At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Antonio Segni - prime minister and president

Sardinian politician famous for tactical cunning


Antonio Segni: Christian Democrat was twice Italian prime minister
Antonio Segni: Christian Democrat was
twice Italian prime minister
Antonio Segni, the first Sardinian to become Italy's prime minister, was born on this day in 1891 in Sassari, the second largest city on the island.

Sassari was also the home town of another Italian prime minister, Francesco Cossiga, and of the country's most successful Communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer.  Like Segni, Cossiga also served the country as president.

Born into a landowning family and a prominent member of the Christian Democratic party from the time of its formation towards the end of the Second World War, Segni was prime minister from 1955 to 1957 and from 1959 to 1960. He was president from 1962 until he was forced to retire due to ill health in 1964.

Frail in appearance for much of his life, Segni was a strong politician nonetheless, given the affectionate nickname Il malato di ferro - the invalid with the iron constitution - by his supporters.

He was also highly astute, particularly when it came to wrong-footing opponents.

Segni became politically active in his late 20s, joining the Italian People's Party (PPI) - predecessor of the Christian Democrats - in 1919 and by 1924 was a member of the party's national council. He spoke out against extremism on the left and the right and opposed PPI participation in any coalition involving the Fascists.

Alcide de Gasperi led Italy's first government as a republic after the end of the Second World War
Alcide de Gasperi led Italy's first government as
a republic after the end of the Second World War
In 1926, the debate became irrelevant as Fascist leader Benito Mussolini banned all political organisations apart from his own and for the next 17 years Segni, who had graduated with a degree in agricultural and commercial law, returned to academic life, lecturing in agrarian law at a number of universities.

He resumed his political career in 1943 - the year in which Mussolini was thrown out by his own party and arrested by King Victor Emmanuel III - helping launch the Christian Democratic Party in Sardinia.  He was part of the wartime governments of Ivanoe Bonimi, Ferrucio Parri and Alcide de Gasperi before being elected to the first parliament of the new Italian Republic, serving as Minister for Agriculture, also under De Gasperi.

It was in that capacity that Segni showed himself to be an innovative thinker in political tactics.  Aware that agricultural workers, still living in a somewhat medieval societal structure dominated by large landowners, were a prime target for left-wing revolutionaries, Segni sought to keep them onside by proposing that areas of uncultivated land should be expropriated from large landowners and given to the workers so that they could grow and sell their own produce.

He was prepared to lose substantial amounts of his own land under the scheme.  In the event, the proposal met with opposition both from the right, who objected to any imposed limitations on property ownership, and from the left, who saw it as a calculated attempt to undermine their support from agricultural workers.  Nonetheless, the watered down version that was passed still led to some 121,000 working class families becoming landowners.

Giovanni de Lorenzo was the head of Italy's Carabinieri police force
Giovanni de Lorenzo was the head
of Italy's Carabinieri police force
As prime minister, Segni introduced other social reforms to the benefit of ordinary Italians, particularly in the area of pensions, and in insurance against health problems linked to working conditions.

Later, however, it was alleged that his tactics for keeping the left from gaining power in Italy were not always so honourable.

In 1967, after an investigation by the news magazine L'Espresso, it was claimed that, as president, Segni was so uneasy about the growing popularity of the Italian Socialist and Communist parties he had asked General Giovanni de Lorenzo, the head of the Carabinieri - Italy's quasi-military police force - to work with the Italian secret services and the CIA to prepare a coup.

This supposedly would have involved 20,000 Carabinieri officers on the streets around the country, 5,000 of them in Rome, who would occupy government buildings such as the Palazzo del Quirinale, the offices of the television and radio stations, plus the headquarters premises of the Communist and Socialist parties and the Communist party newspaper, L'Unità.  Leaders and prominent supporters of the Communist party were to be detained and interned at a secret base in Sardinia already used by the clandestine anti-Communist organisation, Gladio.

The existence of the plot was never proved.  It was suggested in some quarters that the story was a plant by the right aimed at dissuading progressive Christian Democrats such as Aldo Moro from entering into coalition deals with left-wing parties; others dismissed the story as an attempt by L'Espresso to discredit De Lorenzo, who was a member of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

Segni stepped down as president in December 1964, four months after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.  He died in Rome in 1972 at the age of 81.

Travel tip:

Sassari, the origins of which can be traced to the early 12th century, is a city rich in art, culture and history. It is well known for its beautiful palazzi, for the Fountain of the Rosello, and for the elegant neoclassical architecture that can be found around the central Piazza d'Italia and the Teatro Civico. The city - second in size on Sardinia only to Cagliari - is not heavily industrialised, its economy mainly reliant on tourism and the service industries.

Palazzo Madama is the seat of Italy's Senate
Palazzo Madama is the seat of Italy's Senate
Travel tip:

Rome's four main government buildings can be found within a short distance from one another in the centre of the city.  The prime minister's official residence and cabinet office are in Palazzo Chigi in Piazza Colonna, just off Via del Corso.  The Palazzo Montecitori, where Italy's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, convenes, is little more than 150m from Palazzo Chigi in the Piazza di Monte Citori.  Approximately 600m from Palazzo Chigi, going west, and a stone's throw from Piazza Navona, the upper house, the Senate, sits in Palazzo Madama, which can be found in Piazza Madama. The official residence of the Italian president is the Palazzo del Quirinale, or simply il Quirinale, which is roughly 800m from Palazzo Chigi in the opposite direction.  Sitting atop one of Rome's seven hills, it is often referred to also as il Colle – the Hill.

More reading:



How Enrico Berlinguer turned Italy's Communist Party in a political force

Why the Aldo Moro tragedy overshadowed career of Francesco Cossiga


Also on this day:

1723: The death of anatomist Antonio Maria Valsalva

(Picture credit: Palazzo Madama by Paul Hermans; via Wikmedia Commons)


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