PHOBOS (Concerning Pantheon)


As the history of the pope’s claims: driven out through the forever-gaping aperture the devil is gone. But as we know he eternally returns transfigured and displaced. Faceless, out of body, he is now just fear—phobia. Phobos—in the cavities of the walls; through the dizzying drop at the aperture; in the strangling concavity of the spherical prison; in the vast loneliness of the piazza.

It is this collusion of material and intent that we have come to defeat. Not through some imperial strategy—here Pope Bonifacius failed—but through humble tactics, using, confession, craft and stealth.

In the end phobia cannot not be defeated only diverted…


Below are some draft outtakes from a forthcoming book on the project.


Scene Two:



This is the life of things, just like the river that seems the same, yet is the forever flowing of different waters.

Giambattista Vico


Pantheon stands at the edge of its piazza, its hulking mass unfazed while the world around it rushes by. Its earlier marble facing gone, its geometries left naked. Only time has left its mark. I stand bewildered in what Vico would call a metaphysical rest, thinking Pantheon too large for its piazza. Hadrian’s scull crammed onto a body too dense, too restless and too fluid to hold on to its precious load. The multitudes wear at its soul. Pantheon in mid-stream.


Suddenly I am in the same stream, but now my piazza is pulsating with ancient muddy waters: The crowds are gone. The piazza is vast and cold and I can hear the Tiber rising. The ancient culprits—the devil and his ministries—confused and reconfigured: Bataille’s phobia tinged with hate. Foucault already inside, with his own synthetic dreads: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, acrophobia—all held in circulation by a hysterical vertigo under the menacing buco in the dome. And Freud, now in a train around the bend, tackling his own Roman Phobia. The return of the repressed. I must escape.


Ostensibly I too have come to let my culture play (a la Johan Huzinga)—Returning after many years of absence to cut loose the hard won strands of my conceptions, to let go of the frozen music that forms my world.   Yet I am a starved vagrant rummaging for my own story. Not to verify, or find anew its origins by carefully sorting among Vitrivius’ and Abbe Laugier’s primitive huts, Hegel’s temple, Loos’ tomb, Eco’s cave, Bataille’s and Foucault’s prisons, or Sloterdijk’s womb.  Instead I want to attack Architecture’s refusal to speak—its terror—just as it stands today. It is in this insinuating silence that phobias hide.


Scene Three:



Despite Duchesne’s suggestive account of Pope Boniface’s exorcism of the devil in the Liber Pontificalis, the text fades when I stand face to face with Pantheon’s hulking darkness. The muteness blinds me. I want to arrest its blank stare. Despite the ancient dream to make Architecture speak, we have gotten nowhere. The chatter in the piazza doesn’t help either. The camera shots irritate. Images: empty electronic gestures instantly thrown back at us first on camera backs then on computer screens are chimera. Yet Pantheon is us. Our work, our creation. Our imagination. But we seem forever caught in the adult version of Lacan’s mirror stage—Architecture as our body but also as the Mother Art. Now our shattered Ego. Turning away, I wander off while Gianni Vattimo whispers (from the past): “get used to it, there will be no aufhebung—no abrogation.”


All of us defy Architecture’s silence, by its opposite. Endless talk.  Endless explanation. Endless interpretation. Endless stories (Boniface’s being only one of many). All of this is minor speech, but there are those whose speech break the silence by excavating, or better, by constructing a parallel universe, not quite as physical as the fatti urbani—Aldo Rossi’spermanenza—but as virtual edifices virtually permanent. I am thinking here of Bataille’s agoraphobia and Foucault’s panopticism. These are states, psychological and otherwise, raptures that are unthinkable without architecture. Entangled, insisting, hopelessly intertwined, they take Architecture out of its silence, or rather it brings us to true silence and pure visibility. In minor speech, language is attached or associated with Architecture—mere speech-bubbles—but in phobia Architecture imprisons language to become. (The return of the devil and his demons.) Normally we don’t want to go there, like the Romans. Now we must.


