The role of geometry on stability of large domes: Roman Pantheon as cultural emblem and constructive reference

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Claudia Cennamo
Concetta Cusano


This paper focuses on large domes’ building techniques and use of geometric rules in the design and construction of religious structures. A quick excursus on the cultural heritage in Italy and abroad highlights how domes have been used almost exclusively in sacred architecture, rather than in civic buildings, for most of history. Born of the need to cover large spaces without facing with the encumbrance of vertical elements, the domed cover, ideal for places of worship crowded by hundreds of faithful, has assumed, over the centuries, a symbolic meaning to every religion. In fact, identifying the shape of a large dome in the urban landscape immediately means to recognize the sacredness of that place. The ancient Romans who believed in the gods, Christians, Hindus and Muslims, all used this very peculiar architectural element in churches or mosques to express a kind of spiritual symbolism and, as mentioned, the fact that the shape of the dome arises from a functional reason, it has over time got pushed aside. Furthermore, the circle is a geometric form that possesses a great symbolic force, generated by the idea that, having no beginning and no end, reflected perfection, the eternal, and also the heavens. In this perspective, drawing a circle both in the horizontal and vertical section, the ultimate paradigm for all monumental domes was the Roman Pantheon which, with its centrally placed "oculus" or “eye of heaven” proved to be a model for all other domes after it, retaining its position as the most ancient and well preserved dome in the world. Therefore, this article concentrates on the study of the Pantheon as an emblem and reference model for all monumental domes. By analyzing the “meaning” of its architectural design and its structural and geometric characteristics, the research dissects a comparison between similar large domes, similar to each other, such as that of St. Francesco di Paola in Naples and the Mosta Dome in Malta. The comprehension of these valuable architectural artifacts lies between the search for their original geometry and the identification of structural models through which their shape was defined, namely the geometric and proportional rules of the past.

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