The Palacio Barolo turns 100: an architectural icon wrapped in mystery

Was Buenos Aires’ earliest and most dramatic skyscraper inspired by the Divine Comedy?

Inside of the Palacio Barolo. Credit: Mariano Fuchila

With its pointed windows, curvy aesthetic, and center section ending in a small glassed lighthouse one hundred meters above the ground, Palacio Barolo is an inevitable attention magnet among the more sober facades along Avenida de Mayo. An architectural icon with a mysterious origin story, the Barolo, completed in 1923, is turning 100 this week — and its ability to fascinate and surprise endures. 

“I’ve researched and worked on several of Argentina’s historical buildings, and the only one everyone keeps calling to discuss is the Barolo,” said Virginia Bonicatto, an architectural historian from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata who did her doctoral dissertation on the Barolo’s groundbreaking architect, Mario Palanti. “There’s just something there that people are drawn to, and doesn’t fade.” 

The top of Palacio Barolo. Credit: Palacio Barolo tours
The top of Palacio Barolo. Credit: Palacio Barolo tours

If Palacio Barolo’s singular appearance is striking today, in the 1920s it was revolutionary. Dubbed The Latin Skyscraper, it was the tallest building in Latin America at the time. It appeared in a critical time, as Buenos Aires city was striving to find its identity as a bustling nascent metropolis . 

“It was a shock, not really in line with the dominant aesthetic at the time,” Bonicatto said. Located on Avenida de Mayo, an avenue uniting the major poles of Argentine political power, the presidential palace on one end and Congress on the other, the Barolo looked nothing like its surroundings, buildings inspired by a French neoclassical style intended to convey institutional. 

The beacon in the lighthouse at the top of Palacio Barolo. Credit: Mariano Fuchila
The beacon in the lighthouse at the top of Palacio Barolo. Credit: Mariano Fuchila

A building and its story

Located at 1370 Avenida de Mayo, the Palacio Barolo entrance is gated by a large glass door. It has a ground floor and two lower levels, twenty floors of office space and a glass lighthouse at the very top. From a strictly architectural perspective, the building was a response in built form to emerging new demands.

There is, however, a more enigmatic explanation to the building’s design. In 1993, architectural theorist Carlos Hilger proposed that Palacio Barolo is really an ode to the Divine Comedy, the 14th-century narrative poem written by Italian author Dante Alighieri. 

Since the 1990s, brothers Miqueas and Tomás Thärigen have run guided tours of the building, telling visitors why the Barolo was believed to be intertwined with the Divine Comedy.  

View of Argentina’s National Congress from Palacio Barolo. Credit: Mariano Fuchila

“We inherited our love for the Barolo from our family,” said Tomás. “We’ve been able to enjoy the building thanks to past generations, and we consider it a responsibility to ensure that future generations can, too,” he tells the Herald. He and Miqueas are members of the building’s tenants’ council and head the board of Friends of the Barolo Foundation, which organizes cultural events and tours of the building. They will have different events all through 2023 celebrating the Barolo’s centennial, including a piano concert on July 7 to celebrate the day it was formally inaugurated. 

The brothers’ great grandfather was the first to rent an office there in 1925. Tomás remembers going when his grandmother and later uncle ran it, marveling at the wooden floors and the height of the furniture, climbing to the lighthouse on top to see the “Bat-signal”, as he called the beacon located there. 

Part of the decor on Palacio Barolo’s ground floor. Credit: Mariano Fuchila

In broad terms, the Divine Comedy narrates Dante’s journey from Hell to Purgatory and eventually to Heaven, accompanied in the first two stages by the Roman poet Virgil, and eventually by Beatrice, who represents Dante’s ideal woman. Inspired by Catholic theology and philosophy, the poem is meant to represent man’s ascension from the depths of hell through purification until he reaches a divine revelation and ascends into heaven. 

According to this theory, the ground floor of Palacio Barolo is meant to represent earthly temptations and hell. Formed of nine arches thought to represent the nine circles of Dante’s hell, its decor made of intricate moldings and animal figures symbolize material possessions, a figure Catholic theology associates with eternal damnation. 

On the higher floors, the heavy decor recedes. Credit: Mariano Fuchila

Purgatory is represented in floors one through 14. The main distinctive feature in line with Hilger’s theory is the heavy decor receding as one rises through the floors, an allegory for leaving worldly possessions behind to save the soul. Also, the higher they go, the more natural light there is, another reference to heaven. 

Paradise is floors 15 through 21, and the twenty-second floor is considered to be the place where Dante finally meets God: a glass lighthouse with a beacon allowing a 360-degree view of downtown Buenos Aires. 

The symbolism of the building’s motifs has also sparked interest and debate due to its many references to Freemasonry. Palanti, Barolo and Dante were all Italian freemasons, albeit in different eras, and the building’s architects loved Dante’s work. Experts point to elements such as the compass in the letter “A” in the elevator sign, a reference to the group’s appreciation of reason, and the checkered pattern of part of the ground floor, which symbolizes the duality between light and darkness, also a crucial part of their philosophy. 

If you’d like to judge for yourself, guided tours are available daily, to do either in the daytime or at night. 


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