We know Emperor Hadrian for his wall, but a new show celebrates his grandest designs back home





It is still the most powerful building in the world. Every time I walk inside – its vast, silent, columnless dome always a surprise after the hubbub of the city – I get goosebumps. If an Ancient Roman were standing right next to you, living, breathing, you’d think it a miracle. Yet slap-bang in the middle of Rome, surrounded by traffic, German tour groups and pigeons, is a piece of Ancient Rome still living, still breathing almost 2,000 years on.

People walk past the Pantheon as if it were part of the furniture, which, in a sense, it is. It is just another church in a city of a thousand precious churches. Inside, several times a day, gawping tourists are tactfully elbowed aside for services. At the end of the day, the building’s checkerboard marble and granite floor, softly pitted by generations of feet, is mopped by the caretakers, while outside, at night, its flanks of sooty ancient bricks are surreptitiously fly-posted to advertise Italian boybands. The Pantheon is a living part of the city, just as it has always been.

It seems all the more powerful because no record exists of its creator, its architect. We do, though, know who commissioned it, and whom some suspect even of having a hand in its design: the Emperor Hadrian, celebrated this month by a big exhibition at the British Museum.

In Britain, Hadrian’s name seems known only for the 73-mile wall that he had built to mark the outer limits of his empire. The exhibition, though, hopes to paint a more vivid picture of an emperor, according to one ancient account, “in the same person . . . niggardly and generous, deceitful and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable”...


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