Shapes in Rome
by Chelsea Gradoville
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, July 2012]
Shapes can be recognized in countless places in daily life: in nature, the human body, and especially in architecture. In Rome, the square and the circle often portray special symbolism. The circle representing the divine and the square linked to the earth. A circle as a shape is a continuous, harmonious line with no end, very much like the harmony of the universe. Circular architectural elements such as a dome are structural symbols of the heavenly or divine. This symbolism of the circle is further enriched by the halo. A halo surrounding a head is a literal symbol of divinity, as is often seen around biblical characters. The Pantheon demonstrates this through its magnificent dome and its connected porch. Built as a temple for all Gods, the huge unreinforced concrete dome is the focal point of the church. The circular dome culminating in a round open hole is a symbol of the divine Gods for whom the temple was built. The circular hole allows light, figuratively the light of the Gods, to beam in on the earth below. The interior of the dome is covered in a pattern of squares, creating a path for the divine to reach the earth. In the paintings decorating the walls of the Pantheon, Mary, Joseph, and the angels are depicted with haloes. The halo or circle is a tangible sign of divinity.
A contrast to the circular halo is the square halo which appears around Pope Paschal in Santa Maria in Domnica. Pope Paschal is shown among Mary, Christ, and angels in the apse mosaic, who are all depicted with circular divine haloes. The Pope is given significance by a halo, but the square form signifies his Earthliness.
The square with four sides, one for each direction (north, south, east, west) can be used for orientation and to symbolize the earth in architecture. The floor plan of the Pantheon is a maze of squares and circles, uniting the two as though uniting heaven and Earth in the structure. The symbolism of the circle and square is strengthened again by the relationship of the nave and the apse. For example, in Santa Prassede, the rectangular nave is the designated place for earthly people and is separated from the circular apse, which is reserved for the harmony of the divine in mosaics or paintings or sculptures.
In Santa Costanza, originally built as a mausoleum for Princess Costanza and later converted into a Catholic church, a circular plan is used as the floor plan. Here the circular plan is ensuring Costanza's passage to heaven and essentially declares the space divine. Another interesting element of the circular plan is the windows breaking the outer circle of the ceiling to illuminate her sarcophagus. The windows act like a baldacchino does in a cruciform plan, directing light and divinity between the earth and the heavens. Allusions to the belief in a geocentric universe can be found in the Pantheon and Santa Costanza as well. The circular plan of Santa Costanza is divided into 12 arches, with the dome containing 12 windows, perhaps signifying the division of the stars into 12 constellations in the geocentric universe. These windows lining the dome illuminate the structure similar to a halo, creating a sense of divinity in the space. The oculus in the center of the dome of the Pantheon with the 7 surrounding rings is suggestive of the Earth in the center of the universe with the 7 planets rotating around it. These allusions to the universe and the heavens augment the divine nature of the structures. The Roman's use of shapes may seem effortless, but at second glance it is full of symbolic meaning and interest..