Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dos Gardenias


David J. L'Hoste





            by Giorgio Ballario  



Santiago, Chile, December 17, 1976

“Damned Pisco Sour,” he thought, tugging the sheet up to shield his face from the sun that filtered through the window. “And damned all that cocaine that I did all night long”.
His head was killing him, and he felt his heart pump madly, while the hotel room was spinning like a carnival merry-go-round. With his eyes closed he felt the other side of the bed, but he found nothing. Malusardi jumped up: Isabelita was gone.
He opened the drawer of the side table and exhaled a sigh of relief. His wallet was still there, and also the false passport with which he had entered Chile two months ago. The gun was there too. It was the .380 Walther PPK that Raffaele Mannucci had given him. He closed the drawer and let himself drop on the mattress, humid with sweat. The headache was relentless, and he couldn’t even understand if it was morning or afternoon. He crawled to the side table on other side of the bed, where he was sure he had left his watch; but instead of his dad’s old Longines he found two white flowers. Two gardenias.
Immediately, the notes of the song bounced back into his head. He had danced to them the night before with Isabelita, in a club on the Calle Simón Bolivar, not too far from the country club. The band alternated tangos and boleros to old jazz standards; and when they started Dos Gardenias, the girl had practically dragged him on the dance floor.
“I can’t dance, please forget it.”
“It doesn’t matter, Andrea. Let yourself go…This song is too beautiful not to dance!”
He had let go. And for a few minutes he had forgotten everything. Who he was, where he came from and what he was about to do. For a few minutes he even had felt almost in love with Isabelita. And with life.

Dos gardenias para ti
Con ellas quiero decir
Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida
Ponles toda tu atención
Que serán tu corazón y el mio. 

Malusardi masticated enough Spanish to understand the romantic lyrics, similar to all old Latin American songs. He had let himself rock by the sweet words, at the same time being very careful though that the piece in the pocket of his jacket didn’t hit the body of his mate, who was holding him tighter and tighter.

        Pero si un atardecer
Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
Es porque han adivinado
Que tu amor me ha traicionado
Porque existe otro querer

Besides the too many cocktails and the lines of cocaine he also cursed himself. What an idiot! He had fallen for the beautiful dark eyes of that Chilean whore. And truth be told also for her magnificent ass that he had found in his hands while they danced the bolero. And that whore had left with his dad’s Longines…It wasn’t worth that much; but it was dear to him. It was, like nice people say, an heirloom of his father, who was gone.
The young man struggled down form the bed, and leaning against the wall reached the bathroom. “Maybe a cold shower will help to get me back up on my feet,” he thought. He looked in the mirror, and he saw himself ten years older, with a jaundiced face, the stubble and the ringed eyes. He heard a soft ticking, and saw his watch beside the sink, over a piece of paper that read “ADIÓS” and with the lipstick mark of Isabelita’s lips on it. He almost felt sorry for having insulted her a short time before. After all, for only one hundred pesos, he had had a nice evening and an unforgettable night. In Milan, for that price one couldn’t even get a quickie.
The cold shower restored him, but he still felt tired and his headache wasn’t thoroughly gone. He dressed calmly and fastened around his neck the golden rune as he had done for many years, and stuffed the semiautomatic pistol in the inside pocket of his coat.
        He went out wearing his old mirror Ray Ban’s, and was once more amazed by how warm it was in December, while probably at home there was snow already.
        He thought about Isabelita again, when she had demanded that he stole the two gardenias for her from the vase in the restaurant, forcing him to perform a diversion to distract the waiter. Leaving the hotel room, he had pinned one flower to the button hole of his jacket, who knows why. He thought it was a…nice touch. That’s it, nice was the right word. Or, maybe, graceful. As long as people weren’t mistaking him for queer.
        Maybe, one of these nights, he would have seen the girl again. He knew where to find her. She herself had told him that t go back any time to the lounge bar of the Sheraton hotel, where she “worked.”
        Malusardi got a cab and asked to go to the Parque O’Higgins, where he meant to grab a bite and relax in the natural setting. He still had a couple of hours, before he had to go to the Estadio Nacional, for the appointment that Mannucci had talked about. At the metro stop he bought a copy of “El Mercurio,” the most important Chilean newspaper, and the news were front page. After all, the entire country had talked about anything else for a week: the final Davis Cup match between Italy and Chile.
        Malusardi had left Italy months ago: first the escape to Spain, then the few weeks he had spent in Buenos Aires from where he had then reached Chile. But he knew that, back home, the decision of the Italian sport authority CONI and of the Tennis Federation to go play for the Davis Cup against the weak Chilean team had opened a can of worms. “Don’t go play a volée with the killer Pinochet,” or “Panatta makes the millions, Pinochet spills blood by gallons” were the most tender slogans heard in the Italian street protests unleashed by the Left. As usual, politicians and sport authorities had pretended not to hear; and the government, led by Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, had washed his hands of it, in pure Christian-Democratic fashion. “This is a sport matter that does not concern the government. Italy is strongly opposed to the Pinochet regime; and she will remain so, even if our tennis players go to play in Santiago.”  
        “And come they did, those chicken-shits,” thought the young Italian, laughing to himself. He had sat in a cervecería near the Caupolicán theatre and ordered a grilled fillet of beef with a salad of potatoes and peppers, though passing on the great Chilean wine: “I have to stay lucid. A Coke would be better.”
        While he ate he felt a strange sense of agitation grow inside of him, almost of anxiety. The words of Mannucci came back to mind, when three days ago he had entrusted Andrea Malusardi with task he had been talking about for weeks.
        “The time has come Andrea. You must take care of that business.”
        “That’s fine Raffaele; what it is about?”
        “It is not a difficult task; but it requires some attributes.”
        “You know me; I’ve never said no.”
        “I know you, I know you…”
        He hadn’t added anything else. He had only placed on the desk a leather case, and he extracted from it the .380 caliber Walther PPK/S. He had held it for a moment, almost caressing it; then he had put it on the desk and pushed it toward Malusardi.
        “What’s this?” had asked the young man, manifesting a bit of nervousness.
        “It’s a .380 Walther PPK: a very good German-made semiautomatic pistol.”
        “I can see that; what should I do with it?”
        Mannucci had smiled and lit a cheroot; then he had extracted from the drawer a bottle of scotch and poured himself a glass. He had filled another one, giving it to Malusardi.
        “My friend, usually with a gun one does not go to church.”
       
