Showing posts with label Red Brigades. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Red Brigades. Show all posts

28 April 2023

Escape from San Vittore prison

How a terrorist and a mass murderer brought terror to streets of Milan

Corrado Alunni was the driving force behind the San Vittore escape
Corrado Alunni was the driving force
behind the San Vittore escape
Milan citizens were left cowering in fear on this day in 1980 when police engaged in a prolonged shootout in the streets around San Vittore prison, which is situated less than three kilometres from the Duomo.

It followed an escape from the 19th century institution organised jointly by the notorious criminal and mass killer Renato Vallanzasca and the Red Brigades terrorist Corrado Alunni.

Vallanzasca, the head of the Milanese crime gang Banda della Comasina, had been in jail for much of the last eight years and was serving a life sentence for his role in a number of kidnappings and armed robberies, which had resulted in the deaths of a number of police officers, bank staff and members of the public.

Alunni, who had been a member of both the Red Brigades and the Communist terror group Prima Linea, had been jailed in 1978 after his arrest following an armed attack on a carabinieri patrol in the city of Novara in Piedmont.

In the days leading up to their escape attempt, the two had managed to smuggle a number of firearms into the prison and discussed how they would force prison guards to open the gates.

The action began to unfold during an afternoon exercise session on Monday, 28 April. At about 1.15pm, Vallanzasca and Alunni, together with Vallanzasca’s gangland second-in-command, Antonio Colia, and 16 other prisoners, executed their plan.

Renato Vallanzasca was one of Milan's most notorious gangsters
Renato Vallanzasca was one of Milan's
most notorious gangsters

The three in the group carrying the smuggled-in weapons seized a senior prison officer, Romano Saccoccio, using him as a human shield as they walked towards the exit gates, shooting two guards who refused to give them the keys and taking their weapons as well.

Once outside, the escaping group scattered into the streets around the prison, situated on the Viale di Porta Vercellina, but apparently without much thought as to where they were going. 

Police were quickly in pursuit and both Vallanzasca and Alunni were injured during fierce exchanges of fire. Alunni was shot in the stomach and Vallanzasca suffered a serious head wound. Six prisoners managed to shake off their pursuers, although it was only a short time before they were recaptured.

Alunni, who was 33 at the time, declared the escape attempt to be a success despite it ending so quickly.

“The essential thing was to be able to escape, overcoming all the barriers of men and structures,” he said. “Even if it ended badly, I must say that we won the first test.”

In subsequent trials over his terrorist activities, including those into the kidnapping and murder of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, in 1978, Alunni accumulated more than 20 years in prison sentences. In 1987, for the first time, he expressed a will to disassociate himself with the armed political struggle that came to be known as The Years of Lead.  He died in 2022 at the age of 74.

Vallanzasca, meanwhile, became a veteran of escape attempts, although none successful and at 72 years of age he remains in jail, having been sentenced during his criminal career to life imprisonment four times, along with other sentences adding up to 295 years.

The San Vittore prison was
completed in 1879
Travel tip:

The San Vittore prison, the official address of which is Piazza Gaetano Filangieri, was built between 1872 and 1879 in a post-unification project when it was deemed that Milan needed a new prison. At the time, its location was on the outskirts of the city but urban expansion in the 150 years since then means that it is now anything but, falling well within the circonvallazione interna, the city’s internal ring road. Designed by the engineer Francesco Lucca, the prison’s perimeter walls were originally built in medieval style, presumably in the hope of giving the building some aesthetic appeal, but have since been replaced with rather ugly concrete. Its inmates have ranged from the Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, who was locked up during the Fascist era, to the Sicilian Mafia boss Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina.

The Basilica di Sant'Abrogio is a short walk from San Vittore
The Basilica di Sant'Abrogio is
a short walk from San Vittore
Travel tip:

A more conventional tourist attraction within a short walk of San Vittore is the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio, in Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. It was originally built by Saint Ambrose, who is Milan’s patron saint, when he was bishop, on the site of an earlier Christian burial ground. After his remains were placed there, the church was named after him. It was rebuilt in the 11th century and further modified in the 15th century.  Aurelius Ambrosius was born in 340, training as a lawyer before becoming Bishop of Milan. After his ordination he wrote about religion, composed hymns and music and was generous to the poor.  His feast day is celebrated on 7 December each year.

Also on this day:

1400: The death of lawyer Baldus de Ubaldis

1876: The birth of car maker Nicola Romeo

1945: The death of Benito Mussolini


24 February 2019

Bettino Craxi - prime minister

The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi was the first socialist prime  minister of Italy in the modern era
Bettino Craxi was the first socialist prime
 minister of Italy in the modern era
Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan. 

He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.

Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.

His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.

His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator under which workers’ wages rose automatically in line with inflation, scoring a major victory when a referendum on the issue called by the Italian Communist Party went in his favour.  However, as a result of Craxi’s overall spending policies, Italy’s national debt overtook its gross domestic product.

