2 May 2017

Marco Pannella - campaigning politician

Radical voice who helped modernise Italian society

Marco Pannella in 2010, still a voracious campaigner at the age of 80
Marco Pannella in 2010, still a voracious
campaigner at the age of 80
The Radical politician Marco Pannella, whose relentless campaigning on civil rights and other issues helped transform modern Italian society, was born on this day in 1930 in Teramo in Abruzzo.

Pannella’s party won only a 3.4 per cent share of vote in the most successful election he fought yet he forced referendums to be held on divorce, abortion, the abolition of nuclear power, the public funding of political parties and many other issues, many of which led to changes in the law.

He was so passionate about the causes for which he campaigned he regularly staged hunger strikes to demonstrate his commitment and to attract publicity.  In 1970, for example, he went 78 days without food, allowing himself to consume only vitamin pills and three cups of coffee per day, losing 27 kilos (60lb) in weight before parliament agreed to hold a debate over the divorce laws.

Pannella’s emotional speeches were legend, as were his broadcasts on Radio Radicale, the radio station he founded in 1976 as a vehicle for his own message, but also as a champion of free speech.

His parents named him Giacinto (Hyacinth) but he found the name embarrassing and went under the name of Marco instead. After studying at Rome University and the University of Urbino, where he obtained a law degree, he began a career in journalism but was already active in politics.

While still at university, he was a member of Gioventù Liberale, the youth organisation of the small centre-right Italian Liberal Party, and at 23 was President of Italy’s National Union of Students.  A year later, he founded the Partito Radicale – the Radical Party – with a liberal socialist ideology and a pledge to break the Vatican’s tight grip on Italian society.

Pannella’s party was barely noticed during the 1960s, part of which he spent in Paris working as a correspondent for the newspaper Il Giorno.

Pannella became one of the most familiar faces in Italian politics
Pannella became one of the most familiar
faces in Italian politics
This changed in 1970 when the Italian parliament, despite the opposition of the Christian Democrats and right-wing groups, passed a law allowing divorce, which had been Pannella’s most enduring cause and which he celebrated as a victory for his hunger strike.

Catholic organisations reacted with predictable outrage, gathering the required 500,000 signatures for a referendum to overturn it. Pannella campaigned vigorously for the new law to be upheld, encouraging Italy’s still-embryonic feminist movement to make their voice heard too. When the referendum was held in 1974, his argument won.

Italy thereafter developed something of a referendum culture, which Pannella exploited to the full. He staged another hunger strike in 1974 in pursuit of a referendum on abortion law. Thereafter, when he was not creating the news agenda himself, he found his opinion sought on every major issue in Italian society and became a familiar face on Italian television.

In 1976 Pannella was elected to parliament, where he remained for 18 years, representing at different times the constituencies of Turin, Milan, Naples and Palermo. The Radical Party had only a handful of MPs but they included a controversial assortment of characters, including Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina, a porn star.

In 1983, he gave a seat to Antonio Negri, a Marxist philosopher accused of being the leader of the Red Brigades, who had been in prison for four years while awaiting trial. Pannella did not support terrorism but argued that no individual should be kept in custody for so long without being tried and gave Negri a seat in order that he could claim parliamentary immunity in order to trigger his release, although he later criticised him for fleeing to France to avoid trial in Italy.

Pannella campaigning in 1974 ahead of the  referendum on divorce law
Pannella campaigning in 1974 ahead of the
referendum on divorce law
His campaigns, usually dismissed as stunts by his opponents, were not always successful. In 1995, for example, he dressed himself in a yellow santa claus suit in Piazza Navona in Rome, close to where he lived, and handed out free hashish and marijuana as part of a bid to have the drugs legalised. He did favour drug use but argued that decriminalisation would cut off a major flow of cash into the Mafia. He was arrested and given a three-month prison sentence, although it was later converted to a fine.

Controversially, in the 1990s he made an election pact with Silvio Berlusconi, whose ascent to power had been helped by Pannella’s campaign to deregulate broadcasting.  Pannella had lost his seat when Berlusconi was asked to form a government in 1994, dashing his own hopes of being part of that government, but succeeded in having his former Radical Party colleague Emma Bonino appointed to the European commission. Thanks to her influence, he was elected to the European parliament as the member for North-West Italy, serving from 1979 to 2009.

Despite the hunger strikes, which often left him very weak, and a lifelong smoking habit, he survived heart surgery in 1998 and lived to be 86 years old before succumbing to cancer last year.

The Duomo in Teramo with its 50-foot bell tower
The Duomo in Teramo with its 50-foot bell tower
Travel tip:

Teramo, Pannella’s birthplace, is an attractive small city of about 55,000 inhabitants about 150km (93 miles) north-east of Rome, between the Gran Sasso mountain range and the Adriatic coast. The city has Roman origins going back to 295BC and there are Roman remains visible today, including a 3,000-seat amphitheatre that is still used for sporting events. There is also a 12th-century Romanesque Duomo, the Cathedral of St Berardo, which has a Gothic-style façade and a 50-foot bell tower.

Rome's beautiful Piazza Navona
Rome's beautiful Piazza Navona
Travel tip:

Pannella’s home in Rome was in the neighbourhood of Piazza Navona, the beautiful square in the heart of the city at which Pannella’s secular funeral was held. Built on the site of a Roman stadium, it was transformed into a showcase for Baroque Roman architecture and art during the pontificate of Innocent X in the 17th century.  Features include magnificent fountains by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Giacomo della Porta, the Palazzo Pamphili and the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, on which Francesco Borromini, Girolamo Rainaldi, Carlo Rainaldi and others worked.

More reading:

How Emma Bonino gave Radical Party a role in government as Minister of Foreign Affairs

The Red Brigades and the Aldo Moro kidnap

Beppe Grillo and the rise of the Five-Star Movement

Also on this day:

1660: The birth of composer Alessandro Scarlatti

1913: The birth of Maserati designer Pietro Frua

(Picture credits: top picture by Jollyroger; second picture by Mihai Romanciuc; Piazza Navona by Dalbera; all via Wikimedia Commons)

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