        Andrea chewed the very tasty fillet with care, sipping the carbonated drink. He had to admit to himself that that day he hadn’t looked very good. Maybe he had even turned pale; and he had surely shown indecisiveness in the eyes of Mannucci. Not to say fear. And Raffaele Mannucci was not just anybody. He had been the idol of Andrea’s youth. He remembered like it was yesterday when Mannucci had shown up, by himself, distributing fliers in front of the Berchet high school. He was not a giant, but when the Reds had attacked him he had decked a couple with his bare hands, without much effort. Then he had pulled out that Asian weapon, the nunchaku, and sent three others to the hospital with a cracked head. Without even taking his Ray Ban’s off.
        What strength, Mannucci! Like that other time, when he had led that punitive expedition against the headquarter of Lotta Continua, to avenge a friend that had been beaten at the university. With a touch of class, he had made the incendiary bombs with champagne bottles, and he had been the first to launch one against the communist windows, wearing a jacket, tie and trench coat. “Style before everything else,” he always said. Then he had been framed too for that business of the bomb in Brescia, and he had to escape abroad. First in Spain, then in Chile. And there he had formed all the right friendships.
        Malusardi ordered a coffee and lit a cigarette. He really bothered him he had looked bad in front of Mannucci, who had helped him to find refuge in Spain when those filthy communist prosecutors had framed him for that homicide story.
        After giving Malusardi the gun, Mannucci had also given him the picture of a guy. “He’s that reporter who keeps feeding the D.A.’s his bull. The one who got the Police and the Carabineers onto us for that attempt on the life of that judge.”
        “What is he doing here in Santiago?”
        “Officially he’s here to follow the final match of the Davis Cup; but in reality he wants to stick his nose in our business. And in General Gutierrez’s, our friend in the secret police.”
The Chilean secret police — the infamous DINA, Dirección de Inteligencia Naciónal — the very powerful organization that was behind all the dirty operations of the regime: kidnaps, torture, political assassinations. In just a couple of months Malusardi had realized that it was a separate body within the state, that enjoyed totally immunity.
It was a DINA agent who had procured him a false Chilean passport when he was in Buenos Aires. And the secret police had also given him a place to stay and a cover occupation, so he could reside in the Latin American country without a problem.
Andrea had hesitated, when faced with the picture of the reporter. He had understood perfectly what was expected from him; but before he could even open his mouth, Mannucci himself had been very explicit:
“He has to be eliminated.”
“Raffaele, I don’t know if I can do that.”
“I’ve told you already, it is not a difficult task.”
“But I’ve never done anything like that! One thing is a fist fight at the university, a punitive expedition, throwing Molotov cocktails; another is killing a man in cold blood.”
“You will have the highest level of cooperation and cover from the DINA. It’s just a question of five minutes.”
“But why me?”
“Because certain favors must be repaid. Our friends gave you a hand to get out of trouble, otherwise now you’d be in an Italian jail, charged with the murder of that judge.”
“But it wasn’t me! I wasn’t even in Rome at the time.”
“Do you think that the police and the communist prosecutors care about that? You and I, the movement, we are the perfect scapegoats. We are Fascists, therefore guilty by definition.”
Andrea Malusardi left the cervecería and lit another cigarette. While he was walking to the stadium the smell of the burning tobacco covered for an instant the smell of the gardenia. When he reached the facility, he shivered at the thought that, just a few years before, thousands of people had been corralled in there like beasts for weeks. And many of them had never returned home.
