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A Master of the Impossible

Updated on December 10, 2019
John Paul Quester profile image

A recently retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.

Litograph by  M.  C. Escher, 1953.
Litograph by M. C. Escher, 1953. | Source

'A Being Who Is Human Only in Aspect, Behavior, and Heart'

'[GustavoRol] is an extremely civilized man, cultured, spiritually refined, university educated; he paints, and was an antiquarian for several years. But he possesses such powers that it is hard to understand why he is not famous the world over. Who knows, perhaps his time has not yet arrived. What Rol can do is frightening. A witness feels like someone sinking without a diving suit into the depths of the sea. He provides fascinating and provocative evidence of transcendence. If one does not become terrified, it is only because of his jovial and playful manners... because of the healthy atmosphere that exudes from him. Indeed, before his demonstrations, he tries, with appropriate warnings, to set boundaries to one's amazement, for otherwise one might well snap'.1

Thus expressed himself (in my translation (MT) from Italian) one of the most influential movie directors of all time and long a friend of Rol's: five times Oscar winner Federico Fellini. He was being interviewed by another world renowned artist similarly appreciative of Rol's personality, the journalist and writer Dino Buzzati, best known in anglophone countries for his novel The Tartar Steppe.

Fellini's views echo those of another great 20th century artist: Jean Cocteau, who dubbed him 'The incredible Rol, who shall be credible only the day after tomorrow'. Dr. Massimo Inardi, an Italian physician and parapsychologist, noted in an interview that 'being near Rol...one has the impression of facing a being who is human only in physical aspect, behavior, and heart; all else seems to transcend every ordinary conception of human possibilities'2(MT). The late Franco Zeffirelli, internationally acclaimed producer and directors of movies, TV shows and operas, said that Rol was 'sent by God to make us better - a great enlightened individual [illuminato]' 3 (MT). Another famous writer, Alberto Bevilacqua, described him in 2000 as “…a writer of rare intensity, a thinker, and a philosopher with religious beliefs, on a grand scale.”4.

These are but a few of numerous admiring attestations on the part of many eminently respectable - and often very famous - individuals about the seemingly extraordinary abilities of one of the most perplexing figures of the century just past: Gustavo Adolfo Rol (1903-1994).

Well known in some European countries, and most especially in his native Italy - where he was the subject of many interviews, TV documentaries, conferences, round tables, and 25 books - Rol remains, to the best of my knowledge, nearly unknown in the English speaking world. Accordingly, the purpose of this article is simply to introduce, in however preliminary and selective a manner, this most unusual man to readers of these pages, while emphasizing that much more deserves to be known about him*.

Turin, Italy. Rol's birthplace
Turin, Italy. Rol's birthplace | Source
Gustavo Adolfo ca. 1923
Gustavo Adolfo ca. 1923 | Source

Brief Biographical Notes

Antonio Gustavo Rol (1903-1994) was born in Turin, a beautiful, secretive northern Italian city abidingly hospitable to practitioners of the magical, the esoteric and the occult; and the home of the Shroud, the alleged burial garment of Jesus.

Born into a wealthy upper class family, Rol initially acquiesced to the father's desire that he follow in his footsteps by pursuing a career in banking which led him to live, work, and study in several European cities. He obtained degrees in law in Turin, in medical biology in Paris, and in economics in London. This career he abandoned shortly after the father's death in 1942, and turned first to the antiquarian trade in Turin - which he pursued for about a quarter of a century and helped to make him financially independent - and later to painting.

Rol revealed that the events that would transform an unexceptional young man into a practitioner of the impossible originated in Marseilles around the year 1925. He provided somewhat different versions of these events on different occasions; in later years5 he reported that it all began with a seemingly innocuous determination to try and correctly identify the color of playing cards in a covered deck, an attempt that he doggedly pursued for two years. He became progressively adept at this, and in Paris in 1927 succeeded in full. It seems6 that he achieved this by entering a non ordinary state of consciousness, the access to which was facilitated by an insight originally elicited - according to one version - by seeing a rainbow, which made him realize that green was the center of the color spectrum, and the key to all other colors. By concentrating on this color, he had managed to perceive the vibrations generated by this hue, and later discovered that they corresponded to those produced by a violin string playing the musical fifth, and to certain thermic vibrations. This nexus he came to regard as a 'tremendous law', and the very secret of a state of 'sublime consciousness' which enabled him to succeed at the task that had occupied him for so long and catalyzed a process of spiritual development which resulted in a prodigious amount of personal power. This initially terrified him, and led him to withdraw from the world by finding refuge in a religious house near Turin, where he spent a few months. Tempted to become a priest, he was eventually dissuaded by his mother, who convinced him that he could be just as useful to others by living in the secular world.