Hollier sees Bataille’s and Foucault’s view of Architecture as fundamentally opposed although they share the importance of the prison as Architecture’s origin. Hollier writes:

Bataille denounces architecture as a prison warden—its complicity with authoritarian hierarchies. Architecture is society’s superego; there is no architecture that is not the Commendatore’s.[2] Architecture is the expression of society’s very being…[But] only the ideal being of society, the one that issues orders and interdictions with authority, is expressed in architectural compositions in the strict sense of the word…Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State in the form of cathedrals and palaces speak to the multitudes, or silence them. It is obvious that monuments inspire social good behavior in societies and often even real fear. The storming of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is hard to explain mass movement other than through the people’s animosity (animus) against the monuments that are its real masters.” Ix-x


For me this is bliss (short-lived as we will see), finally Architecture up front. No longer in the back as some accoutrement to State and Church, but here in the piazza by itself, stark naked. The described mass-reactions to the symbolic meaning of Architecture, frequently coupled with property destruction, are relatively commonplace in times of unrest, by not exactly were I need to go, at least not for now. Instead I want the limit condition: the over-reaction, the panic by the individual that we have glimpsed in Bataille himself and by some quirk of fate lives in me almost full-flegded.


Limit Conditions

On rare occasions they venture, very slowly, along Via Colonna and enter, agoraphobes all, the cobbled Piazza di Pietra they may even reach the Corso, but it has to be Holy Saturday, at the very least, opposite the Enciclopedia Treccani, to the most inviting clocks and watches of Cellani, the jeweler.

Carlo Emilio Gadda


Like to so many psychological conditions, agoraphobia is vulnerable to redefinition. At first, it seems simple: an individual finds him or herself unable to escape the vastness of a space. No place to hide, anxiety and panic in the making. But with similar, or even the same condition as kenophobia (leading to horror vacui) the plot thickens.[3]And with time researchers have widened the former concept to include “being stuck in a crowd” which seem to be a form of claustrophobia while separating itself from cenophobia—the fear of the vast—then add “an inner ear condition suggesting lack of balance”, or just a “chemical imbalance,” and the concepts seem to fade from space and thus of less pertinence here. But since psychology is not my field but my state of mind, I chose to stick close to the original juxtaposition of agora, kenos and phobos. And furthermore I suggest that the framing of the unsettling vastness of an agora is held in place by the surrounding buildings. In fact, vastness is only possible because of a forbidding horizon—closed or too far away. And since agora, piazza, largo, plaza, square, platz, and torg invariably set off at least one imposing building framed by anonymous fabbrica as their horizons, the real cause of “our” phobia is spatiality or Architecture itself. Or as Giorgio de Chirico suggested in his endless depictions of the Italian Piazza: architecture’s shadow. Architecture, and its own visibilities  as matter that matters. The impassable grinning teeth of Pantheon’s portico, the hermetic scull behind…and the I alone in the piazza, now hearing his or her pulse: petunk, petunk, petunk….


The piazza or forecourt holding Pantheon, is unsettled by the holding itself. Given space all around Pantheon sits in space, separated from the surrounding fabricca, although barely so. Unlike most monuments with attached piazzas, the temple does not make space but takes it, or better, struggles for space. Awkward, almost happenstance, the temple has space reluctantly. Surrounded thus by a wavering urban halo; a nominal respect for its autonomy.


Alienated, the old temple is always stumbled upon, one foot after the other along a cobblestoned side street. Combine this with a unique Roman artificial geology that always puts the ground plane (degree zero) in question. The result is a mild form of vertigo.  Here in via della Palombella, in the back of the Pantheon, two grounds appear—the one we stand on and one deep below that was clearly stood upon once upon a time.  The Roman ground is forever rising—the slow version of aqua alta in Venice. The geology of Rome is a complex amalgam of nature and culture. Layer upon layer the debris of history, one time on top of the next. Each layer assessed slightly differently by historians, producing a form of artificial diagenesis.[4]  Rome trampling Alba (first as victory later as murder). Hadrian smothering Agrippa (but not entirely by leaving his name on his (?) portico apparently in respect for the past and then the cause for confusion of authorship) and Boniface Hadrian (first by righteousness then by mystification)—others surely before and to follow.


