Heading to the Pantheon but unsure what to see? The Pantheon is one of the world’s greatest preserved buildings from antiquity attracting visitors of all kinds over the last 2 thousand years. Needless to say, there are tons to do and see in the area. Here are 13 things not to miss near the Pantheon.
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Top 13 Things to See at and Around the Pantheon
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1. The Pantheon
If you are going to Rome, make time to visit the Pantheon. It’s really cool and it’s really free. This listicle will have abnormally long descriptions due to the deep importance and long history of the Pantheon.
The word Pantheon translates to all-worship or all-gods depending on how you look at it. Contrary to what many have written on the internet, the use of the building was not to worship all pagan gods. Pagan gods didn’t appreciate sharing a temple with other gods.
Some exceptions are for gods conjoined in their purposes like Castor & Pollux. Also, a deified couple like Antonius Pius and Faustina his wife share a temple. But in general, the Romans built temples individually dedicated to a single deity.
What the Roman used the Pantheon for is undocumented at best making any reason I provided mostly assumption or guess. A strong theory from Professor of Archeology Amanda Claridge is that the Pantheon existed for the worship of Emperors yet to be deified. It is no mystery that Romans did not like to worship Emperors as gods until after their death. Claridge states in her Rome Archeological Guide, “the Pantheon provided a setting–not a temple in the conventional sense–in which the living emperor would appear in the company with the gods (including his own deified predecessors).
According to Amanda Claridge, the Pantheon was first built between 27-25 BC but that building would not be recognizable today. The first structure was built by Marcus Agrippa who was a Roman Consul under the first Emperor of Rome, Ceaser Augustus. The original structure was built primarily out of wood and subsequently burnt down about 100 years later in 80 AD.
Domitian took a second shot at it and the structure was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground in 110 AD. You have to realize that these incidents would come across as very bad omens for Rome during this otherwise prosperous time. Lightening was controlled by Jupiter (Zeus) and if it struck the building it would likely signify he was unhappy with it or the Romans in general.
Trajan, emperor at the time, would have likely begun the structure and Hadrian would have finished it. Hadrian was a great Emperor and very humble so he did not dedicate the structure to himself – something he only did one time. He instead dedicated it to the man who originally built it; Marcus Agrippa. We will get to that when we go over the porch.
Who built the Pantheon? Many believe the architect responsible is Apollodorus of Damascus but this is again speculation. We do know that Hadrian commissioned renovations on the Pantheon which were completed between 125 AD and 128 AD.
Onto a brief history and use of the Pantheon.
The Pantheon in History:
The Pantheon was converted into a church in by Pope Boniface IV. A rough history states that Christians were complaining about being plagued by pagan ghosts that haunted the building so it was then converted to a church.
The structure would have been adorned with a world of riches after its 3rd and final construction – very different from the building you see today. In Roman times, you would walk up and likely see a bronze covered shimmering outer dome. That bronze was removed by Constans the II and lead has since replaced it for protection.
There was also likely bronze on the interior of the dome as well which would have been removed and repurposed likely in Rome. Troops sacking the city would have not taken the effort to build a 44.4M structure to take bronze off the interior of the dome. Easy to grab riches would have been their focus.
Raphael was buried here by request along with a few other artists and architects such as Baldassare Peruzzi.
Two bell-towers are added to the front of the Pantheon to give it more of a church-like look. Pope Urban VIII (Barberini) takes significant material from the Pantheon including bronze which adorned the ceiling of the portico. This is where the phrase, “What the barbarians did not do the Barberini did.”
This refers to the barbarians who sacked Rome in antiquity taking most of its wealth. The bronze went to Bernini’s famous Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Raphael’s tomb was opened up and examined to quell rumors that his body was not inside which were proven to be incorrect after medical inspection.
In the same century, the two Bernini bell-towers were removed from the Pantheon which would be Bernini’s second belltower fiasco in Rome.
First two and only kings of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II & Umberto I, found their final resting place inside the Pantheon.
2. Porch of Pantheon
The inscription on the front reads: M AGRIPPA L. F. COS TERTIUM FECIT or Marcus Agrippa, Son of Lucius, Thrice Consul, Made This. There is also another inscription which is extremely difficult to say that reads: pantheum vetustate corruptum cum omni cultu restituerunt or with every refinement they restored the Pantheum, worn by age. This was likely a superficial upgrade which would be non-structural.
You would have most likely seen massive statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa on the front porch in the two alcoves. You also would have probably seen statues of Venus and Mars. Julius Caesar, the father of Augustus, claimed to have descended from Venus.
The Awkward Porch
The porch is significantly different from the inner drum. It is literally the square peg and round hole dilemma. Many speculate why the building’s porch design does not match the width of the drum. If you look directly at the structure you can see the drum behind the porch which, for a lack of better words, makes the exterior look ugly. Some think this was due to a shortage of materials during construction or even a shipwreck that caused the loss of some columns from Egypt.
