Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pantheon, part 2

First, a brief video of the Pantheon dome from my first day here in Rome.

Two days, and twice I have been to the Pantheon.  The first day was intentional, the second day it was  "on the way" as I walked back from the Capuchin monastery with two fellows, Peter Bognanni and Eric Nathan (more on that in the next post).   That is the way in Rome -- you "run into" monuments of western civilization. Hamlett Dobbins, another fellow, noted that his first day here he headed straight to an art supply store.  To get through the confusing streets of the city he needed a landmark -- and the Pantheon happened to be just a block or two away.  Only after he got to the store to buy paints and brushes did he realize he had just used the Pantheon as simply a way finding tool!

The danger of writing about the Pantheon is the danger of writing about almost anything in Rome -- others have said it all before, and far more eloquently.  Pick up any book on Rome and the words about the building come pouring forth in their all their purple glory.  I have never felt Nietzsche's warning about the dangerous, stultifying weight of the past quite so powerfully as in Rome.  But talking with Peter Bognanni yesterday, I realized once again the importance of acknowledging debt to those who wrote before, and then forgetting just enough to have the courage and conviction to plow ahead and offer personal observations.

The Pantheon is my first great lesson about preservation in this city.  It has been stripped of its marble (I'll go see that marble at the Vatican, where it was reused).  And it has lost its grand staircase, as the Renaissance city was built above it.  The original temple, by Agrippa, was demolished by Hadrian to build this new one.  But all of this only adds to its historical power and, yes, even authenticity.  The exposed bricks show the structure which have, for two thousand years, held up the dome.  The sunken setting, only reminds us, without knowing a single fact about the building, that it has been here so long that the city has risen around it. Not just new buildings, but the very foundation.

It is a giant gorilla of a building, brown and rough on the outside, sleeping sleeping in the middle of this city, or in a luxurious zoo, where temper-pedic mattresses are provided, allowing the animal to sink deep down.  

I was here, almost exactly twenty years ago.  But I walked in and felt like I was walking into a familiar place.  Yes it is the photographs I have seen over the years.  The dome and oculus have been copied and transformed into so may other works that it is in a way hardly surprising.  And yet -- I have to believe that the initial experience was so powerful, and the image was so immediate and searing, that it lasted in my brain that seems so often like a sieve.  The purity of the form -- wide as it is tall, with coffered dome which draws you instantly to the oculus above -- leaves an instant, and lasting, impression.  

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