The Palacio Barolo: An instructive tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in one Buenos Aires afternoon.

The Palacio Barolo, Av. de Mayo 1370,  Buenos Aires, once the tallest building in all of South America, is still one of the most fascinating, and is easily accessible by foot, bus, subway, or guided tours.


Luis Barolo, an Italian industrialist,  was a Mason, and a great admirer of another Mason, the poet Alghieri Dante, who lived about six hundred years before him. Dante was a pioneer celebrity in the late medieval era, and his long narrative poem The Divine Comedy takes the reader on a detailed guided tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and is still considered the preeminent Italian contribution to world literature.  The poem is an allegory about getting close to God and has much to say about sin, redemption, ethics, and moral life. Dante was a member of a number of secret societies of his time, and it is not surprising that his poem is also full of numbers and symbolisms. Luis Barolo, who came to Argentina in 1890, wanted to design and construct an office building inspired by The Divine Comedy. Like most of the Italians living in Argentina after World War I, Barolo wondered if Italy was going to go out of existence. Therefore he intended for his Palacio Barolo to become Dante’s mausoleum where his ashes could be kept safe.  Italy remained in existence, however, and Dante’s ashes remained in Ravenna.

Barolo hired another Italian Mason, Mario Palanti, to design the building. Barolo died before the building opened to the public, but his architect lived to be almost 100 and died in his home country in 1979.  Palanti was a scholar of The Divine Comedy and filled the building with references to the poem.  The building is exactly one hundred meters high, one meter for each of the 100 cantos in Dante’s poem. The building is divided into three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, also symbolizing the Holy Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Ghost. There are 22 floors; there are 22 stanzas in some cantos. There are 11 balconies on the front of the building; there are 11 stanzas to some of the cantos. The Ground Floor and two basements represent Hell. The central hall of the palace has nine arches representing the nine hierarchies of Hell. On the columns of the transverse arches there are twelve lamps supported by four condors, four female dragons, and four male dragons. that represent the alchemy principles, mercury, sulphur, and their attributes.

Recessed into the Ground Floor, there are twelve round circles outlined in brass, and at one time, beneath these circles were bright lights. At night, when it was dark inside, and the recessed and hidden lights were turned on from the first basement below, beams of light shot upward through the circles and colored glass implanted in the floor and into the darkness of the grand hallway, signifying the fires of Hell.

There are twelve of these round circles in the Ground Floor. When the lights hidden beneath the colored glass were lit, beams of colored light would shine up through the darkness of the grand hallway, signifying the fires of Hell.