Turning into the street perpendicular to Palombella, along the side of the temple, misnamed Piazza della Rotonda because contiguous with the piazza in front (and named so to cover up the fact, that the old piazza has been invaded), we face a block, prow-shaped, aggressively projecting into the piazza, literally occupying the public domain.[5]Skirting the prow, ignoring the silly obelisk in the center, turning to face the temple it is evident that the stair leading onto the portico—fundamental to the rhetoric of temple building—is gone, erased, forgotten. The last geological rise, the last layer of domination has buried the stair, par hazard allowing tourist free access. No obstacles. The temple is leveled with the city allowing the piazza to enter—roll right in, click, click and then out again for a coke—the literal representation of Nolli’s flat map. The third dimension is obliterated. The dimension where respect is established.


Intentional or not the invasion of humans suppresses matter. It has a long history that makes Bataille’s paranoid suggestion acceptable. Monuments as rising levees producing belief, silence or urging property destruction ostensibly to replace matter with humanity. Bataille argues that this is an anthropological struggle, since humans want to break buildings because we see them as similes to our own constraining bodies.  On the surface these attacks are on buildings as symbols, but more fundamentally is it not a reflection of our own inability to create life—to make buildings speak, move, grow, change and die?


When occupied by deities and left alone in its piazza, Pantheon is mainly Architecture—splendid in its isolation, frightening in its pregnant silence—on par with the awe and speculation associated with Parthenon and Paestum.  But once the gods (later declassified as demons by the church) are replaced (begun solemnly when Boniface ordered bones from the suburban catacombs—gli osse l’martirii— to be carried into and buried inside the rotunda) the temple loses its integrity, its otherness. It is now a Church. Human bones is now the focus although only synecdoches for the martyrs.  But then further removed from bone and martyr, yet perplexingly more human-like, monolithic sculptures representing the more prominent individuals are carved, each properly named and occupying a niche in the rotunda. (Graven images, idolatry, the refusal of which allow Synagogues and Mosques to remain in the realm of Architecture only.) Just as Foucault suggested in viewing Velasques’ Las Meninas, we must suppress the proper names of those depicted and evolve a gray language to speak of the material object, in his case the painted and labored canvas and in ours, the fatti urbani.  Is it only then that we can see Architecture? Now, smothered in ritual and displaced by liturgy, only the break in the roof remind us that we are still in the real, especially when it rains on our up-turned faces.


Back in the Piazza della Rotunda, the conspiracy of invading city fabric and rising ground is not only threatening the public domain, but a direct assault on the monument. On its presence. On its status. Avanti il popolo! At any cost. The former steps that lead up to the portico are imbedded in the layers of history. Pantheon has literally sunk. The former forecourt, glamorous in classical extent and minute precision surrounded by porticos, has been erased, and overrun by real estate—private interests versus public.[6]Economics as war. City against monument. With the old horizon gone, kenos or emptiness is gone too. The opportunity for phobia—to experience the limit condition and to truly see Architecture—has been substituted by tourism: hordes of humanity crawling across the monument day out and day in. But does the tourist realize—camera in hand—that he or she is left with tokens only: images, video clips, vague memories, credit card debts—nostalgia? Architecture must be lived.  Its silence must be felt. The astonishing gap between the building and us, its builders, must be relived over and over again. That loneliness felt only by homo faber is ultimately our humanity. Only here on this vast battlefield of distance can we truly get to its silence.


In the meantime, a more or less conscious attempt by a nation to replace the fatti urbani with representations rule the day.  Cities like Rome has replaced experience with photo opportunity. Pedestrians with drivers. Public space with car parking. And when it appears, the public realm is an endless shopping mall—the ultimate form of spectacle. All exterior space is now interior space, charmingly informal, cluttered and cheerful. The whole city is a model of itself. Even in its astonishing physicality Pantheon is a photograph. Pity the tourists, and let’s hope the Romans know better.


Embedded in the purported struggle between city and temple lies a complexity that now forces me to turn to a fundamental contradiction in my insistence on Architecture’s silence. Revealed as it were in the piazza as the essential precondition for encountering the temple—an encounter now rendered impotent with the invasion of the city. Without the piazza there is no agoraphobia, and clearly the puny Piazza della Rotonda with its clutter of “sidewalk” facilities has lost its emptiness making the encounter with the temple a friendly one allowing consumption to outwit phobia. Pantheon is either a Supermarket or a Museum—each equally suspect.