From Italy, he had formed another impression of the Chilean coup and of the military regime. He thought the soldiers had saved Chile from communism, re-established order and prevented a civil war. Maybe that was the case, but now that he had seen up close he didn’t like that government much anymore.
Mannucci had explained to him the plan. Actually, a very simple one. Outside the tennis club there was a little square, with a couple of cafés with outside tables. The man to be eliminated would have sat in the café on the right, at the outermost table of the dehors. A blonde woman would be sitting with him, and in any case Malusardi would have recognized him easily from the picture. At a chosen moment the woman, who was obviously working for DINA, would get up and leave; and that was the moment to act.
Malusardi should approach the man up to a distance of about four feet and shoot the reporter in the head. It was going to be just a matter of seconds. It would be impossible to miss.
At the corner Malusardi would find a man, dressed in dark clothes, a Panama hat and dark glasses, who would point him to a getaway car with its engine on.
“Leave the car in front of the Banco Central,” Mannucci had told him, “and take the metro to go home. It is an extra precaution, but don’t worry; nobody will follow you.”
        Around the stadium there was a blaze of Chilean flags, red, white and blue with the distinctive white star; but there were also a few Italian tricolors, which had been simply raised by Chileans in homage to the guests, because just a few Italians fans had arrived from Italy.
The sight of the Italian flags caused Malusardi’s heart to skip a beat. How wonderful would had been to approach the arena as a normal Italian tennis fan of the Azzurri! To mix with the joyful crowd, find a seat in the bleachers and cheer the volleys of Panatta and the prodigious recoveries of Barazzutti. Not to mention the tennis double match of the following day, that fielded the Chilean Cornejo and Fillol against the tricolor team of Panatta and Bertolucci.
        One, Panatta, handsome and elegant, endowed with supreme class; the other, Bertolucci, an ugly duckling, squat and ungraceful, but oh so effective close to the net. The forecast of all the experts was a clear one: The Chileans did not have a chance, and the Italian were going to take home, for the first time, the prestigious “salad bowl,” that traditionally was awarded to the winners.
        It was warm, even though of the Chilean capital city was at an elevation of 1500 feet, and Malusardi was thirsty. He would have liked an ice cold beer, but he did not want to risk losing his sharpness in any way; therefore, he opted for an orange juice that a street vendor squeezed for him on the spot. He checked the time. There were still forty-five minutes left to his appointment with fate; and he wished instinctively that everything had already passed.
        He took the picture of the journalist he was going to kill out of his pocket, and it stared at it for a long time. The man was about forty-five, with an anonymous face, hairline slightly receding and a pair of showy sideburns that were already graying. The picture, that had certainly been taken from some distance and unbeknownst to him, portrayed him in the act of taking an unlit cigarette to his mouth. Andrea was even able to make out the brand: it was the same brand he smoked. That man, a little older than he was, with the same bad habit of smoking, will be dead in less than an hour. And he himself will be the killer: Malusardi, who didn’t even know him. Of course, in a sense he hated him. But it was an abstract, nominal, hate; addressed not to the man in flesh and blood but to him a symbol of a system to destroy. After all, the reporter hated Malusardi and all the ones like him; and he wrote it every day in the columns of his newspaper, distilling false and venomous articles.

