You won’t find me getting up early for the Sales. I slightly look down on (can I admit it?) that peculiarly British habit of getting up very very early to get in the queue for… name your event… the Last Night of the Proms, the Royal Wedding, something to do with Wimbledon.
But I will get up very early to go and look at a building.
Call me predictable (you’re welcome, I think predictability is a very under-rated attribute) but the Pantheon is probably not just my No. 1 building in Rome (it is, of course) but shall we go a bit further and put that on the world list? So without doubt I know that when I’m in Rome I’m going to make a visit at some stage. And by and large I like to get up early to get there.
The first glimpse of the massive scale of the building through the narrow streets is always thrilling.
The advantage of getting up early is that you can spend time alone in this perfect space. I guess for an hour or so, there might have been about 15 or 20 people in the building. I suspect one or two were locals.
Can you imagine having that on your walk to work every morning?
Later of course the great bronze doorway becomes a thronging mass of tour groups, making their exhausting one-day trek around the sights. I nearly started to do a photo story on the vast groups that trail between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. I noticed they are all wearing headphones and garishly-coloured receivers hanging round their necks now. Why? Because the tour guide is speaking into a microphone transmitted into each of those little headphones. The same hot, sweaty, blank expressions on each face… except, perhaps for one or two… who I wanted to shout at, grab by the hand, say… “come this way… Let’s look at things differently”. (Perhaps a good thing I kept my thoughts to myself).
At that time of the morning, the sun slants across the great vaulted concrete roof.
If you stay for a even a little while you can watch its gradual progress across the architecture.
Anyway, as I was hanging out, just taking it all in, I began to notice this guy.
In a moment I was hooked.
What a formidable job.
To be fair, I’d already been rather struck by this little arrangement of brooms and brushes on my way in.
Whereever I went the floor polisher would appear.
His friend the cleaning lady was to me as majestic as any Madonna by Piero della Francesca. (sorry, I know that sounds really pretentious, but do you see what I mean?).
It is at moments like this that you recognise the immense scale of the building. The extraordinary thing is that the columns are single, massive pieces of stone.
I was enjoying the light falling on the vast column bases in front of the Pantheon:
When from around the corner out popped the polisher.
Working so slowly, thoroughly and patiently, with such care.
Well, all I can say is: the floor is in good hands.
Later that afternoon, exhausted from a lot of walking, I was lying in my bedroom when an enormous thunderstorm cracked overhead, breaking the intense heat and oppression of the day. The heavens opened. I’ve got to admit I was knackered, but when it rains… like that… there’s only one place to be. I absolutely love the sight of rain pouring in through the open oculus of the Pantheon. There is something so elemental about this. So I ran through deserted streets, raging with a torrent of water from the sky, from pavements, overflowing gutters, as thunder and lightning burst around. I was at the Pantheon in 10 minutes, completely and utterly soaked to the skin. My shoes are still drying on my windowsill this morning.
Rain pours into the floor and through carefully placed drains.
If you are ever in Rome in a downpour, I urge you to get wet and get to the Pantheon.
Of course, if you want to see the sunlight make its great shaft through the building you have to visit around midday. I was on my way to Palazzo Farnese yesterday and briefly endured the crush. Worth it.
But can I confess to preferring my quieter moment the morning before?
I think you’ll see what I mean.