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Roman Architecture - Circular And Polygonal Temples

( Originally Published 1921 )



The Romans frequently employed the circular and polygonal form, which was probably derived from the temples of the Etruscans.

The Temple of Vesta, Rome (B.C. 715 and later) (p. 152), in the Forum Romanum, was the most sacred shrine in the Imperial city, and here under the custody of the Vestal Virgins the sacred fire was kept alight which signified the home hearth as the centre and source of Roman life and power (p. 132). It was founded in B.C. 715, but was frequently destroyed by fire and repeatedly rebuilt, finally by Septimius Severus in A.D. 205 (p. 152 C) . According to recent excavations, it seems to have had a podium 10 ft. high supporting a circular cella, 28 ft. in diameter, surrounded by eighteen Corinthian columns, 34 ft. 7 in. high, and fragments of columns have been found with fillets for the insertion of metal screens.

The Temple of Vesta, Tivoli (p. 15z), dating from the time of Augustus (B.C. 27–A.D. 14), is circular peripteral with a podium supporting a cella, 24 it. in diameter, surrounded by a peristyle of eighteen Corinthian columns, 23 ft. 6 ins. high. The cella has two windows and a doorway approached by steps. The columns are nearly 9 3/4 diameters high, and the capitals, with large and unusual central flower and foliage derived from a crinkly variety of the " acanthus mollis," are one diameter in height. The difference in treatment between the Temple of Mater Matuta, Rome, and this temple at Tivoli, is accounted for by the difference in their position. The Roman temple on a low, flat site near the Tiber has slender columns to give it an appearance of height ; whereas the Tivoli temple, perched on the edge of a rocky prominence and thus provided with a lofty natural base, has sturdier columns.

The Temple of Mater Matuta, Rome (p. 136 A), formerly erroneously known as the Temple of Vesta, now S.M. del Sole, also dates from the time of Augustus. It is situated in the Forum Boarium on a cirCular stylobate of marble steps. It is of Parian marble and is circular peripteral with twenty Corinthian columns, 34 ft. 7 ins. high and 3 ft. 2 ins. in diameter and therefore nearly eleven diameters high, which surround a cella 28 ft. in diameter. The capitals have acanthus leaves V-shaped in section and with sharp-pointed lobes which generally indicate Greek craftsmanship. The roof was probably of timber rafters covered with bronze tiles.

The Pantheon, Rome (pp. 153, 154, 193 A, F), is in the most perfect preservation of all ancient buildings in Rome ; much has been removed, much has been restored, but the walls and vaulting of this great circular structure with its magnificent colonnaded portico still remain. The Pantheon was so called, according to Dion Cassius (born A.D. 155), either because it was dedicated to the deities of the Gens Julia or because its dome resembled the curved canopy of heaven. The investigations of M. Chedanne in A.D. 1892 prove that it belongs to two distinct periods. A nymphaeum for plants and running water, the floor of which was 8 ft. below the present level, once occupied the site on which the Rotunda now stands. This nymphaeum was to the south of a decastyle portico leading into a three-cell temple of the Etruscan type, built, as recorded on the frieze, by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (B.C. 2.7—A.D. 14), but it has entirely disappeared, leaving the present piazza. The Rotunda was erected (A.D. 120-124) by the Emperor Hadrian on the site of the more anCient nymphaeum. The portico of Agrippa's temple was next taken down and re-erected at a higher level, facing north instead of south, while it was also made octastyle instead of decastyle, and the inscription on the architrave records the names of Severus and Caracalla (A.D. 202) as the authors of the adaptation by which the portico of Agrippa's Temple was transformed into the frontispiece of Hadrian's Rotunda. The Corinthian octastyle portico, 110 ft. wide by 60 It. deep in the centre, forms an imposing entrance to this grandest of all circular temples. The unfluted monolithic columns of marble and granite, with Corinthian capitals of white Pentelic marble, are 46 ft. 5 ins, high, 4 ft. 11 1/2 ins. in diameter at the base, and 4 ft. 3 1/2 ins, at the top (p. 153 C, D, E). They support an entablature 11 ft. high, and a pediment which originally had a bronze relief, as is indicated by the holes for fixing it which still remain (p. 153 A). The eight front columns with the others form a triple colonnade, as in Etruscan temples (p. 153 B). At the back of this portico are niches in which stood colossal statues of Augustus and Agrippa on either side of the old Roman bronze doors which, with the fanlight, were originally plated with gold (p. 115 A). These bronze doors still remain, but the bronze plates of the original segmental vaulting were removed in A.D. 1626 and recast for the Baldachino in S. Peter's (p. 587) and for the cannon of the Castle of S. Angelo.

The Rotunda is circular with an internal diameter and height each of 142 It. 6 ins. A travertine podium supports the circular concrete wall 20 ft. thick, faced externally with brick banded with a layer of tiles every three feet. It is lined internally with marble and porphyry, and there are eight great recesses, one of which forms the entrance, while the others probably contained statues of the gods of the Gens Julia. Three of the remaining seven recesses are semicircular exedrae—the other four are rectangular, and stairs on either side of the entrance lead to the upper parts of the building (p. 153 B). Two columns are placed on the front line of each of these recesses, above which are hidden relieving arches.

The eight piers have three tiers of niches on the exterior of the building, of which the lower are semicircular on plan, and are 19 ft. high to the springing of their semi-domes ; the floor of the second tier is on the same level as the cornice over the inner Order of columns and the third tier is level with, and entered from, the second cornice of the exterior. The monolithic marble columns, 34 ft. 10 ins. high, in front of the internal recesses, believed to be part of the original design, have their lower third cabled and the upper portion fluted, and they support an entablature (pp. 153 A, 154 B). The marble facing to the walls between, as well as the columns, entablature, and pediments of the projecting altars, are later additions. The attic, or upper part of the circular wall, was originally faced with marble pilasters (six of the capitals of which are in the British Museum) and panel-ling of giallo antico, serpentine, and pavonazetto, but in A.D. 1747 this was replaced by stucco decoration.

The dome is a hemisphere, the inner surface of which is coffered in five ranges, in each of which the mouldings are adjusted or foreshortened with regard to their appearance from below and were originally embellished with central bronze ornaments. The coffers not only ornament the surface of the dome, but serve also to reduce its weight. The dome was found by Chedanne to be not of concrete, but of brickwork and thick mortar, laid in almost horizontal courses up to the fourth range of coffers, and also near the central opening at the summit. The intermediate portion was not examined, but the theory is that a series of arches may have been formed in this portion to take the thrust of the dome off the recessed openings below. The lighting is effected solely by one circular unglazed opening 27 ft. in diameter in the crown of the dome, and it still retains its circular bronze cornice (pp. 153 A, 154 B). This method of lighting produces the most solemn and impressive effect, and this great eye may have had a symbolic meaning, the idea being that worship in this temple of all the gods should take place in a building open to the vault of heaven. It is a matter of no small surprise that from this one single source ample light should be thrown round all parts of the building, even when the great bronze doors are not open to admit the Italian sunlight.

In the time of Hadrian the lower storey of the Pantheon was faced externally with large slabs of gleaming white Pentelic marble and its two upper storeys were coated with stucco. The dome, the lower portion of which is formed in steps, was covered with gilded bronze plates, till they were removed to Constantinople in A.D. 655 and replaced by lead. The octastyle portico contained in its pediment a magnificent bronze relief representing a " gigantomachia " or battle of the Titans and various deities, while the massive attic behind supported imposing groups of bronze statuary as restored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Pantheon has survived centuries of change, both temporal and spiritual, and is still devoted to the service of religion, but it is the religion of the one God of Christianity instead of the pantheon of heathen deities. In A.D. 6o8 it was dedicated by Pope Boniface IV to S. Maria ad Martyres, when many loads of martyrs' bones were brought here from the Catacombs. It is now known as S. Maria Rotunda and is shorn of statuary, marble sheathing, iridescent bronze, and glittering gold which rendered it magnificent in the days of Imperial Rome, but it still compels world-wide admiration by reason of the severe simplicity and unity of the design.

The Temple of Jupiter, Spalato (A.D.284) (p. 183), standing in Diocletian's palace, is sometimes known as his Mausoleum. It is raised on a podium and is octagonal externally, surrounded by a low peristyle of Corinthian columns. The cella is circular, 43 ft. 8 ins, in diameter, with four semi-circular and three rectangular recesses, and the entrance corresponds to a fourth. Between these recesses are eight Corinthian columns with entablature, surmounted by Composite columns and entablature, all advanced slightly in front of the wall of the cella, which is crowned with a remarkable domical vault in tiers of brick arches and externally is pyramidal in form.

The Temple of Venus, Baalbek (A.D. 273) (p, 152), has a cella, 32 ft. in diameter, raised on a podium and approached by steps. It is surrounded by Corinthian columns 33 ft. 8 in. high, six of which are well advanced from the cella wall and occupy positions resulting from the division of the circle into seven equal parts (p. 152 G). The line of the entablature supported by these six columns is curved inwards between the columns towards the cella wall. The entrance is placed centrally between two divisions of the circle, and has a column on either side. The external wall of the cella has Corinthian pilasters behind the columns, with semicircular niches for statuary between them ; while internally it has superimposed Ionic and Corinthian Orders.

Christian baptisteries were evolved from these little circular temples, which therefore hold an extremely interesting position in architectural evolution.



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