       End of part one. I hope you enjoyed it. And this is part two . Thank you.

   Giorgio Ballario was born in Turin in 1964. He's a journalist who worked for the news agency Agi. He has been a correspondent for several Italian newspapers (Il Messaggero, Il Giorno, L'Indipendente). He was the editor of the weekly Il Borghese. Since 1999 he has worked for the daily La Stampa as a crime and judicial reporter. 
   In June 2008 he published his first novel, Morire è un attimo (Dying is just an instant) (Edizioni Angolo Manzoni), which was very well received by the critics and the public and was reissued in December of the same year. 
   In January 2009 he published the short story My Generation, in the online magazine www.thrillermagazine.it, in the section devoted to the period of Italian political violence of the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The story was later published in the collection entitled "Crimini di piombo" (Lead Crimes), published by Laurum Editore in the Fall of the same year. 
   In October 2009, Giorgio Ballario released the second novel of the "colonial" cycle of Major Morosini, "Una donna di troppo" (A woman too many), also published by Edizioni Angolo Manzoni. The novels of this cycle are set in Italian Eastern Africa. The book was among the five finalists of the 2010 Premio Acqui in the Historical Novels Section. 
   In November 2010, Ballario published his new crime novel "Il volo della cicala," (The Flight of the Cicada), which is set in our time and in which the Italian-Argentine detective Hector Perazzo appears for the first time
   Giorgio Ballario is one of the founders and president of the association of Italian mystery writers Torinoir.  

Your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you very much.
L. Pavese

    
                
       
                                             

             



Two Gardenias




Carpita




   Dos Gardenias (Part Two). 
   by Giorgio Ballario 

   They were enemies, Malusardi told himself; and in war one kills as easily as one can get killed. But seen from up close and observing his face printed on the light-reactive photographic paper, inevitably the man lost his status of political adversary and became just another man, who maybe had a woman at home who waited for him and maybe even children. Just a guy who looked at himself in mirror in the morning, shaving, detecting with some regret his new gray hair. Then he had breakfast, he lit the first cigarette and scanned the newspapers titles. From that point of view, the man didn’t seem like an enemy anymore; but in a few minutes Malusardi would put a bullet in his brain.
        “I’ve got to do it,” he would have liked to explain to him “but it’s nothing personal.” Even though the filthy newspaper the reporter worked for had accused him personally of having been a member of the group who had killed the magistrate in Rome, while Malusardi instead was in Milan and did not even know the assassins. And another paper of the same political bent had published his name, address and telephone number, calling him a Fascist terrorist. It got to the point that his mother had to take refuge with some cousins in Como, because she got threatening phone calls at every hour of the night.
        There was nothing personal but, in the end, Andrea would kill that damned reporter. Period. Mors tua, vita mea, isn’t that what the ancient Romans used to say?
        The man walked passed the Estadio Naciónal, heading for the Tennis Club. He cut through the cheering crowd on its way to the bleachers. Some people were elegantly dressed, in jackets and ties; the women in pretty flowery dresses and hats. Some fans had a more common aspect; they wore t-shirts and casual shirts and held little flags. Malusardi noticed that all of them had European features: many of them were blond; while the wide and dark faces, with the typical Andean features, could only be seen behind the stands that sold flags, soda pop, popcorn, and boiled corn on the cob.
        He entered a bar and ordered a coffee. Right after having hurriedly drunk it he went to the restroom, closed the tiny door and extracted the handgun. He wanted to check that everything was all right. He ejected the magazine. It contained six rounds. He racked the slide, closed it, and checked the trigger. He reinserted the magazine in the grip of the gun with a sharp click, racked the slide again and put a cartridge in the chamber. Then he de-cocked the hammer and put the gun back in his pocket. He was ready, although he felt a bothersome shake in his legs and felt strangely tired.