From the Thirties onward Rol increasingly displayed an impressive array of what he referred to as 'possibilities', all of which seem to us ordinary mortals anything but. Franco Rol, a distant relative of his, categorizes them in 49 distinct though not orthogonal types. They cover the totality of phenomena usually classified as paranormal.7

Three of the more publicized and somewhat better authenticated feats attributed to him are narrated below.

a view of Rol's apartment in Turin.
a view of Rol's apartment in Turin. | Source
The Miradoro Castle, near San Secondo di Pinerolo
The Miradoro Castle, near San Secondo di Pinerolo

A WWII Story

As a result of Italy's armistice with the Anglo-American forces in 8 September 1943 the country is subjected to German military occupation. In San Secondo di Pinerolo, a village about 25 miles from Turin, three men, arrested under suspicion of being partisan fighters, are awaiting execution by firing squad. A tall, distinguished looking 40-year old man, a former army captain, obtains an audience with the commander of the German garrison. He claims that these men should be set free because the accusation is unfounded. Unimpressed, the officer demands to know what makes the man so sure of this. Rol proceeds to give him a very detailed, accurate description of the contents of the desk drawers in the study of his home in Hamburg, including some very confidential letters. Now astonished, the German invites Rol to give further proof of his abilities on the very same evening. Rol obliges. The next day the three men are liberated. Rol will save the lives of several hostages under threat of execution by entertaining the officers of the German garrison with a display of his many extraordinary abilities.

Rol's accomplishments will be officially recognized in 1945 by the town's mayor on behalf of the Committee of National Liberation, the politico-military organization that members of the main political parties had formed after the armistice to combat the Nazi-fascist armed forces. A small square in the village still bears his name.5,8

The Hotel du Cap
The Hotel du Cap | Source

'Don't Go!'

August 30th, 1949. Rol is walking with Jolande Sella and her father in the hall of the luxurious Hotel du Cap near Cannes on the French Riviera, when he suddenly stops, alarmed by an impression of something burning in the immediate vicinity of a distinguished looking couple seated nearby: count Cini and the British actress Merle Oberon. He asks Jolande's father, the hotel's owner, to be introduced to the couple, and proceeds to ask about their plans for the morrow. They include a business trip to Venice in the count's private plane. 'Do not go!', Rol intimates. The actress agrees immediately, but Cini cannot postpone the business trip. Unable to make alternate arrangements, he decides to ignore the warning. Next day in a nearby airport the count boards his plane along with the pilot. Shortly after take off the aircraft explodes in mid air. The Italian mainstream press - no more well disposed toward acknowledging paranormal events than the American media - extensively reports the event.8

Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon

The Smiling Portrait

Roberto Giacobbo, host of the Italian TV show Voyager (Rai2 Channel), on 7 November 2005 recalls his witnessing of a bizarre phenomenon which took place in 2002 at the house of Aldo Provera - Rol's friend and executor - that he and his crew had visited when filming a documentary about Rol's life9,10.

Giacobbo relates that Rol was a frequent visitor at this apartment, one room of which contained two portraits of ancestors of the Proveras: of Teresa Rovere, and of her son, respectively. On one such visit in 1997, Provera happened to mention an ugly rumor circulating at the time the portraits were made, according to which Teresa's son had been poisoned. He wondered whether Rol could somehow help clarifying the turbid story. Rol agreed. Moments later, the lower half of Teresa's portrait lifted itself from the wall by a few inches, to the accompaniment of a flash of blue light and a very loud report. Next, Rol asked Provera to look at the folded sheet of pristine paper that the latter upon Rol's previous request had placed in the inside pocket of his own jacket. The following statement, in the French language often used by the lady of the portrait, had been inked on the paper : 'My son was not poisoned, he died of a sudden intestinal infection'.

In 2002, while this event was being recollected, Gino Toninelli, the show's cameraman, attracted Giacobbo's attention. While looking at the room through the TV camera, he had noticed that Teresa Rovere's portrait was completely changing expression. The sombre, melancholic gaze was giving way to a smile. Toninelli could only take one snapshot of the rapidly unfolding, transient occurrence11, which was witnessed by three persons.

Was Teresa's smile signalling her appreciation for this public acknowledgement of her son's death being due to natural causes? Was this phenomenon somehow connected to the departed Rol?

