There are lots of great spots in Rome—the Spanish Steps with their hustle and bustle, the Trevi Fountain with its bright gleaming marble, the Vatican with its impressive size and intimidating figures—but there’s no place that I love more than the Pantheon.
The summer before I came to Rome I was very nervous about what this experience would hold for me. I was packing, worrying about moving to a new country, and wondering if it was possible to do it all on my own. To make myself feel better amidst the stress, I would put on a live stream of the Pantheon. The waves of anxiety usually hit me late at night, which meant that (with the time difference) I watched the sun rise over the Pantheon at least three times a week. It was the place that motivated me towards Rome—the one monument I upheld through my anxiety and said to myself “If I can see this in person, everything will have been worth it.”
The first day I got a bit of free time (all the way back in August) I went straight for the historic center—newly-minted metro pass in hand, I bypassed the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Piazza Vittorio, all in a frantic effort to get to the Pantheon. And it didn’t disappoint! The Pantheon is essentially just a massive domed structure with a hole at the very top, but the experience of being inside it is so much more than that. The sheer size of it is incredible, almost to the point that it makes you feel as though you’ve shrunk. And based on the history, the feeling of being very small was intentional in the design.
Originally, the Pantheon was built as a pagan temple to all gods—that’s where the “pan” in Pantheon comes from. The uncovered hole in the top of the dome was a window to the gods, meant for the ancient Romans to remember that the gods were always looking down on them (hence, feeling small), but also that they could glimpse the gods for themselves as well. The fact that the hole is uncovered meant that the temple was relatively open to the elements. Even today, when it rains in Rome it rains inside the Pantheon as well. Rainfall in the Pantheon is an incredible sight—something I’d recommend to any visitor of Rome. The floor was built slightly angled in order to ensure proper drainage of the elements, so when it rains the whole marble floor gets soaked—little raindrops fall in the center of the huge domed room and run off towards the sides of the building and out. It’s one of the most beautiful and special things I’ve experienced in my life, all the more special and unique because its impossible to capture on camera.
Because the Pantheon was a pagan temple, for a long time its very existence stood in opposition to the Catholic church. Many of the early popes even stole marble and gold leaf from the Pantheon in order to decorate some of Rome’s beautiful churches. In the 7th century, the Pantheon was converted from a pagan temple to a church (which it technically still is today). As well as being both a pagan temple and a church, the Pantheon holds the tombs of some incredibly important Italians—not least among them the world-renowned renaissance artist Rafael and the first king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. Part of the reason I love the Pantheon so much is because of these many colliding histories. As a monument, it speaks to all facets of Italian history—the history of paganism in Rome, Catholicism in Rome, as well as the unification and artistic expression of Italy.
To be honest, I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time, mostly because it feels an awful lot like beginning to say goodbye to my favorite city. Sure, I suppose I have my photos to look back on, but it just isn’t the same. There are a lot of places in Rome that look a hundred percent like the photographs you can find online, but the Pantheon just isn’t one of them. Its too big, too detailed, too special, too much of an experience for a photo to truly do it justice. And so from now on, I rely on my memories. And as far as memories go, the experience of the Pantheon (walking into a dimly-it room, craning my neck to get a glimpse of the sky through a window in the roof, and feeling at once incredibly small and incredibly humbled) is a pretty good one.