This undoing of phobia appears at first to set my project back. After all how can I face the frustrating silence without phobia? And furthermore, how can I invent its proxies?  We must now step back.


(In addition to the book project an opera planned with the German composer Jens Joneleid is presented here as a preliminary beginning)


PHOBOS (the opera)[7]


Stage 1


(Acephalus [leaning torso and severed head on floor] in the middle of the stage, Portico in chiaroscuro in the back. Acephalus’ head sing: “The was in the city of Rome.” While singing, portico is lit up and Pope dressed in Red and entourage(choir) dressed in gray body suits with domes on their head march in from left. Pope sings Kyrie Eleison (“Lord Have Mercy”) with the choir “in the back.” Under much musical crescendo the devil is driven. In a distance the devil sings “I will be back”)


Acephalus’ Head: (scenario)

“There was in the city of Rome a wondrous, round temple in which the devil was sitting in his throne and forced his servants to render him an account of their fraudulent ministry.”[8]May we assume that he sits in the center of the rotunda surrounded by his ministris, each occupying a niche on the periphery? And outside the Romans are terrified, even avoiding passing by the temple at noon. Hearing this Pope Boniface (608-615) urges Emperor Phokas too allow the papacy to assume power over the temple. Rewarded Boniface in turn urges the Romans to celebrate with a fast for three days.

When over, the barefoot venerabilis papa carrying a cross proceeds with an entourage of clergy and laypeople to the piazza in front of the temple. Under the broad portico, in front of the door chanting Lord Have Mercy he hears a terrible stir—the vexing of the demons. “Firm in his faith” he assures his followers that the devil and his lackeys will no longer occupy the temple.   Hearing this solemn oath, the devil and the other demons levitate and in a fierce vortex is cast out through the aperture in the dome—et sic confractum permanet usque in fine “and thus it shall remain broken to the end. [9]


Pope and Choir: “Lord Have Mercy”

Musical crescendo from behind portico.

Devil (mournfully in a distance): “I will be back…”

Darkness. Etc.







This is an outtake of Phobos (Concerning the Pantheon) a book, consisting of 3 scenes, 3 stages and some fifty illustrations.

[2]The title of Commendatore is awarded by the President of Italy to individuals under the auspices of the Ordine al Merito della Repubblica. We may assume that Hollier uses the title metonymically, since Commendatores are often chosen among burocrats residing over large and imposing buildings housing the functions of the State.


[3]“Emptiness, kenos is an adjective meaning empty, fruitless, void. The noun is kenotês--emptiness. A kenotaphion is an empty tomb, a cenotaph. The verb is wonderful: kenoô can mean empty by leaving, to abandon, desert, deplete, empty out, pour away, waste away, shrivel, make void, make of no effect. All of this is derived from the "Big Liddell," that is Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. ed. (Oxford, 1996), p. 938. So of course you're right--kenophobia must be something like horror vacui. Or depending on your feeling for kenotês, perhaps one might experience kenophobia as a "fear of meaninglessness, frivolity, a shriveling away, perhaps even a fear of failure?” Communication by Jason Moralee.


[4]The chemical changes taking place in an underlying geological stratum due to gravity and seepage, here used metaphorically for the rewriting of history.

[5]My reading is somewhat deceiving since in Nolli’s Map of 1748 the Piazza was slightly smaller. However my point remains while showing clearly that the struggle between the public and the private is ongoing.

[6]See William L Macdonald’s splendid text on The Parthenon, and the reconstruction of Piazza Rotunda around 300 years before Boniface. 23

[7]This is a vignette of a proposal for an opera by the German composer Jens Joneleit and with a libretto by JJ and LL, and scenography by LL.

[8]Quoted from Liber Pontificalis, ed L. Duchesne, v1. P317.

[9]  Text quoted and paraphrased from Duchesne. I owe special thanks to Jason Moralee for the discovery of the text.

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