        He reached the small square near the Tennis Club, and saw the dehors of the café in which his man should be sitting. He spotted him almost instantaneously. The journalist was sitting at a side table with a blonde woman, and was smoking a cigarette of the same brand Malusardi had lit a moment ago and was now holding in his right hand.
        In front of the journalist there was a glass, half empty of a milk-like liquid; maybe an omnipresent Pisco Sour. He raised his sight, trying to see beyond the waiters who came and went with their trays loaded with drinks. On the street corner there was the guy Mannucci had talked about: a man with dark glasses and a Panama hat. Malusardi could not see the getaway car, but it must be parked just around the corner.
        He looked around himself again, observing the square flooded by the sun. There was a busy bustle, but strangely there weren’t many policemen: just a couple of carabineros who patrolled the opposite side of the widening, and a pair of municipal agents at the entrance of the Tennis Club.  Malusardi figured that among the crowd there were also mixed in DINA agents in plain-clothes but, if Mannucci was correct, he should have had nothing to fear from them. And Mannucci was always right. There was no reason to worry.
        He threw away the butt of the cigarette, and touched the pistol inside his jacket. It was cold and heavy and it almost felt it was about to fall through the bottom of the pocket. Suddenly, he was pierced by a shiver, and had the unpleasant feeling of being cold. “Te pasó un muerto,” Isabelita would have said, who like many Latin Americans was rather superstitious. When you feel a shiver, she explained to him, it means that a spook just passed near you. Malusardi smiled, but he didn’t feel at all relaxed. “If there’s a dead man in this square,” he thought, trying to infuse some courage in himself “he’s that guy sitting there. A walking dead, actually a corpse who smokes and drinks Pisco Sour.”
        He got closer and checked again his dad’s the old Longines. There were still two minutes left to the X hour: after that, every moment would be the right moment to act. He just had to wait for the blond woman to get up and leave. Then he would plant two bullets in the head of that damned reporter. It was impossible to miss. The man wouldn’t even have the time to react; and very likely not even to be afraid. He would pass from life to death in the fraction of a second.
        “To die is just an instant. It takes more time to smoke a cigarette or to drink a Pisco Sour,” he thought.
        He looked again at the couple sitting at the table of the café. Now the woman was leaning towards her mate. She was kissing him: a long and passionate kiss. But it was the kiss of Judas!
        Mannucci had told him: the blond gal was working for DINA. Maybe her role was just that: to bring the Italian reporter there and distract him while they waited for the arrival of Malusardi. Waiting for death.
        “Damn!” thought Malusardi, “You can’t really trust anybody on this earth”
        It was a matter of an instant. The blond passed her hand through the hair of journalist and got up from the chair. Malusardi could have sworn that for an instant he had seen her look towards him, who by then was about sixty feet from the café. Then she took her purse and she headed indoors, towards the ladies’ room.
        While he walked the few remaining feet that separated him from his target, Malusardi felt his heart beat madly. He would have liked to look around, to make sure that that patrol of Carabineros wasn’t close, but he could not take his eyes off his objective. The Italian man had picked up the glass and was sipping his cocktail.
        He got closer. He was now at just fifteen feet from the journalist. He felt his legs weak and his hands as cold as icicles. A horrible thought crossed his mind: “What if I can’t shoot? What if my finger refuses to pull the trigger?”
        He chased that image off his brain: “I should think of nothing, absolutely nothing. I just have to pull out the gun and shoot. Then run like a robot. In half an hour, I’ll be safe at home and everything will be over.”
        He took two more steps; now he was at about ten feet from his victim. Six feet. He could not hear any noise anymore, nor could he see the busy coming and going of the people in the square.
        He extracted the gun from his jacket. It was really heavy, and cold, actually ice cold. From the distance of three feet he raised his arm and pointed the gun to the head of the other man. He did not hesitate at all. Contrary to his fears of a few moments ago, his index finger had no difficulty at all to press the trigger of the Walther. One, two, three times. Bang, bang, bang.
        Nothing happened. The reporter looked at him with terrified eyes, waiting for the shot that would end his days. Malusardi felt lost. He could not have missed from that distance!
        He pulled the trigger once more, aiming at the chest of the Italian. Bang.
        The reporter got up trembling, and unscathed. Then he ran at breakneck pace inside the café, while the other customers were dispersing in the square, screaming.
        Malusardi looked for the man with the dark suit and the Panama hat, who should have been at the corner. But he saw him much closer than he thought he should be. He was five yards away, and brandished a .44 Special revolver.
        Before Andrea could open his mouth, the man in the dark suit unloaded the cylinder of the gun in him, striking Andrea in the chest, in the stomach and in the neck.
        Andrea Malusardi dropped his Walther PPK and collapsed on the asphalt. While he felt life slipping away from within him, almost without pain, he noticed that the gardenia he had pinned in his jacket had fallen on the ground, a few inches from his head.  And he understood: “Isabelita…why?”
        From the shadow that had stretched on the asphalt he realized that the man in the dark suit was now standing above him, and was now pointing his revolver to his head. Andrea didn’t even try to escape. It would’ve been useless.  He just closed his eyes and waited for the coup de grace as a liberation.

