Where? Gallery 30 of the National Gallery of Art
When? About 1734
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Around 50 people are inside the Pantheon. They are engaged in different activities like admiring the architecture, talking, and praying. They look small compared to the size of the building. Most people stand or kneel in the open space in the middle. Enormous Corinthian columns and statues surround this space. In the middle background is the entrance to the Pantheon and we can identify the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. The dome is decorated with sunken square panels (called a coffered ceiling). The light enters through the opening in the dome. You can see the sunlight just to the right of the entrance to the Pantheon. The floor is decorated with squares and circles which are also used to decorate the walls.
Backstory: The view in this painting is not entirely realistic. While Panini accurately painted the Pantheon, the painting shows more than is possible from a single place in the Pantheon. Since 609 AD, the Pantheon is a Christian church and quite some modifications to the Pantheon have been made over time. As a result, the view that Panini painted is not the same as what you see today when visiting the Pantheon. For example, the bottom of the dome contains some inscriptions. On the left, we read ‘[LAUDATE] DOMINUM IN SANCTIS EIUS,’ which means ‘praise the Lord in his sanctuary.’ On the right, we read ‘LAVS EIVS IN ECC[LESIA SANCTORVM],’ which means ‘let his praise be in the church of saints.’ These lines were added to the Pantheon by Pope Alexander VII during the 17th century, but have been removed after Panini completed the painting and are thus not visible anymore today.
Different versions of this painting: Panini created several other versions of this painting. At least eight versions are known of which four are on public display and the others are in private collections. All versions are somewhat different from each other. The versions on public display can be divided into two types. First, the paintings with large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Denmark and the other one in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. Second, the paintings without large columns in the foreground. One of these paintings is in the National Gallery of Art, and the other is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
History of the Pantheon? The Pantheon was built between 113 and 126 AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was built on the spot of a burnt-down Roman temple built by Agrippa between 29 and 19 BC. Pantheon literally means ‘all gods’ and was dedicated to every Roman God. However, in 609 AD the Pantheon became a Catholic church. The Pantheon is also called Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs and every week at least two masses are held inside. The height of the dome and the diameter of the dome are the same, 142 feet (43 meters). The diameter of the opening on the top is 27 feet (8 meters). Quite some famous people, including kings and artists, are buried in the Pantheon, including Raphael.
Who is Panini? Giovanni Paolo Panini was born in 1691 in Piacenza, Italy, and died in Rome in 1765. He was both a painter and an architect, which explains why he liked to paint buildings. He was popular among tourists for his paintings with views of Rome and some of the most impressive buildings in Rome. As photography did not exist yet in the 17th century, tourists asked Panini to draw some of the major sights as a memory to their trip. Two of his most famous paintings are Ancient Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart) and Modern Rome (with versions in the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts).
Fun fact: The Pantheon has served as the inspiration for the Rotunda of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. The rotunda is in the center of the main floor of the West Building and is the major entrance to the museum. The dome is similar, including the sunken square panels, and there is also an opening on the top to let the light in. The main difference, though, is that this opening is covered by glass such that the rain or snow cannot enter the museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe