Well, we have finally come to the last posting on this series on the Domes of Paris. We started the series by looking at the two domes that most inspired Christopher Wren (see here and here) when he visited Paris in 1665 and then went back to London and built St Paul’s. Then we covered The French Institute that proudly stands across the Seine from the Louvre (see here). Part Four was all about the golden dome of Les Invalides and Napoleon’s final resting place (see here). But I will have to say that I was very disappointed when I first gazed at what I had thought would be the best of them all: the former church and now national temple called The Pantheon.
The entire dome of the Pantheon these days is covered in a big white shroud with a huge crane hanging over the entire building. I did a lot of research on Paris before our trip but I didn’t know anything about a ten-year restoration project the first two years of which would be concentrating on the dome. That’s the breaks, I guess. I had heard from others who visited Paris within the last 20 years or so and they all said they were disappointed with all of the scaffolding covering Notre Dame. Well, the restoration projects concerning Notre Dame have been completed and I was able to see the entire cathredral sans scaffolds! So I wasn’t crushed by the limited view of the Pantheon, just disappointed.
Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, asked for Val de Grace to be built. Les Invalides was built to glorify Louis XIV. And the Pantheon was built at the request of King Louis XV. In 1855 the prominent architect Jacques-Germain Souffot was appointed to design a great church equal to St Paul’s in England and St Peter’s in Rome. The church would be dedicated to St Genevieve, one of the patron saints of Paris, and it was to be located next to the Abbey of St Genevieve on the hill called montagne Sainte-Geneviève just south of the Sorbonne and east of Jardin du Luxembourg.
Soufflot had studied in Rome where he saw both recent Italian Baroque churches and ancient Roman ruins. In 1850 he traveled to Pestum near Naples to study the ancient Greek temples there. He was not enthused with the current French Baroque and Rococo styles that were popular in his day. But he loved the old Gothic architecture and his idea was to blend the old Greek and Roman use of columns with Gothic arches and buttresses. The Pantheon was one of the first buildings to be designed in a style that was to be called Neoclassical and some of the present-day gurus of architectural history say the Pantheon was the first building of modern architecture.
Nothing went smoothly in the design and construction of the Pantheon and the project lasted more than 35 years. Some of the reasons for the delays were financial but most involved the concerns of professionals and government officials on the sturdiness of Soufflot’s design. A man named Pierre Patte was asked to go to London to measure the dome of St Paul’s. Patte returned claiming that continuing with Soufflot’s design would be a disaster. Soufflot was able to properly answer all of the charges brought against him, even the cracks that showed up in the main piers that turned out to be the result of poor workmanship rather than poor design.
Soufflot died in 1780 before his dome could be completed. It took Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, his assistant, ten more years to complete the job. Rondelet followed most of Soufflot’s design but he also strenghtened the piers and changed the shape of the dome — his version was a little higher as well as a little narrower. Rondelet is usually given credit for the innovative use of metal in reinforcing the building’s structure.
A decision was made during the Revolution to turn the church into a temple honoring the great men of France and Quatremère de Quincy was hired to remove the stained glass windows and block up the walls. Then in 1806 a few more cracks in the piers appeared and Rondelet was asked to further strengthen the support structure for the dome. Napoleon authorized the sum of 600,000 francs for the project.
Thomas U. Walter went to Paris in 1838 to study the Pantheon. 16 years later he designed the US Capitol with a dome entirely made of cast-iron. Work began on the dome in 1855 and was completed in 1866. Other Americans came to Paris in the 1860s and 70s to study what has become known as Beaux Art architecture. The result of all of this cross-Atlantic travel is the numerous capitols and county courthouses and city halls with domes that look like the Pantheon.
Have you seen a picture of our Capitol lately? Some scaffolding has appeared on the dome. Water has seeped in and some of that iron has rusted. And that’s also the major damage to the Pantheon. Leaks have reached some of the reinforced concrete and the iron re-bar has rusted.
My hometown of San Francisco is famous for its Transamerica Building and its Ferry Building and its Coit Tower but I think its most beautiful building is its City Hall, especially when it was lit up in Orange after the Giants won the World Series (for the third time in six years) a few weeks ago!
And it looks a lot like the Pantheon!