The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Pantheon, in the center of Rome, is a huge round building with a rectangular portico. Its granite columns are from Egypt and first had to float down the Nile on a barge then cross the Mediterranean in a ship before they could be erected. Even before it was built, the Pantheon already had a history of its own.

The Pantheon gets its name from the Greek πάνθεον and means, basically, “of all gods”. Its most unusual feature is the huge opening in the middle of its dome. Known as an “oculus” from the Latin word “oculus” meaning “eye”, it was meant to illuminate the interior while at the same time letting the gods look in. And when it rains, the water goes inside but doesn’t flood the slightly sloping floor as there are many carefully hidden drains. Thus nature and of man co-exist in harmony.

On the day of the Pentecost, thousands of rose petals are dropped through the dome’s hole.  This ensures that the Pantheon, once a pagan temple, is now recognized as a Christian dwelling.

Renaissance painter and lady’s man, Raffaello Sanzio, is buried here. Originally from Urbino, Raffaello was orphaned at age 11. His uncle, a priest, became his official guardian. This helped him, at an early age, to become a painter’s apprentice. Naturally gifted, Raffaello eventually made his way to Rome where he immediately was commissioned by the Pope to paint private Vatican rooms. Michelangelo, already in Rome, had to struggle for his commissions. While Raffaello was comfortably standing up to paint walls, Michelangelo was lying down on elevated scaffolding to paint the Sistine ceiling. This earned Raffaello Michelangelo’s eternal wrath. Even after Raffaello’s death, Michelangelo continued to criticize and demean his rival even accusing Raffaello of plagerism.

Raffaello had obviously appropriated from Michelangelo as well as other artists (didn’t Picasso say that “Good artists copy; great artists steal”). But Raffaello got much of his inspiration from women as well.

One morning Raffaello was walking near the Tiber when he saw a young woman bathing her feet in the river. The image hit him like a bolt of lightning and he exclaimed “I’ve found my Psyche!” The young woman’s name was Margherita Luti but she was known as “La Fornarina” as her father was a “fornaio”, a baker. The baker’s daughter became Raffaello’s lover and favorite model. But there was a slight problem. Raffaello was engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of family friend and benefactor, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena. Many marriages are arranged for practical reasons and, for Raffaello, this was no different. In no hurry to marry Maria, he kept postponing and postponing the marriage. Then, in 1520 on his 37th birthday, Raffaello unexpectedly and mysteriously died and was buried in the Pantheon.

Art historian conspiracy theorists suggest that Raffaello had been secretly married to Margherita. And when Maria’s powerful uncle, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena found out about it, he was so enraged that he had the famous artist poisoned. To further cover up the scandal, when Maria, the “widowed” fiancée, died, she was placed in the tomb with Raffaello as a means of legitimizing her position as “promessa sposa”. Margherita, instead, was sent to live in a convent where she died a couple of years later.

There are other theories, too. Such as that suggesting that Margherita had become one of Rome’s most well-known courtesans. Raffaello, so tormented by his lover’s deception, died of a broken heart. But Giorgio Vasari, in his The Lives of the Artists, claims that Raffaello died from having too much sex.

Artists and writers have based many of their works on the story of Raffaello and Margherita. Ingres painted five versions of the lovers together. Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew La Fornarina and “La Fornarina” is the name Byron gave to his Venetian mistress Margherita Cogni. Balzac modelled his Lucien de Rubemprè on Margherita and Nobakov wrote a story about her. Picasso did a series of erotic drawings of Raphaello with Margherita and Goebbels’ mistress played the role of La Fornarina in a film of the same name. The list goes on.

Love, it seems, is the greatest inspiration for both fact and fiction.


Related: “La Fornarina” at Galleria Barberini + Art sleuth uncovers clue to secret Raphael marriage + Did Rafael Santi Have Children + Raphael death. How did Raphael died? + The Sistine Madonna by Raphael + sinkhole opens in front of Pantheon

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