The Government House of the Dominican Republic, the National Palace (1947), is undoubtedly a cultural icon in the country. Its façade is on paper money, in official graphics, in the press, in photos and recordings that tell the recent national history, and in those that also tell our individual stories. Although it was built and inaugurated in the 1940s, its materialization was a longing present in local power circles at least since the 1920s. This, judging by statements published in the Memoria de la Secretaría de Estado de Fomento y Comunicaciones of 1924.
Like other neoclassical public buildings around the world, the Palace’s iconic entrance is a portico that evokes a Greek temple in its pediment or frontispiece, and is crowned by a singular cylindrical-based structure that dominates the Santo Domingo of the time from above. This characteristic object, which many of us call a dome, has arrived in the 21st century loaded with meaning.
Decorated Italian hero
Family tradition has it that, for the author of the Palace, Italian engineer Guido D’Alessandro Lombardi, this was one of the most difficult parts to build. His widow, Carmen Tavárez, lamented during her lifetime that the correct execution of the dome left permanent injuries to the health of Guido, who had to stand immobile for many hours a day looking up, taking measurements and providing instructions to the construction staff.
A decorated Italian hero of World War I, Guido knew how to sacrifice when he had to, but the back and neck pains overseeing the dome reminded him that he was not the energetic waiter he once was. Nevertheless, he would do his best to get it right. It was the fundamental piece of that great project, and one that drew inspiration from the work of other Italians.
A great symbolic value
In the Palace, what we call a dome is more specifically the combination of three parts: a lower cylindrical segment or drum surrounded by 16 columns, a hemispherical dome or cupola with decorative ribs, and a small upper tower called a lantern.
Although the columns of the dome are rather Tuscan in appearance and are not paired, their tangential proximity to the inner core or cella, and their fragmented entablature parallel Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica (16th-17th centuries), which is also ribbed. The interior of the dome of the Palace has at its base a ring of Doric frieze in which triglyphs and metopes alternate.
However, this European architectural vocabulary resource, very fashionable in the High Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, originated in a discreet intervention prior to St. Peter’s Basilica, a commission from the beginning of the 16th century. Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile commissioned Donato Bramante to design a small chapel in the courtyard of a convent in Rome called San Pietro in Montorio, right on the spot where the apostle Peter is believed to have been martyred.
Thinking of the sacred nature of the commission, it is believed that Bramante was inspired by the ancient Roman temples with a circular base dedicated to the goddess Vesta (Summerson, 2001), making some original modifications. The result was a building with a circular base and Doric order, the latter perhaps because of the sobriety associated with the masculinity of the apostle. On the periphery, 16 columns surround a concentric nucleus (cella) that surpasses them in height, covered by a hemispherical dome and crowned by a sort of pinnacle. It is commonly called Bramante’s Templete (Il Tempietto).
Shortly after its construction in 1502, authors such as Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio echoed this ingenious solution of sacred space in their publications and the culture of “tempiettos” crowning great western buildings proliferated from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century. While it is true that the Nabataeans were already experimenting with the use of Roman circular temples to crown buildings in the 1st century B.C., the customized use of Bramante’s artifact marked a unique period.
Of this dome overlooking the Caribbean and the Tempietto there is much more to talk about, but if we had to keep something fundamental, it is that these are sacred objects, or at least of great symbolic value because of their origin. For more than one reason, the dome of the Palace and that whole great project were of enormous value to Guido, and he would not give up until he had fulfilled them, just as he had done on the Austrian front while fighting for Italy. His service record indicates that he was wounded in battle twice before the Italian Republic gave him a final discharge in 1919, awarding him the Interallied Victory Medal and the European War Memorial Medal.