It is still a classical monumental entrance. Support columns are monolithic shafts of Egyptian granite that sit on a base of white Pentelic marble. The exterior of the building would also have been completely clad with marble – the Romans would not have designed the structure with a brick exterior.
The triangular facade shows many marks that lead us to believe there must have been a frieze on the front. Imagine a massive Eagle in a victorious wreath which was the symbol of Rome and Jupiter. You’ll see small holes that would have adjoined the frieze to the facade.
Notice there are 4 pink Aswan marble columns in the middle of the porch. These columns were added in the 17th century after some damage and are not original to the building. The bronze doors, although ancient for us, are not original to the building. They were likely added in the 15th century when Rome was coming out of the darkness of the middle ages.
Looking for a bite to eat? Check out our annually updated list of the best places to eat near the Pantheon in Rome!
3. The Dome & Oculus
Once you walk inside your eyes will be drawn to the dome above you. Many people stop in the doorway causing traffic jams and we can’t blame you. That is the effect Appolodorus would have longed for. I’ve written it in other blogs, but the architecture of Rome was heavily focused on showing the superiority of the Romans and the Pantheon was no different.
The building is 44.4M tall by 44.M wide and built completely from stone, brick, and concrete. The dome is made entirely out of concrete with 5 rows of 28 coffers that diminish in size as you get closer to the oculus. The oculus is completely open.
Rain and other elements do get inside the structure when doors are closed. You’ll see the floor sloping down into the center and drains in place to allow water to leave the structure. There is a decorate bronze ring on the interior of the oculus and there would have likely been decorative bronze fixtures in all of the 140 coffers.
The dome is a perfect hemisphere and you would be able to fit a sphere inside the structure with a diameter of 44.4M which would touch the ceiling, floor, and walls. The building is perfect and thus its construction is a mystery. Some believe a complex scaffolding was used to lay the concrete and others believe the entire building was filled with sand from Ostia. Today, all you can do is enjoy it.
4. Raphael’s Tomb
Raphael’s tomb sits in the back left-hand side of the structure. He is buried next to his fiancee Maria Bibbiena which was not by his design. He was madly in love with Margherita Lute who was a baker’s daughter and the subject of many of his works of art including La Fornarina (Palazzo Barberini) which translates literally to the baker’s daughter.
Raphael, who lived from 1483 to 1520 and arguably died on his birthday, is situated under a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus to her left which was done by an artist named Lorenzetto.
His tomb reads ILLE HIC EST RAFFAEL, TIMUIT QUO SOSPITE VINCI, RERUM MAGNA PARENS ET MORIENTE MORI which was translated by Alexander Pope to read, “Living, great nature feared he might outvie Her works; and, dying, fears herself may die.”
5. The Tomb of Vittorio Emanuele (Victor Emmanuel)
Vittorio Emmanuelle was a Sardinian King who successfully unified all of the sub-kingdoms of Italy to form one great nation between 1861 – 1871. He was from the Casa Savoia which was a great noble family established in 1003 AD. Their family still has successors today although their titles are not recognized.
Emmanuel’s army, led by the great Giuseppe Garibaldi, successfully unified the peninsula under the rule of one monarch. Some sub-kingdoms joined peacefully and others by force. The final stop was the battle of Castelfidardo which is when Garibaldi fought and was victorious over the Papal forces. The catholic church controlling armies is extremely foreign to us today.
Victor Emmanuel II died in 1878 and was buried in the Pantheon. His tomb reads Padre della Patria which translates to the Father of the Fatherland. The fact that he was allowed to be buried here is a mystery. Pope Pius IX refused to meet with Emmanuel after he overtook Rome and never acknowledged his reign. Then, he allows him to be buried inside the Pantheon which is a Catholic Church?
Umberto I, the second and last King of Italy and also a Savoia, is buried in the same tomb.
6. Fontana del Pantheon
Situated outside the Pantheon, la Fontana del Pantheon is a 16th-century work of art commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and designed by Giacomo della Porta.
The fountain was later modified in the 18th century. The basin was changed and the Macuteo Obelisk was added which is original to the time of Ramses II making it over 3000 years old!
This area, Piazza Rotunda, used to be part of a massive courtyard surrounded by colonnades in antiquity. It extended far past the next stop, the church of S. M. Maddalena, and the ground level was far lower. This likely made it so the Pantheon stood on a pedestal and concealed the dome as you walked into the structure which would have created a surprise effect.
7. The Church of S. M. Maddalena
This tiny little church is one of my (Sean from Youtube) favorite in Rome. It is small but beautiful. They completed the church in 1699 and the exterior facade in 1734. The facade is Rococo which makes it very unusual and unique for Rome – part of the reason I like it. The style is considered the last movement of the Baroque era and uses a certain symmetry and rolling style to create a dramatic orchestration.
The interior of the church is also very beautiful. Don’t miss the frescoes adorning the vaulted ceiling which draws you to the front of the church. You can enter the chapel on the front right dedicated to Saint Camillus who dedicated himself to those who had the plague.
As you turn around to leave the church you will feel shock, in Baroque fashion, by the beautiful organ that covers the back wall.
