Last month it was announced that visitors wishing to enter Rome’s Pantheon — that remarkable and iconic survivor of the ancient city — will now have to pay an admission fee of €5 (~$5.5). A similar initiative to charge €2 (~$2.2) was rejected in 2018, but that’s inflation, I guess. This is an unnecessary and unwelcome plan which further undermines the much-trumpeted claim of Rome as an open-air museum.
The Pantheon is a marvel of Roman engineering and its fame is justified. While most ancient monuments in the city are in a semi-ruinous condition, the Pantheon as rebuilt by the emperors Trajan and Hadrian in the early second century is largely intact. Its ornamentation has been repaired and altered throughout the centuries, but it is one of the few Roman-era buildings where maybe, for a moment, you can have a similar sensory experience as those who inhabited Rome two millennia ago.
The surprise felt upon first entering the Pantheon is deliberate. Its distinguishing circular design was not intended to be visible from the outside, so visitors approach what appears to be a regular façade only to be rewarded with the expansive vaulted space once inside. The concentric rings of square coffering in the geometrically perfect dome draw the eyes upward to the open hole in the center, pulling you in and eliciting an unforgettable experience.
Yet the pleasure of visiting the Pantheon has diminished in the last few years. It was previously possible to walk freely between the imposing 40-foot granite columns of the porch into the remarkable interior, but not anymore. On most days, a queue winds around and often beyond the crowded piazza in front of the monument. A semi-curious person cannot simply “pop in” for a quick look. Barriers of blue tape fence off most of the porch in order to funnel visitors along a single route (going to the Pantheon at night is now the only opportunity to explore the colonnade at leisure).
Nor once inside can you any longer walk around at will; instead, the same blue tape channels everyone on a circuit around the perimeter. The most regrettable consequence of this is that it is now impossible to stand in the center of the floor directly beneath the open hole in the dome and stare immediately up at the sky (nor incidentally to then notice the small holes in the marble pavement by your feet that allow rainwater to drain away).
These conditions predate the introduction of an entrance fee, but the proposal to do so has the potential to make them worse. One can anticipate bottlenecks and the imposition of more artificial structures to usher visitors around the building — the predetermined route and blue tape are likely here to stay. Moreover, what is the excuse for charging people for something that was previously free? By “previously” I mean 1,900 years!
Undeniably, funds are needed to maintain Rome’s architectural heritage and some of these costs might reasonably fall on visitors to the city (residents will be exempt from paying the entrance fee). Just how much money will be raised by the new plan is unclear, as is how much will be reinvested into the Pantheon’s maintenance. Takings from the gate will be split between the Ministry of Culture and the Diocese of Rome (the ecclesiastical district controlled by the Pope) by 70/30. But only the ministry is to be responsible for the upkeep of the building, with the Diocese’s cut going to the maintenance of other churches in the area and undefined “charitable and cultural activities.”
The involvement of the Diocese highlights an important consideration: the Pantheon is a church. It was the first ancient shrine in the city to be converted to Christian use and religious services are still performed there today (worshipers will also still be allowed to enter for free). While most ancient sites and museums in Rome charge visitors, traditionally there is no entrance fee for churches, so why now single out the Pantheon?
Rome is filled with historically and architecturally important churches designed by the great architects of their day: Donato Bramante, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francesco Borromini just to name three. Many churches contain artistic masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Wonderfully, these are all free to visit. Even St Peter’s Basilica, the largest and most important church in Catholic Christendom, is free!
So why require an admission fee to enter the Church of Santa Maria and the Martyrs, aka the Pantheon? Italy’s Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano asserted that it is a “buonsenso” (common sense) decision to charge for the most-visited cultural site in Italy. From this statement, one cannot help but conclude that it is the Pantheon’s high foot traffic that apparently warrants compensation. It is not because of an enhanced visitor experience or because the structure is in need of extraordinary work but rather because officials noticed the snaking queue of tourists waiting to get in and thought that an opportunity to make money was being missed.
If this is the case, it is a cynical decision that sets a worrying precedent. How long before the same justification is made for charging entry to other churches in Rome that are historically important or simply popular with tourists?
In an earlier statement, Sangiuliano seemed to skirt this issue by linking the decision with the fact that France also charges tourists to visit the tomb of Napoleon, that in England you pay to enter Westminster Abbey where various royals are buried, and in Denmark, there is a fee to see where the kings lay in Roskilde Cathedral. Akin to these sites, the Pantheon is where Italy’s first two monarchs are entombed. But of the nine million visitors to the site in 2019, I can’t imagine most knew who Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I were, let alone that they entered the monument specifically to see the resting place of the short-lived and now-defunct Savoia dynasty.
The comparison to other cities as justification for the decision is a red herring at best and disingenuous at worst (Westminster Abbey might charge, but unlike museums across Italy, London’s major museums do not). Rome is Rome, why does it matter what happens elsewhere?
If the Ministry of Culture and the Diocese of Rome are to continue down the route of ticketed entrance, then there is an alternative to simply charging for people to walk around the Pantheon. The problems outlined earlier are the result of too many visitors and unnecessarily large tour groups. A solution is to introduce timed entrance tickets to the Pantheon, limit the size of groups to a maximum of 25 people per guide, and remove the blue tape barriers. Allow people the freedom to walk around the space without being overcrowded and without queuing.
Better yet, to justify the €5 fee, the authorities should consider creating a small museum inside the monument. There are a series of ancient rooms to the rear of the Pantheon, the so-called grottoni. These are normally empty and inaccessible to the public but are occasionally used to hold temporary exhibitions. This space could be turned into a permanent installation about the history and architecture of the building.
Just because people will pay for something does not mean that charging for it is a good idea. Historians, art historians, archaeologists, and the like will readily cough up €5 to see one of the most remarkable buildings from antiquity, as will the millions of tourists whose entrance fee is included in the overall cost of their holiday package. The one who loses out will be the casual visitor; the tourist who has been told it is “worth seeing” but doesn’t know if it actually is and chooses not to go in — after all, €5 buys a cheap glass of wine or a couple of ice creams. Keeping the Pantheon free would encourage everyone to visit it.