        On the other side of the square, on a balcony of the Hotel Austral, Raffaele Mannucci put the binoculars down on the table, sighed deeply and picked up his glass, filled to the brim with scotch on the rocks. Sitting beside Mannucci, a man of about fifty with a moustache, dark glasses and a brown pinned striped linen suite, shook the hash off his Partagas. Mannucci took a sip, then another one. Sighed again deeply, then he emptied the entire glass.
        “Well, it’s over,” he said.
        “And everything went according to plans,” replied the man with the moustache.
        “That’s right…”
        “Satisfy one curiosity Mannucci, please: Why him? Had he betrayed you?”
        “Not yet, General, but sooner or later he would have. He was a man who asked too many questions and had too many doubts.”
        “A weak man, therefore.”
        “No. A purist.”
        General Gutierrez pulled on his cigar, then took a sip of his drink too.
        “I can understand how you feel, Mannucci. This sort of things is never pleasant, especially because he was one of your own. But just think how useful this outcome will turn out to be for your organization. That man, Malusardi was suspected of the murder of that magistrate, wasn’t he? Well, we will discover the gun that was used in Rome in his apartment, and we will send it with our best regards to our Italian colleagues; so they will have a guilty man and maybe they will loosen their grip on the other comrades of yours.
        “And you will dispel the suspect of providing a safe haven for Italian neo-fascist terrorists, and will look like the ones who are on the side of the law, even if it means protecting communist reporters.”
        “That’s exactly right. As you can see, the sacrifice of your man will be very advantageous to everyone.”
        Raffaele Mannucci poured himself another scotch and shook his head.
        “Poor Andrea! I thought he was…shrewder.”
        “He didn’t realize at all that our agent had replaced his cartridges with blank ones; but I have to admit that it wouldn’t have been easy, because our ballistic experts are very skilled.”
        “He wasn’t very familiar with handguns. He could have never figured that out.”
        “Well, on the other hand, before leaving this valley of tears, poor Malusardi was gloriously laid. I know Isabelita really well and, I assure you, she’s a volcano!”
        The general burst out laughing with gusto and threw down the last gulp of Pisco Sour. Mannucci instead was silent, and finished his scotch calmly. In the distance, from the bleachers of the tennis club of the Estadio Nacional came a roar and a burst of applause.

         The Davis Cup final, between Chile and Italy, had begun.






         Special thanks to J.J.P. for reviewing the English text (and there is also a Part One, of course). L. Pavese.
         






Saturday, March 24, 2018

The St. Petersburg Ecumenical Council.



When Salvador Dalí painted Vatican II. 
By Massimo Introvigne. (Translated from Italian by L. Pavese).

I was in St. Petersburg, Florida (U.S.A.) for a convention, and I had the opportunity to visit the new futuristic venue of the Dalí Museum, designed by Yann Weymouth. Actually, the fantastic shape of the building probably functions to protect the museum from the frequent hurricanes, since it is built dangerously close to the ocean.




Other than the artist’s collection in his house-turned-museum in Figueres, Catalonia, St. Petersburg’s is the largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí in the world - 96 oil paintings, sculptures and various other objects.


The collection, which belonged to plastics magnate and Dalí’s friend, Albert Reynolds Morse (1914-2000), arrived in Florida in 1982 when the billionaire, hounded by tax collectors, was forced to dispose of it. The new museum was inaugurated in 2011.
The great merit of the St. Petersburg’s museum consists in presenting the entire arc of the professional life of Salvador Dalí. Although at the core of the exhibit there is a robust collection of Dalí’s most famous phase, Surrealism, the sections dedicated to the youth and to the last ten years of the life of the Spanish painter are particularly rich. Although today Dalí is mostly known for his bizarre behavior and his desire to amaze at any cost, his early works show Dalí’s great mastering of different techniques; but the works of his maturity and his old age, after the break with Surrealism, are characterized by the rediscovery of religion.



Dalí had experienced in his family the cultural conflict between the Catholics and the anti-clerical forces which would eventually lead to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War: his father was an atheist (probably a Mason) who was very hostile to the Church, but his mother was a very devout Catholic. The tension in his family predisposed Salvador Dalí to espouse the violent anti-clericalism of the Surrealists, a view he shared, and was also stoked by his relationship with Gala Djakonova (1894-1982), who was a Russian model and the wife of the poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952). After divorcing Éluard, Gala married Salvador Dalí, in a civil ceremony, in 1932.


