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.

12 December 2017

Piazza Fontana bombing

Blast at Milan bank killed 17 and wounded 88

The office and counter area inside the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura in Milan after the explosion
The office and counter area inside the Banca Nazionale
dell'Agricoltura in Milan after the explosion
Italy found itself the victim of an horrific terrorist attack on this day in 1969 when a bomb blast at a Milan bank left 17 people dead and a further 88 injured.

The bomb exploded at 4.37pm in the headquarters of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, just 200m away from the Duomo.  It was caused by a bomb containing about 18lbs of explosives left on the third floor, killing customers and members of staff.

At around the same time, two bombs exploded in Rome, injuring 14 people. Another device, placed in the courtyard of a bank near Teatro alla Scala in Milan, was deactivated by police.

The explosions followed one month after a policeman was killed during a riot of left-wing extremists in Milan and are generally seen as the start of a period of violent social and political unrest in Italy dubbed the Years of Lead.

Over a period of almost 20 years, the Years of Lead resulted in more than 200 deaths, many committed by the left-wing terrorist group Brigate Rosse (the Red Brigades), others by far-right organisations such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Groups) and Ordine Nuovo (the New Order).

The plaque outside the bank commemorating the victims of the bomb
The plaque outside the bank commemorating
the victims of the bomb
Many of the victims died as a result of targeted assassinations, often aimed at policemen, business leaders, members of the judiciary. The highest profile individual killing was of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, murdered after being kidnapped in Rome and held captive for 54 days.

Others were killed indiscriminately in large-scale bombings, such as Piazza Fontana and the Bologna railway station massacre in 1980, which claimed the lives of 85 travellers when a huge bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded in a crowded waiting room.

Decades of investigations into the Piazza Fontana bombing led to a total of 4,000 arrests, three trials and sentences of life imprisonment for six alleged terrorists, all of which were subsequently quashed.

The acquittals of three neo-fascists in the third trial were announced in 2004, almost 35 years after the bombing took place, and meant that those who carried it out were never conclusively identified.

As a result, the conspiracy theories that surround the incident and much of the Years of Lead have persisted.

On the face of it, the Years of Lead was a struggle for supremacy between the ideologies of the left, represented in the mainstream by the Italian Communist Party, and those of the right, who did not have mainstream representation but were propagated by neo-fascist far-right organisations such as Ordine Nuovo and the Italian Social Movement.

Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who died while being held by police
Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who
died while being held by police
But it was suspected that forces on both sides were being manipulated by western secret service agents as part of the so-called “strategy of tension”, designed primarily to ensure that the Italian Communist Party’s growing popularity in post-War Italy went only so far, and that they were never allowed to take power.

In the case of the Piazza Fontana bombing, the theory is that Ordine Nuovo members were responsible but wanted it to appear that it was the work of left-wing extremists committed to the overthrow of the majority Christian Democratic party and were supported in this aim by agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

This theory was backed up by an investigation in 2000 by the left-leaning Olive Tree coalition, which concluded that that US intelligence agents were informed in advance of the bombing but did nothing to stop it, and that clandestine payments were made to Pino Rauti, the founder of Ordine Nuovo, via a US Embassy press officer.

Furthermore, in a newspaper interview in 2000, Paolo Emilio Taviani, the Christian Democrat co-founder of the secret NATO anti-communist force codenamed Gladio, which stayed behind in Italy after the Allies had withdrawn at the end of the Second World War, said that Italian secret services were also aware of the planned bombing in Milan but that rather than send agents to prevent it, they instead despatched another agent, whose mission was to spread stories blaming left-wing anarchists for the attack.

Indeed, in addition to a plaque on the wall of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura building that lists the names of the victims of the bomb, there are memorials in Piazza Fontana to the anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, who was arrested as part of a sweep of known anarchists in the wake of the bombing and died when he fell from a fourth floor window of Milan’s main police station, supposedly as a result of feeling faint during questioning and needing to take some air.

Pinelli’s fate inspired the satirist and playwright Dario Fo to write his famous play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

One of the memorials to Pinelli in Piazza Fontana, placed by Milan city council
One of the memorials to Pinelli in Piazza
Fontana, placed by Milan city council
Travel tip:

Piazza Fontana is literally just a few metres from the back of Milan’s Duomo, accessed via Via Carlo Maria Martini.  There are two simple memorials mourning the death of Giuseppe Pinelli placed on a lawn opposite the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura, in front of a police building (although not the one in which he died). One was placed by students and anarchist friends of Pinelli, the other by Milan city council. Only the former refers to him being killed; the other simply says that he “died tragically.”

Travel tip:

On the other side of Piazza Fontana from the Pinelli memorials is Milan’s 16th-century Archbishop's Palace, partly modified with neoclassical additions in the 18th century, which is the official residence of the Archbishop of Milan. The palace owes its grandeur to archbishop Carlo Borromeo, who wanted to live permanently in the palace and commissioned Pellegrino Tibaldi to undertake a reconstruction project in 1585. The fa├žade owes its appearance to Giuseppe Piermarini, who restored the palace in 1784.

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