What are the unique features of the Pantheon in terms of design and construction?
The French writer Stendhal described the Pantheon as the ‘first great monument of non-useful architecture’. This statement nullifies the usefulness of religion, as the Pantheon was a place of worship but this is not what separated it from other Ancient Roman architecture. Its uniqueness can be discerned not only in its immense and unprecedented size but also in the originality of design and from a purely aesthetic point of view, a clear synthesis of the classical orders. In order that one might pinpoint the unique features found in the Pantheon one must explore other buildings constructed at the same time that utilise more primitive or indeed superior structural features. The Aqueduct of Segovia is an example of a piece of architecture that is far removed from the Pantheon in terms of both form and function but shares similar construction methods. Following this particular comparison it seems to me that to remove the distinctive features outside of their whole unit is an often-flawed historical method. However, if one pinpoints the influences of the structural elements in later architecture like the Baths of Diocletian and on figures like Brunelleschi than a sense of gravitas can be transposed quite lucidly onto the unique features of the Pantheon in terms of its design and construction.
Bernini perceived the Pantheon as the union of fundamental forms, the portico and the cylindrical vault. This was a unification of classical orders, the Roman vault and the Greek Corinthian temple front. The effect of omissions in architectural terms like the lack of a major statue or indeed a prominent courtyard serves to expound the clarity of the existing features, the portico, the pediment and the dome. The dome remains the central feature in compliance with the originality of design as even after nearly 2000 years it still remains the world’s greatest unreinforced concrete dome. A succession of intersecting arches lay on 8 piers, which bear the weight of 8 round-headed arches that run through the drum. It is a common architectural viewpoint that the Pantheon is the apex of ancient architecture that clearly embodies a synthesis of the classical orders with a simple two-point design. However, in order to properly understand the uniqueness of the Pantheon it is important to go beyond simple aesthetics and delve into the actual construction of the building and moreover the Pozzolana concrete that allowed immense weight to be posited on the drum. This lightweight concrete goes some way in explaining the technical success of the Pantheon but it would be negligible for an argument to overlook the other factors that allowed the dome to be procured on that scale. The coffering and concentric stepped rings are other examples of masterful craftsmanship being joined with aesthetics to ‘shred the mass’ of the domes and in turn the whole cylindrical structure. It seems to me that the key factor in the Pantheon’s uniqueness is not as many believe its preservation through the ages or its lucid symmetrical forms but the construction of the dome and the stepped rings that consolidated the tensions in a circular manner which one must conclude was a purposeful design feature as opposed to a flaw. For the preservation of the structure is nearly wholly determined by the original craftsmanship. The influence of the Pantheon can be determined by the numerous emulations (not copies as Carroll Meeks states in her article ‘The Pantheon Paradigm”, ‘The use of copy and imitation in such observations is owing to hasty observation on the part of the modern critic’). Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence primary and most probably sole influence from a design point of view is the Pantheon. Whether the Pantheon was a unique form of its time or instead a culmination of earlier prototypes is a question that is easier to answer than one might believe. The Temple of Mercury at Baiae was the...
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