The Pantheon in Rome

The obsession of a Pope

Figure 1: The Pantheon from the front side, a touristic landmark [8]

The Pantheon (Πανθειον) in Rome, Italy, is probably one of the most extraordinary and well known buildings in the world. It was originally built in 27 B.C. by consul Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as a ‘temple to every god’ (παν = every, θειον = to god), destroyed and rebuilt by emperor Hadrian from 116-125 A.D. The Pantheon has survived numerous of religious and political quarrels for almost two millennia and has sustained many generations of mankind. It is nowadays one of the still existing buildings from ancient Roman times and a very popular touristic landmark (figure 1)

The building has undergone several transformations in its lifetime which are not known to many people, but very interesting to know more about before visiting the city of Rome and especially visiting the Pantheon itself. This wiki-page provides some information about the early history of the Pantheon, but it is beyond the scope of this page to elaborate on its entire history. The focus of this page will be on the transformations and plans for redecorating the inside of the Pantheon in the seventeenth century, a century in which Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) was one of the leaders of the Roman Catholic church. This pope had a special bound with the Pantheon and one may even say that this building was an obsession of him. He had many plans to alter the Pantheon and its direct neighbourhood, and the usual assumption is that the famous architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was asked by his patron, the pope, to execute these alterations. However, sources reveal that Bernini refused to do this which sheds some new light on the value of the presence of the Pantheon for the city of Rome in the seventeenth century.

1. General history
2. Architecture
3. Exterior of the Pantheon
4. Interior of the Pantheon
5. The Pantheon’s position in society
6. Pope Alexander VII and Gian Lorenzo Bernini
7. Alexander VII’s plans for the Pantheon in the 17th century
8. Analysis of statement made by Pope Alexander VII by alterations of Pantheon
9. An homage to Alexander VII, a statement about his position in the Catholic hierarchy?

General history

The original version of the Pantheon was built in 27 B.C. during the third consulate of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The Pantheon was destroyed several years later and reconstructed to its present form during the reign of emperor Hadrian from AD 116-125. Originally it functioned as a pagan temple. About half a century after its construction, in the year 609 A.D. emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV who dedicated the Pantheon to Saint Mary and All Martyrs (Santa Maria dei Martiri). By this the Pantheon became part of Christian heritage which is an important reason why this building survived century after century[1] This is one example of ancient Roman architecture that got another, Christian, purpose. Another example is the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri) which is another church in Rome built inside the Baths of Diocletian and designed by Michelangelo. It was dedicated to the holy virgin Mary of the Angels and all of the 40,000 Christian martyrs who had to built the thermal baths.


Figure 2: Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy [9]

The architecture of the Pantheon is remarkable. Other buildings have been based on the Pantheon’s structure and artists and architects of all ages and from all over the world have been fascinated by this building. However, even though ‘Pantheons’ were built all over Europe and America, none of them can be mistaken for the original Pantheon in Rome.[2] One of the most well known buildings based on the architecture of the Ancient Roman Pantheon is the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy (figure 2), which construction was completed in 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi.[3]

Exterior of the Pantheon

The Pantheon is located next to the Piazza della Rotonda, on which a fountain, named ‘Fontana del Pantheon’, can be found with an Egyptian obelisk next to it (fig. 5). The Pantheon is a round building with a large dome with a central oculus, and a porch consisting out of 16 large pillars of which eight are facing the front.

Originally the Pantheon had to be approached via a flight of stairs since the Pantheon itself was significantly higher than its surroundings, today, the stairs are gone and the Pantheon is on the same level as its surrounding architecture.

Across the front of the portico an inscription can be read (figure 1):


Stating: ‘Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, have been consul three times, built it’. However this statement is a little misleading because since the eighteenth century it is known that the first version of the Pantheon build by Marcus Agrippa was destroyed by fire, after which emperor Hadrian rebuilt the present version during his reign.

Figure 3: The ribs of the dome are not
visible from the outside of the Pantheon[10]
Figure 4: The St. Peter’s Basilica in
Rome with ribs clearly visible[11]

The way the dome is built is interesting, because the ribs are not visible from the outside (figure 3), but instead are present in the inner part of the dome. This is contrary to other buildings with a dome, for example the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where the ribs can be found on the outside of the building (figure 4) Furthermore on either side of the roof of the portico there used to be a small tower (figure 5), designed by Bernini and called ‘asses ears’ by Romans, that were removed after the reign of Pope Alexander VII but the remains are still visible.[2]

Figure 5: The Pantheon with the two small towers on top. Engraving by G.B. Falda, c. 1667 [12]

Interior of the Pantheon

Figure 6: Interior of the Pantheon with the
drainage holes. Paiting by Giovanni Paolo
, 1740 (The National Gallery of Art
, Washington, D.C. Samuel H. Kress
Collection) [13]

The interior of the Pantheon is maybe more of interest than the outside; the impressive dome with the open oculus is eye-catching but on closer inspection one will discover that the Pantheon is indeed an intriguing piece of architecture and one may start to understand why the Pantheon has been an obsession to many. To get a good impression of the interior of the Pantheon and the points discussed, please use this link.