One rationale for such an outlandish conjecture was that on several occasions reputable witnesses had testified that paintings in Rol's presence at times changed significantly under their very eyes. For instance, a non identified lady in yet another TV program11 narrates that Fellini was enthused by a painting by Rol depicting a wintry Piedmontese countryside, where a man and a woman embraced affectionately. 'Beautiful - Fellini had said in her presence - I want it.' But Rol was unwilling to part with the canvas. As the movie director and two other people got closer to the picture, they saw the two young lovers slowly moving away from each other a few steps, and then embracing anew. Fellini reiterated his request to acquire the painting. 'Why do you want it so badly?' Rol enquired. 'Because it makes me feel at peace', Fellini replied. Roll turned to a lady and asked: 'quick, tell me, what is a symbol of peace?' 'A dove', the woman answered. A moment later they all heard a faint sound of fluttering wings in the adjoining room. Once there they saw a dove, a universal symbol of peace, standing on a table. Rol cupped it in his hands, walked to the window, and let it fly away. Incidentally, on several occasions Rol demonstrated his uncanny ability to respond in astonishing ways to accidental comments made by people he was conversing with. For instance, writer Maria Luisa Giordano narrated that on one such occasion someone mentioned chestnuts, 'Chestnuts?', said Rol. Within moments hundreds of them rained in the room.

As noted, the phenomenon of the changing paintings occurred on several different occasions13. A fairly accomplished painter, Rol often used this medium to produce other remarkable phenomena, including pictures created in his presence yet at a distance by self moving brushes and spatulae, which in a few minutes resulted in works that mimicked the style of celebrated artists such as Ravier Picasso Goya and others.8

The original portrait (left) and the snapshot of the portrait taken through the videocamera (right).
The original portrait (left) and the snapshot of the portrait taken through the videocamera (right). | Source

'The Impossible Does Not Exist on Earth'

About six decades of Rol's life were textured by a seemingly interminable succession of astounding phenomena14 many of them even more impressive than the ones presented here, if they indeed occur as told.

Lorenzo Stuni - an Italian writer - opined that Rol 'understood that the universe is a game - all that is real and surreal is an immense at times orderly at times chaotic combinatorial game. His greatness is that unlike most of us that have a limited view of the combinations of reality and narrowly organize our life based upon them, he had a combinatorial view of the possible universes and of the possible fragments of universe as extended as that of a pianist playing upon a pianoforte 200 meters long.'(MT)

This is an imaginative way of portraying Rol's relationship to reality. Many other are possible, including of course the skeptical perspective which reduced Rol's seemingly miraculous feats to exertions of an accomplished magician and illusionist, even though no one ever found him engaged in trickery.

The question of the epistemological status of Rol's 'possibilities' requires a detailed and rigorous discussion that cannot be initiated in this already overlong article. Closely related to it - in my view - are questions pertaining to Rol's personality, self-understanding, public image, and overall behavior as they can be inferred from the testimony of the many people - famous and not - with whom he interacted over the course of his long life. And no less worthy of attention are Rol's own views about the ultimate nature of that reality which enabled him to accomplish the seemingly impossible: a privilege, he always maintained, that was available to anyone willing to undertake the necessary, arduous psycho-spiritual work.

He liked to say of himself that he was just a 'eaves-trough that carries the water falling from the heavens': no more than a willing channel, a humble mediator between earth and the 'other' world.

I will attempt to shed some light on these topic in a forthcoming article.

Notes and References

*Most of the material upon which this article is based consists of documentaries and interviews available on Youtube, and of a few websites all in Rol's mother tongue, freely translated by me when quoted (MT). Readers unacquainted with Italian whose interest were whetted by this article would find it helpful to turn to the English language sites posted by Franco Rol4,7. See also14 for a comprehensive collection of anecdotes regarding Rol, and further references.)

1. Dino Buzzati. "Fellini per il nuovo film ha fatto incontri paurosi", Corriere della Sera, Milano, 06/08/1965.

2. "Il Resto del Carlino", Bologna, 10/6/1975.

3. Interview in "Domenica In", Raiuno, 11/01/1987. Quoted in Rol, F. (2014), see5 below.

4. Rol, F. (2014). FAQ about Gustavo Adolfo Rol. gustavorol.org/index.php/en/

5. Rol, F. (2014). In merito alla voce "Gustavo Adolfo Rol" nell'enciclopedia Wikipedia. gustavorol.org/index.php/it/wikipedia-alternativa

6. Bonfiglio, M. (2010). Il pensiero di Rol: La teoria dello Spirito Intelligente. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0x0JzOle7AA

7. Rol F. (1914-1918). http://gustavorol.org/index.php/en/49-possibilities

8. History Channel (2017). Gustavo Rol https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S22OyZtcbIg

9. Rol, F. (2007). Mona Lisa Smile http://2000-2013.gustavorol.org/teresa_rovere.html

10. Lugli, R. (1995) Gustavo Rol. Una vita di prodigi. Ed. Mediterranee.

11. Gustavo Adolfo Rol - Il ritratto della dama che sorride. (2005). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd4_3DR-IME)

12. Gustavo Adolfo Rol - Testimonianze di amici (2004). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBJ-01sJo74.

13. Orengo, N. (16/19/1994). Una vita vissuta per incanto. Il Mago Rol, Grazia.

14. Rol, F. 2013. The Unbelievable Gustavo Rol.

© 2019 John Paul Quester

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