The Piazza della Rotonda covers the south side of the Pantheon and takes its name from the building’s informal title as the Church of Santa Maria Rotunda. The piazza is roughly a half-acre space at the entrance to the Pantheon and has an obelisk and fountain at its center.
Daniela Porro, the Special Superintendent of Rome, explained that seven travertine tiles each measuring about a square yard were first discovered and documented in the 1990s during the construction of an underground tunnel for utilities that ran the length of the piazza. Porro said, “After more than twenty years from their first discovery, the slabs of the ancient pavement from the square in front of the Pantheon emerge intact, protected by a layer of fine pozzolan.”
Porro took the opportunity to underscore the importance of archeological preservation. She noted the re-discovery of the tiles as “an unequivocal proof of the importance of archaeological protection, not only as an opportunity for knowledge but fundamental for the preservation of items affirming our history, an invaluable legacy particularly in a city like Rome.”
The Pantheon was commissioned some time between 27 and 25 BCE by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus the first emperor of the Roman Empire on the site of a previous building that had burned down. The building bore the name “pantheon.”
The travertine slabs, however, do not seem to date to the Pantheon’s original commission but rather its completion.The current building was completed under Emperor Hadrian and dedicated around 126 C.E. Rather than dedicating the building with a new name, Hadrian retained the inscription of Agrippa’s older temple, the Pantheon.
The Pantheon’s name is somewhat mysterious. It presumably bears the Greek name as a temple to all the gods. Roman Senator Cassius Dio writing in the Second Century B.C.E. suggested that the building’s name either referenced the many statues of gods or the resemblance of the famous dome to the heavens.
Dio wrote in History of Rome, “Agrippa finished the construction of the building called the Pantheon. It has this name, perhaps because it received among the images which decorated it the statues of many gods, including Mars and Venus; but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.”
But the notion of a building dedicated to many gods is disputed. Romans preferred one god per temple, so if the temple experienced catastrophes, they would know which god was responsible and hence who should be appeased.
During the Pantheon’s construction, the adjoining piazza was much larger. It was completely renovated in the Second Century B.C.E. and was paved, raised, and re-paved.
There were subsequent renovations and changes under various popes when the building was consecrated as a Catholic Church, the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres (Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs).
The fountain in the piazza dates to the 18th century. It is topped with an obelisk dedicated to Pharaoh Rameses II for the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis. The obelisk was originally brought to ancient Rome where it was first used in the Iseum Campense, a shrine to the Egyptian goddess Isis that was part of the Temple complex of Isis and Serapis.
The temple of Serapis is now the church of Santo Stefano del Cacco. The Temple of Isis site is now under the church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Saint Mary above Minerva).
The Pantheon remains one of the best-preserved structures from Roman antiquity and still holds the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Despite its use as a Catholic church, it is state property, owned by the People of Italy. The building also holds the remains of Italian monarchy and the High Renaissance painter/architect Raphael.
Wearing a facemask Archeologist Marta Baumgartner said while standing in the sinkhole that the emergency event has “brought these slabs back to the light” if only temporarily. “It presents a new opportunity to continue the excavation, study the slabs and protect them,” she added. Baumgartner noted that while the sinkhole is small, the flooring covers the entire piazza and that they will not be enlarging the excavation.
The archeologists noted the multiple uses the area has had over time from temple sites to medieval markets to present-day restaurants and ice cream shops. The site has also seen pilgrimages, fires, and celebrations over nearly three millennia.
They noted that there are still many questions about ancient Rome and the Pantheon that remain unsolved. There are even questions that we don’t know how to ask yet.
But the travertine slabs unmistakably show that Pantheon still has secrets to share.