To begin with the most striking aspect of the interior, the dome of the Pantheon with the aforementioned oculus in the centre, which is an open connection to the outside world. It is a perfect circle with a diameter of 8.70 meter. It is really open and if it rains it also rains inside of the building.

The diameter of the dome is 43.30 meter and is equal to the distance from the floor to the oculus; therefore the building would fit perfectly in a cube with ribs of 43.30 meters.[4]

At the bottom of the dome the wall of the dome is about 7 meters thick, while near the oculus the wall is just a little bit thicker than one meter, furthermore squared spaces were made into the dome. These two characteristics of the dome served not merely aesthetic purposes, but also make the entire dome lighter in weight.

Secondly, three different registers, levels, can be distinguished. The first consists out of large, massive pillars; the second of small pilastrini and the third is the entire dome. The second layer in particular caused much frustration to many people throughout the ages. The pilastrini of the second layer seem to disturb one of the fundamental principles of the classic rules of architecture: All vertical elements should be in line with each other, all the way from the bottom to the top. Indeed, this seems not to be the case when we look at the Pantheon. Even within the second register itself there seemed to be an order and rhythm problem. The distance between the pilastrini was not the same everywhere.[1]

Nowadays the pilastrini are hidden behind a design consisting mainly of decorated rectangles alternated by blind windows. But this design does not succeed either in solving the problem. When you enter the building you will see in the far back, a little to the left, that the alternating pattern is disturbed by another design. Instead of a large window between two large rectangles, there are three pillar structures, which are accompanied by a smaller blind window on both sides.

Both historians and architects have been discussing the middle segment, this specific feature, over and over again. Until today there is no real consensus whether it is a disturbance of the architectural rules or whether it actually lives up to it.

Thirdly, the marble floor is uniquely designed, not only from aesthetic point of view but as well from practical perspective. The floor design consists of alternating squares of black and white marble with circles here and there. Furthermore, the floor itself is part of an ingenious drainage system. The floor is slightly bolding, which causes effective rainwater drainage to the side of the building were several drainage holes were located[1] (figure 6)

The Pantheon’s position in society

Figure 7: Piazza della Rotonda in the 17th century. Drawing from 1656 by S. della Bella
(Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) [14]

The Pantheon used to have a central position in society, but slowly the Pantheon lost this central position. By the time of the seventeenth century the Pantheon was of no special interest anymore and became nothing more than any other piece of architecture in its near surrounding. The area around the Pantheon was overcrowded by vendors, merchants and other folks and there was not a lot to see anymore of the Rome’s grandest antiquity.[5] This was still the case at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII, the man with a special weakness for the Pantheon. This can be seen on a drawing by Stefano della Bella which was made in 1656 (figure 7). Alexander VII had plans to clear the Piazza della Rotonda of the vendors and regulate all the commercial activities at this square to bring the great view of the Pantheon back. Besides this, he had also plans to alter the interior of the Pantheon as can be read in his diaries. To understand more about Alexander’s obsession for this building, it is important to gain first some background information about this pope’s life and his relationship with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the architect who was asked to carry out the plans of the pope.

Pope Alexander VII and Gian Lorenzo Bernini

This man, born in Siena on 13 February 1599 as Fabio Chigi, got schooled at home because of his health and later on he studied theology, law and philosophy at the University of Siena. In 1628 he became member of the papal service and years later, in 1655 he was chosen after an 80-day conclave to be the successor of Pope Innocent X.

One of Alexander’s weaknesses as pope was nepotism. It was hoped that he wanted to stay far from that and in the first year of his pontificate he forbade his family members to even visit Rome. However, one year later in 1656, he was persuaded by the Curia that his relatives should live in style to strengthen the position of the pope and he started to offer them offices, palaces, and estates, but his family did not get a lot of influence in the papal state.

