When a hole in the ceiling makes all the difference
The first regrettable decision I ever made in my life was when I was in year 5 and elected Latin as my second foreign language.
The choice had been between Latin and French, and insatiable as I have always been I opted for a language that was said to be the base for a multitude of languages. Why focus on one thing when you can do them all. Unfortunately, this is a character trait that is still very much alive in me today.
Anyway, my decision condemned me to six endless years of Classics study. Learning a language that was puzzling and frustrating and so difficult to put together that it was impossible to construct just a simple sentence. No wonder Latin was called a dead language! How could anybody find their bearings with all these different cases and tempora and genders? I soon realised that despite cramming like I never crammed before in my life I failed my Latin tests in school. I started lessons with sweaty hands and a racing heart.
My Latin teacher was a terrifying, white-haired man in a suit, and he couldn’t have been more removed from modern student life even if he tried. This man still believed in strict discipline, palms on the desk, eyes to the blackboard, no talking unless asked. Over the years we were trained to remember endless tables with senseless word endings of the qui, quae, quod kind. We learned vocabulary that had no relation to our lives in the modern world, words that would describe ancient building styles, battle techniques and politics. We were screwed.
But since we were kids and since we were all in the same boat we soon discovered that we could also play this teacher, strict and old-school as he may have been. We learned that we were able to distract him by asking him questions that went beyond declination tables.
We asked about life as a boy during World War II. We asked about travelling in Italy. We asked about intriguing everyday things in the world of the Ancient Romans.
We didn’t venture far away from the topic of history and the Latin language, but at least we lived through the lesson with less fear. The more our teacher talked the less we had to fear an inconvenient question that would expose our inability to learn the intricate details of this dead language.
20 years on and I still remember many of the tales this man told us, mainly because we went through a lot of repetitions. Old people like to repeat themselves, down to the same catchphrases. We as a class let that pass in order to survive until the bell would ring.
But sometimes these stories were actually interesting. From all the stories about Rome that our teacher told us, I remember his description of one building in particular: the Pantheon. So finally visiting the Pantheon two decades on was a bit like meeting a rock star – the sense of knowing a place, so vividly described in endless Latin lessons, yet never seen in person.
The Pantheon is a truly remarkable building. It is one of the oldest buildings in Rome that is still in use, not entirely in original condition yet still very much alive and pulsating.
There are many discussions in the scholarly world about the origins of the Pantheon, down to the question about the original name of the building (a pantheon is a building dedicated to “all gods” but some consider this unlikely), but at the end of the day none of this really matters to people like you and me. It is almost 2,000 years old, and over time has been used as a temple, a church and a tomb (two Italian kings and a queen have been interred here). You get an immediate sense of the age of the building when you climb the steps to the entrance – just look above you and see the roughly cut stones, the exposed beams, the vault that might have been covered in bronze many centuries ago.
The Pantheon is a fantastic place to visit, absolutely stunning on the inside despite the bleak and rather crumbling exterior. It is an architectonic masterpiece, a celebration of geometric form and composition. Squares and circles can be found on the floor, the walls and in the dome. A dome so fascinating that you will see groups of people standing in the centre of the circular room with their heads tilted back to stare at the opening in the middle of the dome, the oculus.
This indeed, is the most fascinating feature of the Pantheon. Not the tombs or the altar, the century old frescoes or the marble clad interiors. It is the gaping hole in the centre of the dome that lets in the outside world from above, be it sunlight or rain.
The dome of the Pantheon is impossibly high and a feat of engineering, not just for the ancient world but also for us today. The oculus has the same height as the diameter of the interior circle, which means that you could in theory place an entire sphere, 43m in height, inside the building. The effect on the visitor is mind-blowing and very, very humbling.
I have to admit I am utterly fascinated by the oculus, such a counter-intuitive feature of a ceiling that is supposed to protect you from the weather outside. But then a dome of this height maybe wouldn’t have been possible to build if the gap had been filled with even more concrete or stone. It is very likely that the hole was needed to avoid unnecessary weight and pressure on the structure. It takes courage to leave a gap like this.
I will not bore you with details about the building and its history. You can read about all of this elsewhere on the net. But let me tell you that it is definitely worth seeing if you are planning a trip to Rome.
It took me six years to finish my studies of the Latin language. Very little has been stuck in my brain for good, most certainly not the endless declination tables which I had to learn by heart. But I believe that was not the point after all. Studying Latin helped me widen my horizons and looking at the world in new ways. Discovering new buildings such as the Pantheon and exploring the world in all its beauty.
And what I learned about visiting the Pantheon is that if it takes to leave a hole in the ceiling to make an overall concept work, then that’s exactly what you need to do.