As an Art History major hailing from Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical University of Virginia, whose centerpiece is the well-admired Rotunda, it’s no surprise that my relationship with the Pantheon is one of love at first sight. Having been in Italy for almost a month, 500 miscellaneous pictures have been snapped and added to my iPhone’s camera roll. Without hyperbole, Pantheon photos comprise at least thirty percent of that collection. I expect that at the end of my trip, I’ll be qualified to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Pictures of the Oculus.” Admittedly, I have notoriously overactive tear ducts, but, at this point, my eyes have welled up more times in that building than during a viewing of The Notebook. Even surrounded by a crowd of hundreds of people, I will never tire of the Pantheon. I should probably write a disclaimer for my Instagram followers, apologizing for inundating their feeds with every angle possible.
Shockingly, then, as soon as I read about Pentecost at the Pantheon in one of my travel guides, I knew there was no other way I wanted to spend that Sunday morning. For those who are unfamiliar, seven weeks after Easter, immediately following Mass, bags of rose petals representing the Holy Spirit are emptied through the oculus like Catholic confetti. After recruiting my roommates the week before, we set out early that morning to get a good spot. Arriving about thirty minutes early, we were not able to get a seat, but instead found ourselves directly under the oculus, and I would not have traded the view for anything. One of my favorite things about the Pantheon is how unifying it is. Agnostic or devout, young or old, local or tourist, all types of people wander into the Pantheon to be moved by its beauty. Pentecost Sunday was no exception. My roommates and I were surrounded by pious Italian grandmas, soulfully singing the hymns, confused foreign families, an old, perpetually bemused British couple, and plenty of other American students ready to relay this experience to their friends at home.
About halfway through the ceremony, a firefighter’s head poked into the oculus. His cameo was met with laughter from the crowd. The woman behind me found this incredibly amusing, and even made it a point to wave. He waved back! I guess if you’re brave enough to scale the Pantheon to sprinkle bags of petals onto thousands of people, a sense of humor goes a long way.
Finally, the ceremony ended, and the music began to swell. Thousands of heads turned upward expectantly as just a handful of rose petals drifted to the Pantheon’s center. No murmurs, no gasps, no noise at all. Met with a stunned silence, the petals’ audience spent the first minute simply taking in the beauty. And then came the pictures, filling the scene with snaps and the occasional flash. A twenty-first century product, I was torn between taking one million pictures for posterity (and Instagram) and wanting to stare at this sight sans interruption. People always describe unpleasant situations as a train wreck – horrible, but you can’t look away. This was the opposite – absolutely stunning and so entrancing you couldn’t even dream of averting your eyes.
As a bit of unwitting comic relief, a grocery bag snuck its way into a group of petals halfway through. Its descent was met with good-natured giggles and claps from the crowd. A pop culture fiend, I couldn’t help but think of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I pictured her in the background, wondering, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind?” What was once ridiculous imagery to me was now suddenly salient.
People often claim firework shows to be the most breathtaking and captivating displays. Not so. Fireworks are a presentation, a calculated, ostentatious production. There was something so poignant about being moved by the noiseless fall of rose petals, silently and serenely pouring into the Pantheon. The image of thousands of red rose petals shimmering in the sunlight, half-illuminated by the oculus’ spotlight was indelible and inspiring. The epitome the mantra of Mad Men’s Don Draper, “Simple, yet significant.” A gentle reminder that not everything in life is a firecracker ordeal. Empirical proof that you can still move thousands of people quietly and simply.
The crowd erupted into applause at the music’s end, but it was clear the celebration was not over. Migrating to the center, you could see children playing in the rose petals, which now carpeted a roped-off section the Pantheon’s floor. People scrambled to take selfies and group pictures at the rope’s edge, the woman next to me berating her technologically-inept husband for “making the camera do a weird Instagram-filter thing.” As we made a mass exodus, there were frequent pauses as people stopped to bend over and stuff fistfuls of rose petals into their bags. After a particularly rambunctious kid threw a handful in the air, I watched as a shameless girl my age plucked a petal out of a nearby woman’s hair to keep for herself. No judgment, though, as a several petals had already made their way into my purse. In what was perhaps an inappropriate series of thoughts, I couldn’t help but compare the scene to a birthday party post-piñata bursting.
Pentecost at the Pantheon certainly makes the cut for the top ten most beautiful things I have ever seen – a memory I will replay in my head for years to come.