Friday, June 17, 2011

Monarchist Destinations: The Pantheon

Obviously, there are many, many monarchist destinations throughout Rome and Italy, but if I had to choose one where you get the most ‘bang for your buck’ (so to speak) it would probably have to be the Pantheon, officially now the Church of St Mary and the Martyrs or, more popularly, Santa Maria Rotonda. Still, many people continue to refer to the building as the Pantheon, though there are conflicting stories as to why it came to be called that. Probably no other monarchist destination in Italy so well combines the glory days of the two monarchies that ruled a united Italy; the Roman Empire and the recent Kingdom of Italy. The place where it was built was on or near a temple built by General Marcus Agrippa, who was the right-hand-man of Emperor Augustus. However, the structure as it exists today was build by the great Roman Emperor Hadrian. Although purported to be a rebuilding of the original temple it was really an almost totally new structure and design.

The Pantheon was built between 118 and 126 AD and was one of the most magnificent of the many buildings constructed by Emperor Hadrian and one the great emperor was quite fond of as he often held court there. The central dome that dominates the structure is still the largest free standing concrete dome in the world, even 2,000 years after it was built. In 609 AD Emperor Phocas of the East Roman Empire legally ceded the building to the ownership of Pope Boniface IV who consecrated it as a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. The Pope had requested that the Byzantine Emperor give the building to the Church so that this sacred place where once the pagan gods were worshipped could be transformed into a house for the worship of the Christian God. This was extremely significant as the rededication of the building as a church is probably the only thing that saved it from going the way of so many other Roman monuments that were destroyed in various invasions (most people don’t know that a great many of the relics of ancient Rome were not ruined in ancient times but in the dark ages or even the Renaissance period).

Given this new purpose for the Pantheon, it is remarkable just how little was changed after it became a Catholic church. Some of the things that were changed were later restored with probably the biggest difference being the removal of all the pagan statuary which would, of course, have been rather inappropriate (to say the least) for a Christian place of worship. However, it is still, to a very large extent, in much the same condition as it was when Emperor Hadrian built it. No doubt because of the connection with the glorious days of ancient Rome, the Pantheon eventually became famous as a place where the most famous Italians were brought to be buried. When the country was reunited as the Kingdom of Italy the Pantheon was where the ancient and modern Roman Caesars came face to face.

Along with many famous painters, composers and architects also entombed in the Pantheon are the first two Kings of Italy and one Queen: Vittorio Emanuele II, Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita. Also, although he is buried in Egypt where he was exiled, King Vittorio Emanuele III has a memorial lamp burning for him at the tomb of his father as it had been intended for all the Kings of Italy to be buried there. The area is quite a spectacular monument, combining the ancient and the modern by showing the arms of the Royal House of Savoy surmounted by the Imperial Roman eagle. Also, in a wonderful display that still enrages republicans, loyal Italian monarchists still hold a voluntary vigil over the tombs of their kings. The republican government might have put a stop to this but, as the building is still a working church (where mass is still held on special occasions) they have no say in the matter and the Catholic authorities have allowed the monarchists to continue.

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