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.
The building is full of circles, which symbolize perfection. Even the 22 floors divided by the 7 elevators = 3.14, or pi.
Purgatory is floors 1 through 14. Each two floors represent one of the seven deadly sins. The tower of the building is Paradise, from floors 14 to 22. It has 8 floors that mean the 8 celestial spheres of Dante’s universe: the five then-known planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn; and the Sun, Moon, and Stars.
Originally Dante’s remains were to be transferred from Ravenna, Italy to the Palacio Barolo, and would rest under the central archway of the Ground Floor. A five foot statue of a condor with the lifeless corpse of Alghieri Dante on his back was created, symbolizing the final trip of his spirit to heaven. This large representation was to be placed on a pedestal above the spot where his ashes would be kept. Unfortunately, before the statue could be put in place, it was stolen and disappeared for years. Eventually it was rediscovered in a collector’s house in Mar del Plata. Before it could be restored to the Palacio Barolo, it was stolen again. So today a smaller replica is in its place, donated in 2010.
There is a lighthouse at the very top, and you can actually get inside it for spectacular 360 degree views of the city. Architect Palanti wanted to welcome visitors from the Atlantic Ocean, so he designed a twin building called Palacio Salvo located on the main thoroughfare of nearby Montevideo, Uruguay. Unfortunately his plan for the two lighthouses to be able to signal each other was defeated by a failure to correctly factor in the curvature of the earth.
Tours are available at different price ranges, 200 pesos for the day tour and 300 pesos for the night tour (for stargazing), replete with a stringed instrument quartet for musical accompaniment, finger foods and Argentine wine. There is a small kiosk for souvenirs in the lobby, but it is best to bring small bills and change, because when I was there, you had to give them the exact amount for any purchases as they had no change. I had to go across the street to a corner cafe, buy a beer, and then take the exact change I needed to complete my purchase back to the Palacio. So who’s complaining?