8. Gelato Giolitti vs Della Palma
At this point, you may want to get some gelato. There are two famed gelaterie in the area. Della Palma and Giolitti. Both are easy to find with a quick map search and Della Palma is visible as you walk out of S. M. Maddalena down the alley to your right. They both have about 100 million great reviews so you are safe at either although Goilitti may be more famous and considered better. At this level its all really good.
I don’t like crowds so normally I avoid them both and go to Cremeria Monteforte which is pretty calm and right next to the Pantheon. As a rule of thumb, if the flavors have electric colors, avoid that gelateria. Gelato is an all-natural dessert from simple ingredients – no food coloring!
9. The Church of S. M. Sopra Minerva
This is a Dominican order church and one of the most famous in Rome. The word “Sopra” means above and finds its place in the name since this church is literally built above the Temple of Isis which the Catholic church thought was the Temple of Minerva – no big deal.
This is the only gothic church in the city of Rome which makes it a real treat! The facade is renaissance but when you walk in you’d think you were in Paris. There are a few very important pieces of artwork you shouldn’t miss inside. Be sure to check out the Carafa Chapel by Filippino Lippi and the Aldobrandini chapel by Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Moderno (these two were big-time artists).
The next stop gets its own point due to the artists but it’s inside S. M. Sopra Minerva.
10. Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer
This statue goes by a few names such as Christ the Redeemer, Christ Carrying the Cross, Christ of Minerva, and Risen Christ. You can just call it Bob for short – kidding… tour guide joke.
The statue was finished in 1521 and is located on the left side of the main altar. It is a beautiful statue with a complicated story. Michelangelo started the work but abandoned it when he noticed a black vein running through the marble of Christ’s left cheek.
He started a new one which he worked on and sent to Rome for one of his students to finish. Federico Frizzi repaired the damage done by the student Pietro Urbano. Metello Vari, who commissioned the work, was very happy with the result. He also asked for the original unfinished statue to put in his garden. Michelangelo agreed.
The original garden statue disappeared from history only to reappear on the radar in the year 2000 in nearby Viterbo. The black vein on the cheek made it very easy to recognize. The original shows Michelangelo nude but the one you’ll find has him covered up by a cloth.
11. The Flood Lines of the Field of Mars
The area where the Pantheon and the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva lie is named the Field of Mars or Campus Martius. Some of the floods have been pretty destructive as the Tiber River doesn’t like to be told what to do – well until the large walls were built around the Tiber in the late 19th century.
That said, sometimes the Tiber managest to still rear its ugly head. This is the reason why many of Rome’s bridges have large circular holes in them. These holes relieve pressure from floodwaters if levels rise to the height of the bridge.
You can see markers on the right-hand side of the entrance as you walk in. Some of the plaques are so tall you couldn’t reach them standing on someone else’s head.
12. Bernini’s Elephant Statue
Commonly referred to as Elephant & Obelisk, this statue features an Elephant carrying an obelisk designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667. It is directly in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church in Piazza della Minerva. You can’t miss it.
Archeologists found it during excavations while building the church behind it. Archeologists place it in the 26th Dynasty of Egypt in about 580 BC. They built the church over the Egyptian temple so it makes sense.
It is the smallest of the 13 obelisks in Rome and 1 of 8 that actually came from Egypt. Rome is home to more obelisks than any other destination in the world including Egypt where they are all from.
Bernini chooses the Elephant, according to inscriptions, as a symbol of strength and divine wisdom. Like any famous monuments, it comes with a good wives’ tale.
The Story of the Elephants Backside
During the construction, a priest named Father Paglia made some suggestions that turned into demands. Bernini’s engineering prowess fell under question after some massive mistakes designing bell-towers on the St. Peter’s Basilica. They removed the bell towers in 1624 midway through the work which stained Bernini’s reputation. Father Paglia forced Bernini, according to the story, to add more structural support under the elephant instead of relying on its 4 legs alone.
Bernini’s idea was to show strength by actually showing the strength of the Elephant. Great architecture is suspenseful and that was Bernini’s goal. Paglia eventually won and Bernini complied. This part of the story is true but the next part is likely a myth.
Apparently, Bernini put the elephant’s bottom facing where Father Paglia’s office was. He also relocated the elephant’s tail to be off to the side indicating that the elephant may be – well using the potty. This all would be summed up as the artist’s “last word” but is likely based on legend.
13. Sant’Eustachio Cafe
€ | Breakfast | Outdoor Seating | Kids
Looking for breakfast or a coffee near the Pantheon? Sant’Eustachio is the place to get either, especially coffee. Cafe Sant’Eustachio is renowned in Rome to have the best espresso on Earth! They have a method of adding sugar into the coffee for you with la frusta!
You’ll have to look that one up but you still won’t understand. If you want to understand, rock up here one morning, grab a table and order a coffee with a cornetto. This is a Rome must.
Address: P. di Sant Eustachio 82 | Hours: Tues – Sunday Noon – 11:30 pm | Phone: +39 06 6813 6310