Rome's Impact on Dalí; a Font Reborn

A City That Rubbed a Surrealist the Right Way

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 23, 2004 ( Who would ever imagine the eccentric painter Salvador Dalí as a pilgrim? The Spanish artist famous for his Freudian-inspired, surrealist paintings such as “The Persistence of Memory,” who made his reputation by creating scandalous works during his stay in Paris in the 1930s, would not be expected to visit Rome for spiritual reasons.

Certainly with his peculiar appearance featuring an upward pointing mustache and his self-admitted overweening ego, he didn’t resemble the typical pilgrim, who in years past was distinguished by a worn traveling cloak, medals of St. Peter and St. Paul or even bare feet roughed by miles of walking.

Yet some pilgrims are more elusive to the eye. Attracted by art, food or fashion, often they are unaware that they too, are looking for something more. It is in these types that Rome has wrought some of her more surprising miracles. Salvador Dalí seems to have been one of these cases.

For the centennial of the artists’ birth, the founder, administrators and staff of the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, came Italy for the inauguration of the Dalí show in Venice. After the opening the group spent a few days in Rome in the footsteps of Dalí.

Eleanor Morse, widow of Reynolds Morse and co-founder of the Dalí museum, personally knew the artist. She and her husband were Dalí’s patrons for 45 years, traveling with artist until his death in 1989, attending and arranging shows and of course collecting his works. The couple founded the museum with a donation of 93 Dalí oil paintings from all periods of the artist’s career.

I met with the group and we spoke about the effect of Rome on the art of Dalí, but as the conversation progressed, it appeared that Rome had an effect on more than his art.

Dalí came to Rome for the first time in three extended stays from 1937-1939. This was the period after he had been expelled from the Surrealists’ group in Paris. There was no immediate effect on his work, and Dalí then moved to the United States in 1940-48 where he involved himself in cinema.

Then in the 1950s he moved back to Europe and spent much time in Rome working on both cinematic and theatrical productions. At the same time, his style evolved dramatically. Peter Tush, curator of education at the Florida museum, described the change “as if the influence of Rome had lain dormant for years and then exploded as he returned to Europe and rediscovered his roots.”

Tush explained that Dalí began producing a canvas a year, in very large dimensions similar to the great painted altarpieces that can be found in Rome churches. Dalí’s subject matter also changed, from the Freudian-inspired dream images to religious subject matter such as the Last Supper, today in the National Gallery, and the striking Christ of St. John of the Cross.

Beyond the artistic transformation it appears that there was a personal one as well. Son of an avowed atheist father and a devout Spanish Catholic mother, Dalí’s early career embraced the paternal path. In 1958, however, Dalí was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII during which he presented a small replica of his colossal painting, the first of the religious series, the Madonna of Port Lligat.

Dalí sought not only a papal blessing for his work, but also permission to marry his longtime companion, Gala Eluard, in the Catholic Church. Gala was married to surrealist Paul Éluard until she met and fell in love with Dalí. They had married in a civil ceremony, as Paul Éluard was alive until 1952.

The Morses knew Dalí to frequent Mass from time to time, but would not describe him as particularly religious. Nonetheless, Dalí’s experience in Rome shows that 2,000 years of Christian art and history can get under anyone’s skin.

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Acqua Paola Redux

Sept. 13 saw another Roman monument emerge from a cocoon of scaffolding to renewed splendor. The immense fountain known as the Acqua Paola that dominates the Janiculum hill was inaugurated by Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni after a long restoration begun in November 2002.

The Romans welcomed back their fountain by using it as a backdrop for a concert at dawn on Sunday, concluding the “notte bianca,” or white night, the annual event when stores, museums and restaurants stay open all night long.

The Acqua Paola sits above Trastevere and marks the first entrance of water from Trajan’s aqueduct which was built in the second century and which extends 48 miles out to Lake Bracciano. Like the other Roman aqueducts, it was ruined during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) commissioned architect Giovanni Fontana to restore the aqueduct and construct the fountain. This is only one of many fountains ordered by this Pope, who instead of the title “Pontifex Maximus” (the great bridge builder) was known to the Romans by the nickname “Fontifex Maximus” (the great fountain builder).

The restoration of the fountain, after years of erosion and dirt, revealed an interesting effect. Different types of marble taken from the ancient Roman forums were combined in the facade creating subtle variations of color.

The builders used not only the vestiges of ancient Rome, but also those of Christian Rome. The four pink granite columns that adorn the center of the fountain were salvaged from the old St. Peter’s Basilica during the reconstruction of the church.

The Trastevere (literally, “the other side of the Tiber”) quarter of Rome had a long history of resisting the papal rule. As a result, the form and position of the Acqua Paola took on special meaning. Giovanni Fontana designed the fountain in the shape of a triumphal arch dominating the village below. The plan for this monument borrowed not merely the stones of ancient Rome, but also the visual language of victory.

But along with rule comes responsibility. From early in the Roman Republic, important families had used their resources for the betterment of the city. The papacy followed suit during the Renaissance. The aqueduct transported water to the citizens of Trastevere and had a second, smaller outlet in the heart of the quarter.

Water and the gift of water was laden with symbolism in antiquity. The aqueducts brought health, fortune and life to the Romans. In Christian Rome, the water that washed through the city took on enhanced meaning — new life through baptism.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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