The Pantheon is – without any shadow of a doubt – one of the greatest buildings ever made. It has stood at the heart of the oldest quarter of Rome for very nearly 2,000 years. A former Roman temple – finished but probably not commissioned under Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD – it was consecrated as the church of St Mary and the Martyrs in 609. Raphael, the great Renaissance painter, and two kings of Italy – Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I – are among those entombed there.
The outside has been stripped of much of its marble facing and the inside has been heavily adapted. But the great coffered dome – as high as it is wide – still arches over the interior to extraordinary effect. When it was built, it was the largest unsupported concrete dome ever made. Amazingly, it still is.
It’s a humbling place to visit. Time and history are quieted. Sound seems to be sucked up into the void which – in return – sends back a broad, mysterious shaft of sunlight through the open oculus at the peak. But perhaps most remarkable of all, the Pantheon has always been free to enter. You can step directly up the steps under the portico and into arguably the greatest interior ever made, on a whim and without let or hindrance.
But no longer. In March, the Italian Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, announced a €5 admission charge (reduced to €2 for under 25s), with income to be split between church and state. This week it came into force, with photos showing queues outside the entrance as visitors waited for their turn to pay.
It represents the end of 2,000 years of tradition and – to my mind – is a terrible shame. Though not perhaps for the reasons you might think. I don’t have a problem with visitors helping to pay for the upkeep of the buildings and museum collections which they visit (as long as the money is used for those purposes).
Furthermore, the admission charge in question here is relatively tiny. It’s cheaper than a pint of beer in a London pub, and about the same price as a cappuccino at one of the cafes in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. And you can always protect students and the young – who are most likely to find charges a barrier – by offering them reduced or free admission, as is happening here.
My issue with charging is not about the cost. Over the years, I have talked to many curators from institutions like the National Gallery, the Tate and the British Museum – all of which are free to visit – about the issues around admission charges. Of course, there is concern about pricing out those who can’t afford it. But the objection which most rings true to me is that payment imposes a barrier. If visitors have to pass through a paywall a queue is automatically created. You can no longer easily pop in on a whim, or for a short visit, to see a particular painting or object.
And that is a vital part of a museum’s role – as a resource for inspiration and education, not simply to serve the age of mass tourism in which entry charges have reduced many, if not most, of the world’s top sites and museums to a two- or three-hour, pre-booked “visitor experience”. If you have seen the queues outside the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Prado or the Vatican Museums, you will know what I mean.
We are extraordinarily lucky in this country that our great museums and galleries were established on the principle of free admission. We who are not tourists in our own city can still drop by and use them as they were originally conceived. True, security checks – intensified by the wave of attacks on famous art works by climate activists – have sullied things a little recently, and we need to be creative about how we prevent that from undermining the experience. We don’t want creeping restrictions to undermine our cultural freedoms.
And that, I fear, is what is going to happen in Rome. I’ve already had a taste of the new normal of visiting the Pantheon. I was there just over a year ago, when Covid restrictions were still in place. That meant that everyone who wanted to go in had to show their vaccination certificates. The length of the queue which built up in the piazza as a result was extraordinary. I can’t see how that won’t be an issue now ticketing has been introduced.