6 January 2023

Piersanti Mattarella - assassination victim

President’s brother assumed to have been killed by Mafia

A newspaper front page reports the murder of the politician amid claims of terrorist involvement
A newspaper front page reports the murder of the
politician amid claims of terrorist involvement
The politician Piersanti Mattarella, whose brother, Sergio, is the current President of Italy, was shot dead on this day in 1980.

The 44-year-old Christian Democrat, who was president of the regional government of Sicily, was about to drive to Epiphany mass from his home in Via della Libertà in Palermo when a gunman or gunmen appeared at the side of his car.

Mattarella was shot at point blank range in front of his wife, Irma, their daughter Maria, and his wife’s mother, who were passengers in his Fiat 132. Sergio, at that time a lecturer at the University of Palermo, was called by his nephew, Bernardo, who had not been in the car. He was one of the first on the scene after the shooting and took his brother to hospital. His efforts were in vain; Piersanti was already dead.

Yet the identity of his killers was never established and doubts surrounding the motives for the attack never completely removed.

There was every reason to suspect Piersanti had been the victim of a Mafia assassination because of his drive to clean up political corruption on the island. His ambition was to break the cosy relationships the Mafia enjoyed with too many politicians, mostly in his own party. 

Piersanti had vowed to clean
up corruption in Sicily
His late father, also called Bernardo, who served as a government minister on the mainland in six administrations between 1953 and 1963, was himself accused on more than once occasion of having links with the Cosa Nostra, although none was ever proved.

Piersanti was aware that public works contracts inevitably went to Mafia-linked companies. He passed a law forcing Silician contractors to adhere to the same building standards used in the rest of Italy, which had the effect of making many of the Mafia's building schemes illegal.

But shortly after the murder had taken place, a claim for responsibility was reportedly made on behalf of a right-wing terrorist group, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, which later in the year would be blamed for the worst terrorist atrocity in Italian history, the bombing of Bologna railway station, which killed 85 people.

Vehemently anti-communist, NAR might have had a credible motive, too. Mattarella had been an admirer of Aldo Moro, the politician who had been a central figure in the so-called Historic Compromise that brought about a political accommodation between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1970s. Moro was kidnapped and killed in 1978.

Mattarella had sought and gained support from the PCI in Sicily when, as newly elected president in 1978, he sought to govern as head of a centre-left coalition. Although the role of the PCI was at that time external, their involvement in any form was viewed in Sicily, as on the mainland, as a step closer to direct participation in government, which those on the far right in Italian politics were determined to prevent.

Mattarella's Fiat 132 car, its windows blown out by gunshots, at the side of Via della Libertà
Mattarella's Fiat 132 car, its windows blown
out by gunshots, at the side of Via della Libertà
It was this hypothesis that formed the basis of an investigation into the killing by Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia magistrate who would himself be murdered in 1992. He concluded that the killing of Piersanti Mattarella was carried out by Giuseppe Valerio Fioravanti and Gilberto Cavallini, two prominent NAR operatives.

Fioravanti, more often known as Giusva, was in Palermo at the time and his description matched that provided by Irma Mattarella, Piersanti’s widow, of one of the two involved in the attack.

But when, in 1995, Fioravanti and Cavallini eventually came to court to face charges, they were both acquitted for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, during the 1993 trial of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti over alleged Mafia associations, a Mafia pentito - turncoat - by the name of Francesco Marino Mannoia, named four mafiosi - Salvatore Federico, Francesco Davì, Santo Inzerillo and Antonio Rotolo - as the killers, and pointed the finger at the 10 members of the Sicilian Mafia Commission, which purported to control criminal activity on the island, for ordering the murder. Andreotti, Mannoia said, had privately appealed to Mafia bosses not to kill Mattarella.

However, although all the members of the Commission, including the notoriously ruthless Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina (whose elevation to capo di tutti capi - boss of all bosses - on the island began a bloody campaign to eliminate high-profile opponents), were convicted of the murder in 1995, Mannoia’s evidence was considered unreliable and none of the alleged physical killers was convicted.

Speculation remains that both the Mafia and the NAR were involved, with the latter perhaps carrying out the assassination on behalf of the mob in return for money or favours. But the theory remains unproven.

Sergio Mattarella, who was elected President of the Italian Republic for the first time in 2015 and re-elected in 2022, has said he decided to enter politics after his brother’s assassination, having previously been content with his career as a lawyer and academic. 

A memorial was placed close to the spot where Piersanti Matterella was killed
A memorial was placed close to the spot
where Piersanti Matterella was killed 
Travel tip:

Via della Libertà, where Piersanti Mattarella lived, is a long, straight road in the centre of Palermo, the Sicilian capital, linking the junction of Viale della Croce Rossa and Viale Diana with Via Dante. Stretching for just over 2.5km (1.2 miles), it passes the Parco Piersanti Mattarella, formerly called the Giardino Inglese, an area of gardens that dates back to 1851 and has been subsequently renamed in memory of the former politician. A memorial to Mattarella has been mounted at the side of the road close to his former home. Flowers are placed there at a ceremony each year on the anniversary of his death.

The harbour at Castellammare del Golfo, where Piersanti Mattarella was born
The harbour at Castellammare del Golfo,
where Piersanti Mattarella was born
Travel tip:

Castellammare del Golfo, where Piersanti Mattarella was born, is a fishing town and tourist resort in the province of Trapani on the northern coast of Sicily, about 65km (40 miles) by the coast road to the west of Palermo. Although Mattarella was on the side of law and order, the town is noted for having been the birthplace of many American Mafia figures, including Salvatore Maranzano, Stefano Magaddino, Vito Bonventre, John Tartamella and Joseph Bonanno. It takes its name from its castle overlooking a gulf, which dates back to the Arab occupation of Sicily in the ninth century and was fortified by the Normans in the 11th century. It originally sat right on the edge of the gulf at sea level, surrounded by water and connected to the land by a drawbridge.

Also on this day:

1695: The birth of oboe player Giuseppe Sammartini

1819: The birth of painter Baldassare Verazzi

1907: The first Montessori school opens in Rome

1938: The birth of singer Adriano Celentano

2016: The death of actress Silvana Pampanini

Befana - Italy’s 6 January tradition


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