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Images of Rome The Rodolfo Lanciani Digital Archive

The Domes of Rome

Few cities in the world display as formidable an array of domes and dome-like structures than Rome. Furthermore, the Roman interest and affinity for this billowing form stretches back over two-thousand years. While the ancient Romans did not invent domes, they refined the techniques with which to build them, developed an extensive repertoire of shapes, expanded their potential sizes and ascribed a rich variety of functions and meanings to the domes they built.

As far as can be determined, before the middle of the fifth century forty-three buildings in the city are known to have had domes, and a total of fifty-six ancient domes are confirmed. They were employed in important buildings, such as imperial palaces, tombs and public bath complexes, many of which are well known to scholars. But countless other structures lost long before their features were adequately documented are likely to have been crowned with domes, too. These include smaller tombs, nymphaea, dining rooms and private baths. Without a doubt, Rome housed the largest collection of ancient domes in a single urban center.

Then, between the middle of the fifth century and the middle of the fifteenth century, not a single dome is known to have been built in Rome. Of course, during this period many ancient domed buidlings continued to be use—most famously the Pantheon, which became a church in 609. The reasons for this construction hiatus are complex and not easily summarized here.

Finally, during the mid-fifteenth-century patrons were again eager to build domes, especially atop the crossings or central spaces of some of the new churches being built around and after that time. The quintessential example is, of course, the cupola over the new Basilica of St. Peter’s erected in the Vatican.

Lanciani’s image collection contains a number of interesting depictions of domes, both ancient and modern. Here are a few compelling ones:

Palatino, pianta e sezione della Domus Augusti nei pressi della Villa Mills
Pantheon, interno
Un parasite du Pantheon
Vestigia delle terme di Diocleziano
Chiesa di S. Pietro in Vaticano. Cupola, armatura in legno per restauri
Cupola di S. Pietro in Vaticano. Veduta dal lanternino
Chiesa di S. Ivo. Prospetto sul cortile della Sapienza
Cupola della chiesa di S. Agnese a pazza Navona a Roma

Text by Nick Camerlenghi