Gala

Between the years 1949 and 1950 Dalí began his tormented, and never really completed trek to the rediscovery of Catholicism. His old family-generated issues (which also explain his fascination with Sigmund Freud, whom the artist would travel to visit, in London, in 1938), created the persona almost everyone knows: a histrionic character, who was enamored only of himself, and whose exhibitionist attitudes were difficult to bear even for his friends and would eventually even  turn out to be bad for his health. Therefore, it is not surprising if many consider Dalí’s return to Catholicism just the last trick of someone who just wanted to shock and amaze all who knew him as a fierce anti-clerical. Whatever the case, he did manage to cause a stir: when in 1952 he decided to sell his painting of the previous year, “The Christ of Saint John of the Cross,” to the Kelvingrove Museum of Glasgow, Scotland, Arts students and politically correct intellectuals organized a march to protest the purchase (which nevertheless was eventually finalized) of such a scandalous, Catholic and retrograde painting by a progressive museum.





But it is exactly the pictorial itinerary shown by the St. Petersburg’s museum that demonstrates that Dali’s desire was not just to stun and scandalize, although that element is never totally absent in his work. In 1949, Dalí was received in Rome by the venerable Pope Pius XII, who was interested in modern art and had very kind words for “The Virgin of Port Lligat,” the very first “Catholic” painting of the Catalan artist, although still marked by surrealist influences.
Dalí always stated that  his return to religion was by the way of science, and in that sense his Catholicism, during his late years, was influenced by scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose orthodoxy is certainly dubious). Science, according to Dalí, with the discovery of DNA for example, made it impossible for him to avoid the conclusion that a God who created an universe so complex and orderly must exist. Nevertheless, during a famous conference Dalí stated: “I believe in God, but I have no faith. Science and mathematics tell me that God must exist, but I don’t believe it.”
So, beyond his ever-present flair for the paradox, Dalí meant to say that he was rationally convinced of the existence of God and even - as he stated in another occasion - of the truth of Catholicism, but he could not “feel” faith. Nevertheless, he would later impose on a reluctant Gala, whose husband had died, a Catholic religious wedding in 1958.  He died in 1989 comforted by the sacraments of the Church.
The St. Petersburg’s collection includes two large canvases. One is the 1958 “The Discovery of America, by Christopher Columbus,” which is a celebration of Catholic Spain and of the epic deeds of Columbus as a triumph of faith. The second painting is “The Ecumenical Council,” which perhaps would be interesting to revisit in this year of faith, during which Catholics celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The canvas was painted in 1960, after the calling of the Council by Saint John XXIII.







This enormous picture has a strong symbolic character. In the lower left corner, Dalí represented himself as Diego Velázquez in front of a completely blank canvas, that probably represents a totally new phase of Dalí’s life. Dalí also wrote that it couldn’t have been an accident that the artists he most admired, Velázquez, Vermeer and the architect Antonio Gaudí, had also been Catholic.
At the top of the painting Dalí’s wife Gala appears as Saint Helen (248-329), the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine (274-337) who is a much venerated saint in Catalonia. In the upper right there are: The Son, the Logos, whose body is transforming in subatomic particles (an allusion to Dali’s thoughts about the relation between faith and modern science); the figure of the Father, which is an obvious tribute to Michelangelo, and the Holy Spirit. In the center, the coronation of the blessed Pope John XXIII dissolves into a dream-like vision of the future Council.


Everything may appear strange in the works of Dalí and The Ecumenic Council is no exception. Dalí’s Catholicism is also peculiar, and today very few people would take as seriously as he did Teilhard de Chardin’s acritical enthusiasm for modern science. Nevertheless, this painting and, more generally,  the final decades of Dalí’s life prove (if it were necessary) that a meeting between the Church and modern art, although at the risk of possible misunderstandings, is certainly possible.


Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and the author of several books about the sociology of religion. In 2012 he was appointed chairman of the newly instituted Observatory of Religious Liberty of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to investigate the issues related to religious freedom in the world.

The article you just read appeared originally on the Italian daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, and it was translated and published here with their permission.
Your comments will be greatly appreciated. Thank you,
Leonardo Pavese