Still on the golf cart tour with Joe, we stop at the Pantheon.
The Pantheon … hmmn, that’s one of those phrases that I’ve heard a hundred times, bandied it around in conversation myself on occasion and yet I had absolutely no idea what it actually was. Well, why should I let ignorance prevent me from having an opinion? No one else lets it stop them.
It turns out that Pantheon translates as world religion, and basically the Pantheon is a church that was built where people could worship whatever deity they pleased. Turns out that when all that dodgy business of throwing Christians to the lions was over, the emperors didn’t care which divine being was bringing to your knees, so long as you worshipped the emperor above all others, and by worship we of course mean pay taxes. “Only joking Kenneth, you can worship that Jesus fella after all. What’s that? Yes you’re right it is a bit of a shame that the decision wasn’t made earlier.. We’ll all miss Andrew at the pub quiz. Still better late than never. By the way, have you got that 20 denarii you owe us?”
Anyway, the Pantheon is utterly glorious, like everything else in Rome. It is the oldest dome in Rome, possibly in the world, and it is a contender for the largest too. The church is one large circular chamber, home to various altars, statues and paraphernalia of worship, around the room. It also contains the tomb of renaissance painter Raphael which is tremendously impressive, even if – like me – you don’t find out about it until after you’ve left the building.
It is mostly exposed stone on the outside now, but it was once covered in bronze and marble. The Italians were quite forward thinking in their attitude to recycling, so those materials were ‘borrowed’ for decorating St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican.
Interestingly the dome was built with a massive hole at the top, there are no windows in the structure anywhere, so the hole was to let in light, and on a more whimsical note, so that the voices of people in prayer could ascend directly to the heavens. I thought gods were suppose to be omnipresent … cough.
The Pantheon was also the site where I came across the latest in must have tourist accessories – the selfie stick! Literally dozens of guys trying to sell them to us every place we went. I should have whipped out my Fisher Price phone to give them a good laugh.
Moving on, Joe took us to an amazing church that I suspect most tourists don’t happen across, the Jesuit Church of St Ignatius. In an intimate piazza, stone steps lead through large but no overly ornate doors. Once inside you see all the usual trappings of a grand church, however at Joe’s insistence we were only permitted to look at the floor and the walls when we first walked in. Eventually when he is happy that we’ve arrived at the perfect spot, he tells us to look up. It’s so beautiful. The walls give rise to a curved ceiling painted to look like the heavens, gloriously muscular men from the four corners of the earth ascend and descend through rents in the clouds from some divine realm beyond. It’s a superb example of trompe l’oeil, if you’re standing directly underneath it, there’s no hint of the ceiling or the curve, instead the walls of the church appear to spire upwards infinitely into the heavens. And if that wasn’t enough Joe then points out the three domed ceilings in the church, “See the middle one?” Uhuh. “It’s not real. Flat surface painted to look like a dome.”
Bloody hell, it’s so clever. The perspective on this dome is amazing, it really does look like the dark interior of a dome with a central skylight. Move directly underneath the dome or to the opposite side of it however, and you can tell it’s painted because you’re no longer seeing the asymmetric slope of the painted dome from the correct angle.
Perhaps the most remarkable things about the decor in St Ignatius’, is the decorator. Antonius is the name of the chap responsible for bringing all this splendour, including the optical illusions, to fruition. Full disclosure, his name might not have been Antonius. My memory is getting really bad.
Anyway, the story goes that there was a halt in construction when the Jesuit church said they couldn’t afford to pay for the design and labour. Antonius who was a monk volunteered to take on the job – unpaid naturally, because he’s a monk and they do stuff like that. The church raised a disbelieving eyebrow, and said “Er Antonius.. that’s a very sweet offer, but seriously mate.. you’re a cook.” Turns out that Antonius the humble cook in the monastery was also a highly skilled architect and artist, and it only took him 6 years. Michelangelo spent 14 years on one teensy chapel ceiling.
It’s amazing the secret lives your colleagues lead, just imagine one day you’re making polite small talk with Marjory from accounts – you know Marjory, she’s the one with the purple rinse and the pearls – and it comes up that she was a former cage fighter. You’d think twice about turning in payroll late.