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Friday, 10 May 2013



Ceiling Oculus: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), 1465-74, fresco, diameter 270 cm (Camera degli Sposi Ducale, Mantua)

If the poor putti
On duty
One must forgive them

One can't blame them for feeling lifelike --
That hole in the roof
Lets in the divine
The light that goes beyond beauty
A sort of molecular immortality
And no molecule wants to die --

Pantheon Oculus, Rome
: photo by J-Fish, 20 July 2012

Pantheon, Rome: photo by Che-burashka, 8 April 2013


TC said...

Just looking up in these spaces makes my head spin.

Not only the amazing optics. But the tremendous acoustics.

There are great musicians who have insisted the proper reverbatory effects for recording cannot be obtained anywhere but under a ceiling oculus.

Even if working in such conditions does tend to give one a back problem.

Hazen said...

The upshot of all this—ahem—is that Slim Harpo’s funky reverb sounds mighty fine. His earthy acoustics get you “feeling lifelike” in a way that’s divine.

TC said...

To stand in a disc of light beneath the ceiling oculus of the Pantheon while a troupe of schoolteachers from Kansas City entered one day almost fifty years ago was a strange thing.

But of course the amazing place had been crowded on and off with day trippers for several millennia before that. Agrippa undertook it, Trajan and Hadrian re-built it.

Here it is on an ordinary day in the XVIII c., painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

"The interior of the dome was possibly intended to symbolize the arched vault of the heavens. The oculus at the dome's apex and the entry door are the only natural sources of light in the interior. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around this space in a sort of reverse sundial effect. The oculus also serves as a cooling and ventilation method. During storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through the oculus.

"The dome features sunken panels (coffers), in five rings of 28. This evenly spaced layout was difficult to achieve and, it is presumed, had symbolic meaning, either numerical, geometric, or lunar. In antiquity, the coffers may have contained bronze stars, rosettes, or other ornaments.

"Circles and squares form the unifying theme of the interior design. The checkerboard floor pattern contrasts with the concentric circles of square coffers in the dome. Each zone of the interior, from floor to ceiling, is subdivided according to a different scheme. As a result, the interior decorative zones do not line up. The overall effect is immediate viewer orientation according to the major axis of the building, even though the cylindrical space topped by a hemispherical dome is inherently ambiguous. This discordance has not always been appreciated, and the attic level was redone according to Neoclassical taste in the 18th century."

TC said...

In a country and a city and a building where so many different and unlike religions with so many different and unlike systems and saints and deities have taken their turn at explaining the mysteries of the universe, should it be any surprise to see a million rose petals fluttering down through the oculus to announce that there is a ghost in the house?


chunks of reverb for the molecules
cremating sound to light
beam theory of everlasting echo
mist approach to spectral runway
lost to this universe
only for the duration

Marie W said...

They are fascinating pieces of architecture. Letting in the divine, so symbolic. Like an inverted lens. And I who thought they were left open because they couldn't think of a way to close them (I was picturing them having headaches, how do you draw a perfect circle with only lines?).
I just saw that in French they are call oeil de boeuf, bull's eye, that is too ugly a word for such beautiful things. I quite like the architectural plans too. This one seems to have an eye at the front rather than the top?

Dalriada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TC said...

In Mantegna's painted dome (top image here), the little naked angels (putti, p. of putto, a toddler winged angel) probably take after the baby angels of the sculptor Donatello, who more or less singlehandedly brought about the revival of such figures in Florence c. 1420. In art of this period they are conventionally ornamental figures, with little or no narrative role. But in Mantegna's painted ceiling at Mantua, the pudgy winged babes play an important part in creating a unique and virtuosic trompe-l'oeil effect.

"One the most remarkable portions of the decoration of the Camera degli Sposi is the fictive oculus, or opening to the sky, located on the room's low ceiling. Created with sharp foreshortenings, the oculus is ringed with figures looking down on the room below; a potted plant is precariously perched on its wooden support, seemingly ready to fall at any moment. It is a brilliant tour de force that invariably engages the spectator, who must join in the game by standing directly beneath the circular trellis.

