Curious Traveler’s Secrets of Rome

Christine van Blokland, the award-winning travel writer, producer & host of Curious Traveler on PBS & Create-TV, shares her Secrets of Rome.

Secrets of the Pantheon: 
  • How does the Pantheon stand up?  The Pantheon is an Ancient Roman engineering marvel, and the largest unsupported dome in the world, at 142 feet in diameter. To compare, the US Capitol dome is only 96 feet across.  The Pantheon dome is thought to symbolize the roundness of the Earth, or the dome of heaven. Ancient Romans created their own special blend of super-lightweight concrete, getting lighter towards the top, so it doesn’t cave in on itself.
  • The Pantheon is a calendar. There’s 28 coffers/rectangles in each row. Historians think this could be for the 28 days of the lunar calendar. With the sunlight coming in through the oculus, it creates a sundial.  So the Pantheon is kind of an ancient Stonehenge.
  • Where’s Jupiter? All those Christian statues in the niches along the walls of the Pantheon replaced pagan gods. Jupiter used to the main guy around here, until the Pantheon was consecrated as a Christian church in 609 AD. It was later renamed the Santa Maria della Rotonda church. But it’s still easier to just ask for directions to the Pantheon.
  • Where’s the glitter gone? The portico and other areas of the Pantheon used to be covered in bronze, to symbolize the shining light of the heavens, and of course for the shining light of Emperor Hadrian.  Hard to believe, but it was common practice for Renaissance Popes and other Roman leaders to “borrow” materials from ancient monuments to build new ones. Crazy!
  • Where’s all the light bulbs?  You won’t find any light sources in the Pantheon other than the incredible 27-foot oculus.  The oculus served many purposes: to invite in the Pagan gods into the Pantheon during Ancient times, to later let the demons out during Christian times, and at all times, to serve as god’s “eye” (oculus means “eye”) watching over us. So you’d better be good, for goodness’ sakes.

Secrets of Piazza Navona
  • On Your Mark, Get Set, Go! As you’re shopping, strolling and dining in Piazza Navona today, look up at the buildings around you. Feel like you’re in an oval with high walls all around? That’s because Piazza Navona used to be Circus Agonalis, an ancient racetrack. The piazza is the racetrack, and the buildings around it used to be the stadium seats, holding 30,000 screaming fans.
  • Who are all the half-naked men in the fountain? The famous ‘Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi’, or ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’, is in the center of Piazza Navona, and is full of symbolism. Each statue represents one of the four known continents and rivers of the Renaissance world: The Danube of Europe, The Nile of Egypt, The Ganges of Asia, and the Rio de la Plata of the Americas. Each is conveniently bowing down to the obelisk with the dove on top, symbolizing the Pope, showing who was in charge around here.
  • Bring your water wings, time for a pool party!  Need directions to ‘Lago di Piazza Navona’? Well, you’re already standing in it. ‘Piazza Navona Lake’ was created here in Piazza Navona, when Renaissance leaders flooded the piazza on special days,  turning it into a public pool.  This lasted until 1870, when the piazza was repaved in the ‘Sampietrini’ style, a convex shape that forced the water to drain off. Pool party poopers.


Secrets of St. Peter’s Basilica
  • St. Peter’s is built on the site of Nero’s Circus. Why? There were at least two other, humbler, churches dedicated to St. Peter’s built on this site. Because this is where St. Peter is believed to have been crucified.  The basic racetrack shape of Nero’s Circus can still be seen today in St. Peter’s Square, although shifted slightly.
  • This isn’t the original design.  St. Peter’s Basilica took more than 100 years to build, between 1506 and 1615.  And there were lots of squabbles between Popes and Renaissance masters like Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini.  Each built on to the other’s design.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica is about two football fields long!  Part of that Renaissance squabbling resulted in the record-breaking size of St. Peter’s.  Michelangelo turned Bramante’s Greek Cross design into a Latin Cross, then Maderno extended the nave to 730 feet long.  Look down and you’ll see markers where other churches could fit inside. Yes, entire churches could fit inside here.
  • The altar is possibly made of that stolen Pantheon bronze Historians still disagree on this one, but it’s possible the altar is made of stolen bronze.  ‘Borrowing’ from one monument to build another is just an interesting form of ‘Roman Recycling’. No matter where the raw materials came from, Bernini’s Baldacchino, made of 93 tons of bronze and 10 stories high, is a beauty to behold.
  • Michelangelo copied the Pantheon for St. Peter’s: Michelangelo once said the Pantheon was “built by angels, not by men”.  He was so inspired, that he created St. Peter’s dome in honor of the Pantheon, but made sure it was a little smaller, so as not to outdo it.


Secrets of the Colosseum
  • Ancient Romans had a twisted sense of entertainment: While the Colosseum is indisputably an architectural wonder, we have to remember what happened here. It is estimated that over the four centuries it was used, the ‘games’ played here killed about 400,000 people and over a million animals.
  • The Colosseum is Colossal: The Colosseum is a massive arena, measuring some 620 by 513 feet. It has about 80 entrances and could accommodate more than 50,000 spectators. It was built between 70 and 80 AD, at a time when other entertainment venues, like amphitheaters, were built into hillsides for support.   The Colosseum was exceptional at the time because it was freestanding.
  • Why Named Colosseum?  Originally named the “Flavian Amphitheater”, you might think the Colosseum got its name because of its colossal size, but it’s a bit more interesting than that. It all starts with Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient Greek statue of the god Helios.  Much later, Nero had a ‘Colossus’ statue created in his own image, and placed it in Nero’s Palace. Nero’s Palace was the site of the Colosseum, so it was named after Nero’s statue, as a symbol of Rome’s eternal power.
  • Ancient Air Conditioning: To keep patrons cool, Ancient Roman architects devised a massive retractable roof system over the Pantheon, using pulleys and awnings. Centuries before the NFL figured it out.
  • The Colosseum was flooded. On purpose. The arena floor was flooded with water, life-size naval ships were brought in, and entire naval battles were reenacted for the entertainment of the spectators.
  • Missing parts used for ‘Roman Recycling’.  There’s that Roman Recycling again. It’s possible that the Colosseum was used as a quarry for numerous building projects, including marble for St. Peter’s Basilica.


This article was originally published on Pursuitist. Republished by permission.