I feel lucky every time I have the chance to share my observations about cities. I feel far, far luckier every time a guest blogger is kind enough to agree to contribute a post; this week especially so. Justin Catanoso has agreed to contribute to 'A CITY A WEEK AND WHY...' Not only is Justin a old and dear friend, he is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the world, especially in Italy. Who better to write about this week's city Rome? Justin titled this piece 'Raining rose petals in the Pantheon'. I just call it 'perfect'.
It is quite natural, when standing inside the Pantheon in Rome, to stare transfixed at the ceiling. It is a marvel of advanced architectural achievement from an ancient world. It is a gorgeous honeycombed thing to behold. Five rows of concentric circles, each with 28 coffers, align in geometric perfection from the lower edge of the dome on up. The diameter is 142 feet – nearly as wide as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, far wider than the dome of the U.S. Capitol, still the largest unreinforced concrete dome on earth. Then there is the oculus, the eye, the hole in the ceiling, the portal for light and rain, the lens to view the heavens.
No matter how many times I visit Rome, and I have visited a lot, the Pantheon – this third iteration of what was once a pagan temple, rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in 270 AD, reborn as a church in 609 AD -- is always my first stop. Once inside its tall copper doors -- the original doors on their original hinges -- I stare transfixed at the ceiling, at its precise roundness, its timeless beauty, its unblinking oculus. I think again and again that the experience is so powerful, so unique that it cannot be improved upon.
But it can. On my last visit to Rome, I stood with my wife, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others, craning up at the ceiling as a torrent of blood-red rose petals floated down upon us, pouring through the oculus. It was June 8, Pentecost Sunday, the day each year that the Pantheon rains rose petals.
The Pentecost, which honors the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Virgin Mary and the Apostles of Jesus, comes seven weeks after Easter. A special 90-minute Mass is held in the Pantheon, complete with a choir and communion, to mark this annual Christian event. We arrived at 10:30 a.m., just as the Mass was starting, long after the seats near the altar were filled. We stood and listened and stared. It was hot and often uncomfortable, but we only cared a little. We knew what was coming. We figured the climax of the Mass was drawing near as human shadows peered over the edge of the oculus from the outside. It was a strange sight for sure. Stranger still, the shadows high above held out cell phones to snap photos of us below as we did the same in the opposite direction. Those shadows were actually Roman firemen who each year have the adventuresome task of lugging bags and bags of rose petals onto the dome and up to the lip of the oculus.
As the Mass ended and the music swelled, the fireman began to empty their bags to a collective gasp of excitement. A thick shaft of light angled inside. Rose petals shimmered and fluttered through the light. People reached to grab as many petals as they could. We were weary of standing, but thrilled to be there.
All by itself, any day of the week, the Pantheon is one of Rome’s most incredible sights. But in one burst of color and magic that lasts a few minutes just once a year, the Pantheon and its glorious ceiling are rendered even more incredible.
Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University and the author of My Cousin the Saint, a Story of Love, Miracles and an Italian Family Reunited (Harper Perennial).