"The magnificent details of the ceiling and some of the busts and scenes stand among the most convincing trompe l'oeil passages of the entire Italian Renaissance."

In the poem, the putti graduate from decorative figures to little mock-heroic heroes, for better or worse; and Hazen has singled out the line in which that metamorphosis occurs: “...'feeling lifelike'” in a way that’s divine."

The idea was, their touching trompe-l'oeil appearance of actuality invests them with a palpable "lifelike" sense of being in this world. And this lifelike-ness includes (thanks to poetic license) a sharing in common biological function. Everything depends on a perhaps slightly arcane (??) vernacular signification in the verb "toot", which is meant to take on a certain one of the following possible senses:

toot (third-person singular simple present toots, present participle tooting, simple past and past participle tooted)

To stand out, or be prominent.
To peep; to look narrowly.
To see; to spy.
To flatulate.
To make the sound of a horn or whistle.  
To cause a horn or whistle to make its sound.
To go on a drinking binge.

(Are further explanatory hints needed?)

TC said...

And meanwhile, as to the lower images...

A hole in the roof = a hole in the head?

The only light source inside the Pantheon is the uncovered oculus at the apex of the concrete dome. A large beam of light moves around the interior of the building throughout the day creating a sort of reverse-sundial spotlight-effect.

Here the circle of light is positioned in such a way as to suggest a relatively low angle of illumination; it's a picture taken at the beginning of April, probably around mid-afternoon.

When there's rain, the rain falls through the oculus to the floor of the building, where it is removed through the original drains designed by the ancient Roman architects.

The Pantheon remained the largest dome in the world for some 1300 years, before being supplanted by Brunelleschi's design for the Duomo in Florence (1436).

"The Pantheon (Latin Pantheon, from Greek Πάνθειον Pantheon, meaning 'Temple of all the gods') is a building in Rome which was originally built as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt circa 125 AD during Hadrian's reign. The intended degree of inclusiveness of this dedication is debated. The generic term pantheon is now applied to a monument in which illustrious dead are buried. It is the best preserved of all Roman buildings, and perhaps the best preserved building of its age in the world. It has been in continuous use throughout its history. The design of the extant building is sometimes credited to the Trajan's architect Apollodorus of Damascus, but it is equally likely that the building and the design should be credited to the emperor Hadrian or his architects. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. The Pantheon is currently the oldest standing domed structure in Rome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres.

"In the aftermath of the Battle of Actium (31 BC), Agrippa built and dedicated the original Pantheon during his third consulship (27 BC). Agrippa's Pantheon was destroyed along with other buildings in a huge fire in 80 AD. The current building dates from about 125 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, as date-stamps on the bricks reveal. It was totally reconstructed with the text of the original inscription ('M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIVM•FECIT', standing for Marcus Agrippa, Lucii filius, consul tertium fecit meaning, 'Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, made it') which was added to the new facade, a common practice in Hadrian's rebuilding projects all over Rome. Hadrian was a cosmopolitan emperor who traveled widely in the East and was a great admirer of Greek culture. He might have intended the Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, to be a kind of ecumenical or syncretist gesture to the subjects of the Roman Empire who did not worship the old gods of Rome, or who (as was increasingly the case) worshipped them under other names. How the building was actually used is not known."

Remembering the thought of the poet John Keats, who suggested that There is a pleasure in not knowing.

The civilization of Hadrian was remarkable in many respects. See:

Animula vagula, blandula.

Marie W said...

So absorbed by the light through the oculus that the ingenious humour of the lines
If the poor putti
On duty
was almost wasted on me. Luckily I came back to grab the necessary set of hints. Brilliant brilliant!

Carl Priolo said...

Hello Tom,

How are you? Its been awhile. I have now a primitive poetry and photo blog as well-"Pony's Ghost". Maybe you would be interested. I think about your class often.

Email is

All the best.....Carl Priolo