disadvantage of being approached from a point higher than that on which it stands. On one side is a market; and the space before the matchless portico is strewn with fish-bones, decayed vegetables, and offal.
Forsyth, the sternest and most fastidious of architectural critics, has only “large draughts of unqualified praise” for the Pantheon; and, where he finds nothing to censure, who will venture to do any thing but commends The character of the architecture, and the sense of satisfaction which it leaves upon the mind, are proofs of the enduring charm of simplicity. The portico is perfectly beautiful. It is one hundred and ten feet long and forty-four deep, and rests upon sixteen columns of the Corinthian order, the shafts being of- granite and the capitals of marble. Eight of these are in front, and of these eight, there are four (including the two on the extreme right and left) which have two others behind them; the portico being thus divided into three portions, like the nave and side aisles of a cathedral; the middle space, leading to the door, being wider than the others. The granite of the shafts is partly gray and partly rose-colored, but, in the shadow in which they stand, the difference of hue is hardly perceptible. The proportions of these columns are faultless; and their massive shafts and richly carved capitals produce the effect, at once, of beauty and sublimity. The pediment above is now a bald front of ragged stone, but it was once adorned with bas-reliefs in bronze; and the holes, made by the rivets with which they were fastened, are still to be seen.
The aisles of the portico were once vaulted with bronze, and massive beams or slabs of the same metal stretched across the whole structure; but this was removed by Urban VIII., and melted into a baldachino to deface St. Peter’s, and cannon to defend the castle of St. Angelo; and, not content with this, he has added insult to injury, and commemorated his robbery in a Latin inscription, in which he claims to be commended as for a praiseworthy act. But even this is not the heaviest weight resting on the memory of that vandal pope. He shares with Bernini the reproach of having added those hideous belfries which now rise above each end of the vestibuleas wanton and unprovoked an offense against good taste as ever was committed. A cocked hat upon the statue of Demosthenes in the Vatican would not be a more discordant addition. The artist should have gone to the stake, before giving his hand to such a piece of disfigurement.
The cell, or main portion of the building to which the portico is attached, is a simple structure, circular in form, and built of brick. It was formerly encrusted with marble. The cell and the portico stand to each other in the most harmonious relation, altho it seems to be admitted that the latter was an addition, not contemplated when the cell was built. But in the combination there is nothing forced or unnatural, and they seem as necessary and as preordained complements, one to the other, as a fine face and a fine head. The cell is a type of masculine dignity, and the portico, of feminine grace; and the result is a perfect architectural union.
The interiora rotunda, surmounted by a dome is converted into a Christian church, a purpose to which its form and structure are not well adapted; and the altars and their accessories are not improvements in an architectural point of view. But in spite of thisin spite of all that it has suffered at the hands of rapacity and bad tastetho the panels of the majestic dome have been stript of their bronze, and the whole has been daubed over with a glaring coat of whitewashthe interior still remains, with all its rare beauty essentially unimpaired. And the reason of this is that this charm is the result of form and proportion, and can not be lost except by entire destruction. The only light which the temple receives is from a circular opening of twenty-eight feet in diameter at the top; and falling, as it does, directly from the sky, it fills the whole space with the purity of the heavens themselves. The magical effect of this kind of illumination it is impossible to describe.
The pavement of the Pantheon, composed of porphyry, pavonazzetto, and giallo antico, tho constantly overflowed by the Tiber, and drenched by the rains which fall upon it from the roof, is the finest in Rome. There is an opening in the center, through which the water entering by the dome is carried off into a reservoir.
The Pantheon has a peculiar interest in the history of art, as the burial place of Raphael. His grave was opened in 1833, and the remains found to be lying in the spot which Vasari had pointed out.