Marcus Agrippa Made This

The Pantheon was the most impressive sight of my entire Italian vacation. I can’t explain exactly why.

PantheonThe highlight of Rome for me was seeing the Pantheon. I’d seen pictures and video, and I’d read about it in travel guides and the like, but never saw what the big deal was. More than anything else I’ve seen, it’s something you have to see in person to appreciate.

Even after seeing it in person, I couldn’t tell you what the attraction is. Sure, it’s the best-preserved ancient building in Rome. And the dome is impressive in the abstract, as an engineering concept: we’re told that by the time of the Renaissance, people had lost the technology to build a dome like the Pantheon’s. But that’s the kind of info that impresses historians and people who write travel guides (and, I’m presuming, Renaissance engineers). It doesn’t explain why you can walk into the building as a tourist in 2009 — one who’d been to Disney World, even — and still be struck dumb by it.

I can only conclude that there are still ancient spirits inside.

At the other end of the reverence scale is the Trevi Fountain, a bombastic display of excess and aqueducts that is perpetually overwhelmed with mobs of tourists. And yeah, it is kind of a garish tourist trap — the part of Rome that feels most like Disney-fied Las Vegas — but I still dug it. Gelato-sucking crowds and all.

When I was in Paris, I was turned off by all the monuments, arches, fountains, and statuary: it felt ostentatious (which was the whole point), but cold and unnecessarily off-putting for anybody in the 21st century. Paris — like Venice, in my opinion — doesn’t feel like a real place, but a theme park. Almost everything in Rome felt like people actually live and work there, coexisting with sights and monuments from the past 2500 years and, most likely the next 2500.

Apart from the Vatican and the Colosseum/Vittorio Emanuele area, there aren’t any huge stretches of land set aside just for show. You can be standing in front of any of the tourist traps in the city, turn your head 90 degrees and realize, “hey, somebody probably lives right there.”

More vacation pictures are up on Flickr, this set including the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Also: while I was at the Pantheon, I kept trying to come up with a dirty joke about the HBO series Rome, but it never quite materialized. It involved graffiti and a picture of Octavia that said “Marcus Agrippa did this.”