6 July 2018

Pietro Valpreda - the ‘bomber’ who never was

Jailed suspect acquitted after 16 years

Pietro Valpreda was charged with the bombing on the testimony of a taxi driver
Pietro Valpreda was charged with the bombing
on the testimony of a taxi driver
Pietro Valpreda, who was arrested following the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in December 1969 and was held for 16 years awaiting trial as a terrorist before being acquitted, died on this day in 2002.

The Piazza Fontana bombing killed 17 people and injured 88 others after a device was detonated inside the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura on Piazza Fontana, which is just a few streets away from the Duomo in the centre of Milan.

Valpreda was an anarchist sympathiser but insisted he was at home on the afternoon of the incident, being cared for by an aunt, who swore under police questioning that her nephew, who was a dancer with a vaudeville company, was suffering from flu.

He was charged, however, on the evidence of a taxi driver, Cornelio Rolandi, who said he dropped a man fitting Valpreda’s description in the vicinity of the bank before the bomb went off and picked him up again afterwards, minus a briefcase he had been carrying when he dropped him.

Despite considering Rolandi’s evidence to be unreliable on the grounds of inconsistencies in his description of events, prosecuting magistrates held Valpreda, along with Giuseppe Pinelli and other known members of anarchist groups.  There was a story in circulation at the time that Valpreda had been trained in the handling and use of explosives while on national service in Gorizia, but this was untrue.

Valpreda during one of his court appearances
Valpreda during one of his court appearances
Valpreda was arrested on the same day that Pinelli fell to his death from a fourth floor window at Milan’s police headquarters, an unexplained event that inspired Dario Fo’s play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Reportedly named by Rolandi in an identity parade, Valpreda was moved to the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere district of Rome. He was condemned in the Italian media as if guilty beyond all doubt. The left-wing newspaper L’Unitá described him as ‘the monster of Piazza Fontana’, while others carried his picture with the headline ‘It’s him’, apparently echoing the words of Rolandi when asked to point out the suspect in the ID line-up.

He stayed at Regina Coeli for more than three years before being released to house arrest.

The process of investigating the bombing took many years. Over time, compelling evidence emerged of a plot by a right-wing group within the Italian political system to stage an event likely to destabilise the country and blame it on the left.

Giuseppi Pinelli, the bombing suspect who died in police custody
Giuseppi Pinelli, the bombing suspect
who died in police custody
Even so, it took a further 15 years until a judge decided that Valpreda should be acquitted on the grounds of lack of evidence. The suspicion was that the man the taxi driver identified as Valpreda was actually Nino Sottosanti, a neofascist who bore a close resemblance to him.

After his release, Valpreda campaigned for justice for himself and his friend Pinelli, while continuing to work as a dancer.  He also wrote poetry and published his prison diaries, under the title It's him!.  There were two further trials relating to the explosion, the most recent of which was in 2000, although as in the previous trials, the defendants, who had links to a right-wing terror group Ordine Nuovo, were acquitted for lack of evidence.

For a while, Valpreda ran a bar in Milan’s Corso Garibaldi, which was decorated with posters from campaigns for his release.  It became a meeting place for many of his former anarchist associates.

In time he sold the bar and began to write detective novels, featuring a policeman named Pietro Binda as his main character, all set in Milan and with strong political themes, mostly written with the collaboration of crime journalist Piero Colaprico.  He died at his home in Milan aged 69.

One of the simple memorials to the  bombing suspect Giuseppe Minelli
One of the simple memorials to the
bombing suspect Giuseppe Minelli
Travel tip:

Piazza Fontana can be found behind Milan’s Duomo, a short walk away along via Via Carlo Maria Martini.  There are two simple memorials to Giuseppe Pinelli, the bombing suspect who died in police custody, on a lawn opposite the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura.  On the other side of the piazza 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.

Corso Garibaldi in Milan, looking towards Porta Garibaldi
Corso Garibaldi in Milan, looking
towards Porta Garibaldi
Travel tip:

Corso Garibaldi, which runs from Porta Garibaldi towards the city centre in the direction of the Sforza Castle, is the street on which Valpreda kept a bar after his acquittal. Modern and semi-pedestrianised, it is a pleasant and relatively peaceful thoroughfare with numerous bars and restaurants more frequently used by local residents rather than tourists, although the popularity of the neighbouring Brera district is changing this. The metro station Moscova is situated halfway along the street. The simple church of Santa Maria Incoronata can be found at the Porta Garibaldi end.

More reading:

The Piazza Fontana bombing

Giuseppe Pinelli and the Accidental Death of an Anarchist

How Dario Fo put the spotlight on corruption

Also on this day:

1849: The death of Goffredo Mameli, writer of the Italian national anthem

1942: The death of Sicilian Mafia-buster Cesare Mori


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