Figure 8: Pope Alexander VII [15] Figure 9: Gian Lorenzo
Bernini [16]
Figure 10: The throne of the St.
Peter (‘Cathedri Petri’)[17]

Alexander VII was a man who lied luxury, had sensitive literary interests and loved art, in particular architecture. He was a very good patron of art, but had not so much interest in painting.[6] This is also how he got to know the well known sculptor and great architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598, Naples – 1680, Rome) (figure 9). Bernini made many public monuments in Rome, especially from the mid-1640s to the 1660s. One of his most spectacular and famous works is the Fountain of Four Rivers on the Piazza Navona in Rome. He made this under the pontificate of Innocent X, the predecessor of Alexander VII. The latter pope, Alexander VII, was one of Bernini’s greatest patrons and he got many requests from this patron, including the most spectacular religious decoration Bernini would ever made: the Throne of the St. Peter (also called ‘Cathedri Petri’). This is a gilt-bronze cover for the cathedra (a medieval wooden throne) of the pope (figure 10). The decoration of this throne was made around the same time at the piazza of the St. Peter’s Basilica, which demonstrates the diversity of Bernini’s work.[7] Both the project of the throne and the piazza were executed for Pope Alexander VII, but also another object was very important to this pope, namely his obsession the Pantheon.

Alexander VII’s plans for the Pantheon in the 17th century

Evidence suggested that the Pantheon could be regarded as a special personal project of Pope Alexander VII. He wanted to restore the Pantheon, which had been neglected for years, to its former glory by initially reconstructing the surrounding and outside of the Pantheon. After several unsuccessful attempts of reconstructing the surrounding; redecorating the exterior and attempts of banning merchants and vendors from the Piazza della Rotonda[5], he directed his attention to the interior of the Pantheon.

Pope Alexander VII faced numerous times significant resistance against his plans. The diaries of the pope describe for example some of his plans[1], but also tell about the resistance of Bernini to carry out his plans. One possible reason for this resistance is that Bernini thought that the construction of the Pantheon was too unique to alter or, another possibility, that he did not agree on the statement the pope wanted to make. After all, Alexander VII did not succeed in his luscious plans, which had to restore the Pantheon in its former glory.

First of all he wanted to close the oculus of the Pantheon (1622 A.D.) using pieces of glass arranged in a ‘fish-scale’ manner. This idea was executed, but after his pontificate it was quickly removed (figure 11)

Furthermore the pope wanted to decorate the Pantheon with large angel statues and have his name (‘ALEXANDER VII’) written down around the closed oculus, decorated with stars (figure 12) According to drawings found, the pope wanted decorate the coffers of the Pantheon with motifs, including the Chigi monti and the eight pointed star with alternative combinations of floral motifs covering the ribs of the Pantheon (figure 12 and 13)[1]

Figure 11: Project for glazing the
oculus of the Pantheon, Rome.
Drawing BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 111-
112 (photo: Biblioteca Apostolica
Figure 12: Proposed decorations of
the dome of the Pantheon, Rome.
Drawing. BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 111-
112 (photo: Biblioteca Apostolica
Figure 13: Project for
decoration of the coffers of the
Pantheon, Rome. Drawing.
BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 113r
(photo: Biblioteca Apostolica

Pope Alexander VII was very determined to succeed, after multiple failed attempts during a couple of decades he still would not give up on his ideal Pantheon. In 1666 Alexander set a large amount of money apart to decorate the dome with stuccoes; to polish the columns and polychrome revetments.

Pope Clement IX, Alexander VII successor, returned most of the Pantheon to its former state after the death of Alexander. Therefore it is doubtful whether Alexander VII had a lot of support from others.

Although hardly any of his plans were executed they were documented in archives and are worth mentioning because it explains how one attempted to solve problems in older times.

Analysis of statement made by Pope Alexander VII by alterations of Pantheon

It is very striking to see that in the end the outside of the Pantheon is not changed that much; the main focus is on the inside of the Pantheon. This results in an interesting situation in which a struggling between renewal and conservation appeared to be going on.

Figure 14: Inside of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome[21]

The seventeenth century was a roaring century in which one dealt with the reformation, upcoming humanism, the development of science and the beginning of discovery of other part of the world.

Before, everything was clearly ordered and organized. The pope was the head of the only church, the Roman Catholic Church. The emperor was the only ruler, the one in charge of everything and everyone. But during the seventeenth century people started to question these ‘truths’, which resulted in doubt and unrest among the people. “Who was in charge?” “Who was the most important?” All questions which the people during the seventeenth century might have asked themselves.

It seems that Pope Alexander VII attempted through the renovation of the Pantheon to provide an answer to these questions and it is unclear these answers were given, but at least he made a statement.

The open oculus gave the idea that people could directly connect to God, without the help of a Pope or Saint. But other buildings seem to disagree with that idea, which you can notice for example in the well-known St. Peter’s basilica (figure 14).

