For a long time, everyone believed that Catania’s Terme della Rotonda (Rotunda’s Thermal Baths) – built between the 1st and the 2nd century AD – were the local Pantheon: a Roman temple dedicated to all the pagan gods. The fact that part of the building was transformed into the church of Santa Maria della Rotonda during the Byzantine Age seemed to confirm the theory.
An 18th-century essay reads, “In Sicily there are a number of former temples that have been consecrated into churches, most of them dedicated to the Great Queen of Heaven. […] Among them, we note Catania’s famous Pantheon, which features a round layout like the one in Rome and still stands in one piece…”
However, the popular theory – despite the proud rumors that the capital’s Pantheon had indeed been inspired by this Sicilian model – started to crumble in the 19th century: “A folk story, supported by inscriptions and local authors, mistakenly claimed that the octagonal, domed structure had been Catania’s ancient Pantheon; yet it is clearly the baths’ entrance, which turned into the church known as Santa Maria della Rotonda in the year 44 of our era, perhaps – some say – by will of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles…”
Later, this second theory was vanquished as well, by the more credible hypothesis that Catania’s thermal baths were transformed into a Christian church around the 5th or 6th century.
As research continues, past mistakes are amended and efforts are made to find the truth. Thankfully, all along beauty remains as clear and available to all as ever.
Photos via: ©Salvo Puccio