Hot Cement and a Prayer to Vulcan

There’s nothing like dodging a couple of whining Vespas as you slurp your gelato on the sun-baked streets of Rome in June, meandering along with tourists and locals like one more minnow in a school of aimless fish, and turning a corner to suddenly behold the Pantheon.

Agrippa’s marvelously preserved temple to “all the gods” still stands after 2000 years, sinking ever so slightly into the piazza it otherwise dominates, a testament to the brilliance of ancient Roman architectural ambition and to the sensual coexistence between the modern and the archaic in the Eternal City. Inside, the Pantheon is an even greater jaw-dropping thrill, thanks to the sheer perfection of its non-reinforced concrete dome alone—a marvel of human artistic and engineering achievement in more ways than one. A person possessed of proper faculties cannot help but feel as if he or she is a mere speck of dust drifting beneath the very outer limits of a contained and impossibly perfect, vast universe while gazing up at the Pantheon’s duomo.

Why has the Pantheon remained intact for so many centuries while hundreds of other temples in Rome and elsewhere have suffered much greater diminishment? There are many answers to that question, aside from the obvious misfortune of deliberate dismantling and repurposing. One of the reasons for the Pantheon’s stoutness of heart, however, has much to do with the way ancient Roman builders and architects formulated the concrete they used to erect such masterful monuments. The CNN article at the link above delves into the unique recipe a little bit and sheds new light on why the ancients are to be admired for creating stuff that was made to last … and why they were possibly helping the environment without even realizing it. We arrogant contemporary folk could learn a thing or two.

Go see the Pantheon when next you are in Roma. Stop by Raphael’s tomb in the rotunda and tell him I’ll bring more roses on my next visit. Grazie.

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