In the inside in the middle of St. Peter’s dome a text is clearly written:


In English: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”.

Figure 15: Painting by Andrea Pozzo on the ceiling of the Sant’ Ignazio
Church [22]

In the struggle of ‘who is the most important and highest in hierarchy’, one could reason that according to the St. Peter’s basilica, Saint Peter was the most important person, and therefore ‘through’ him people could make it to heaven, and were connected with God.

This part of Pope Alexander VII’s plan has never been executed, but as stated before it is known that he planned to have his own name written around the oculus, similar to how it was done in the dome of the St. Peter. By doing so, reasoning still the same, Pope Alexander VII basically made the statement that he himself stood in between God and the people. In other words: he was ‘highest’ in hierarchy after God. People should listen to him and obey him, to be able to go to heaven and reach God.

A clear statement one could say, but not everyone seemed to agree with this idea. Close to the Pantheon one can still find the Sant’ Ignazio Church. A Roman Catholic church dedicated to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. This building clearly speaks against this idea.

During the same century Andrea Pozzo painted a large fresco on the ceiling of this church, depicting the four known continents of that time, which are enlightened via Saint Ignatius, from whom light diverges, which initially comes via Jesus from God (figure 15). Again, a clear statement of who is where in a hierarchal system.

An homage to Alexander VII, a statement about his position in the Catholic hierarchy?

Figure 16: Monument for Pope
Alexander VII in St. Peter’s
Basilica in Rome[23]

In conclusion we can say that the Pantheon has survived many religious and political quarrels for almost two millennia and had an important position in the Roman society. It underwent many transformations throughout its lifetime and also its position in society changed from a pagan temple, to an important Christian church to a place where vendors and merchants did business in the seventeenth century.

During the pontificate of pope Alexander VII, the position of the Pantheon changed. This pope had a weakness for the building and wanted to restore the greatness of the Pantheon and banish the commerce from the porch of the building and change the Piazza della Rotonda in front of it. This was very difficult and the pope decided to focus on the inside of the building and alter this. He had many plans to change the interior church and make a statement about his position in the Christian community, but no one wanted to execute this.

However, there were not so many alterations done to the Pantheon, but some of the plans of Alexander VII were carried out in a total different way. The famous Bernini designed a monument (figure 16) for the pope after the latter died in 1667. In this monument you can see some of the elements the pope wanted to change in the Pantheon: a dome with decorated coffers, stars around the oculus and decorated ribs. The tomb was designed by Bernini himself, but largely executed by his pupils between 1671 and 1678.[7] So pope Alexander VII did not get a chance to make a statement about his position in the hierarchy by changing the Pantheon, maybe the solution for this was given to him after his death by one of the best architectures of the seventeenth century.


  1. Marder TA. Bernini and Alexander VII: Criticism and praise of the Pantheon on the seventeenth century. ABull. 1989 Dec; 71(4):628-45.
  2. Meeks CLV. Pantheon paradigm. JSAH. 1960 Dec; 19(4):135-44
  3. Slavinsky R. Filippo Brunelleschi and the creation of Il Duomo. [Internet] Journal of Art History. 2006;1 [cited 2012 Feb 18]. Available from:
  4. Mark R, Hutchinson P. On the structure of the Roman Pantheon. ABull. 1986 Mar; 68 (1):24-34
  5. Marder TA. Bernini, and the urban setting of the Pantheon in the seventeenth century. ABull. 1991 Sep; 50(3):273-92
  6. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. [Internet]. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online: Kelly JND. Alexander VII. [cited 2012 Jan 26]. Available from:
  7. Web Gallery of Art. [Internet]. Bernini, Gian Lorenzo. [cited 2012 Feb 18]. Available from:
  18. Marder TA. Bernini and Alexander VII: Criticism and praise of the Pantheon on the seventeenth century. ABull. 1989 Dec; 71(4): 628-45. Figure 5, Project for glazing the oculus of Pantheon, Rome, drawing BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 114r (photo: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana); p. 632
  19. Marder TA. Bernini and Alexander VII: Criticism and praise of the Pantheon on the seventeenth century. ABull. 1989 Dec; 71(4):628-45. Figure 6, Transverses ection of Pantheona and view of dome with pro-posed decorations, drawing. BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 111-112 (photo: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana); p. 632
  20. Marder TA. Bernini and Alexander VII: Criticism and praise of the Pantheon on the seventeenth century. ABull. 1989 Dec; 71(4):628-45. Figure 7, Project for decoration of coffers of Pantheon, drawing. BAV, Chigi P VII, 9, 113r (photo: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana); p. 632