Craxi with the US president Ronald Reagan, with whom he clashed over the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship
Craxi with the US president Ronald Reagan, with whom he
clashed over the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship
Craxi demonstrated his strength again in a dispute with the United States following the hijacking off the Egyptian coast of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by members of the Palestine Liberation Army in 1983, during which an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed. President Ronald Reagan wanted the four perpetrators to be extradited to the US but Italy wished to preserve its good diplomatic relations with the Arab world and avoid becoming a terrorist target, so Craxi refused, insisting that the hijackers should come under Italian jurisdiction. His firmness earned him a standing ovation in the Italian Senate, even from his Communist opponents.

Craxi, who formed a new coalition in 1986 after his 1983 government collapsed, resigned in early 1987. In 1993, following the mani puliti investigations, multiple charges of political corruption against him forced Craxi to quit as party leader.

He did not deny that he had solicited funding for the Socialist Party illegally but claimed that all the political parties did the same and that the PSI were being targeted for political reasons. Craxi fled to exile in Tunisia later that year, just before being convicted, and never returned. He died there in 2000.

Craxi opposed the mooted 'historic compromise'  with Enrico Berlinguer's Communists
Craxi opposed the 'historic compromise' with
 the Communists of Enrico Berlinguer (above)
Craxi - who was christened Benedetto - owed his political beliefs to his father, Vittorio, an anti-Fascist lawyer from Sicily, who became vice-prefect for Milan and then prefect for Como and stood in the 1948 national elections for the Popular Democratic Front, a political alliance between Socialists and Communists. Bettino campaigned for his father and later joined the Italian Socialist Party at the age of 17.

After being elected a town councillor in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano - his mother’s birthplace - in 1956, he became a member of the PSI’s central committee in 1957, won a seat on the city council of Milan in 1960 and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1968.

In 1970 he was appointed the party’s deputy secretary. He was a strong supporter of the centre-left coalition between the Christian Democrats of Aldo Moro and Amintore Fanfani, the PSI, then led by Pietro Nenni, the Social Democrats the Republicans.

He was elevated to general secretary in 1976 following a poor election performance by PSI candidates and set about uniting the party’s squabbling factions, committed it to moderate social and economic policies, and tried to dissociate it from the much larger Italian Communist Party.

Craxi always opposed the mooted 'historic compromise' favoured by Moro and the Communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer, on the basis that a political alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Communists would marginalise the Socialists, yet when Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades in 1978, amid demands for the release of so-called political prisoners, Craxi was the only political leader to declare himself open to a "humanitarian solution" that would allow Moro to be freed.

Under Craxi’s leadership the Socialists were members in five of Italy’s six coalition governments from 1980 to 1983 before the 1983 elections gave him the opportunity to form a coalition government with the Christian Democrats and several small, moderate parties.

His tenure as prime minister lasted three years and seven months, the third longest in the republican era. Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship despite their political differences, is the only prime minister to enjoy longer unbroken spells in office.

The Castello di Sant'Angelo Lodigiano is now a museum set up in honour of the Bolognini family
The Castello di Sant'Angelo Lodigiano is now a museum
set up in honour of the Bolognini family
Travel tip:

The town of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, where Bettino Craxi served as a councillor in the 1950s, is situated about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Milan, close to the city of Lodi in Lombardy. It is best known for the castle that was built there in the 13th century, standing guard over the river Lambro in a strategically favourable position for the control of river traffic to Milan. The castle was turned into a summer residence by Regina della Scala, wife of Bernabò Visconti. In 1452, with the passage of the power of the Duchy of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza, the fiefdom and the castle were donated, by Francesco Sforza, to Michele Matteo Bolognini, who received the title of Count. It remained the property of the Bolognini family and became known as the Castello Bolognini until 1933, when the widow of the last descendant - Count Gian Giacomo Morando Bolognini -  created the Fondazione Morando Bolognini for agricultural research and turned the castle into a museum.

Hotels in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano by

Lodi's beautiful main square, the Piazza della Vittoria. looking towards the 12th century cathedral
Lodi's beautiful main square, the Piazza della Vittoria.
looking towards the 12th century cathedral
Travel tip:

The city of Lodi sits on the right bank of the River Adda. The main square, Piazza della Vittoria, has been listed by the Touring Club of Italy as among the most beautiful squares in Italy with its porticoes on all four sides. Its cathedral, the Basilica Cattedrale della Vergine Assunta, was founded on August 3, 1158, the day on which Lodi was refounded after its destruction by Milanese troops in 1111. The façade, built in Romanesque style with the exception of the large Gothic entrance portico supported by small columns with lion sculptures at the base, was completed in 1284.

(Picture credits: Castle Sant’Angelo Lodigiano by Paperkat; Piazza della Vittoria, Lodi by Gabriele Zuffetti; via Wikmedia Commons)

23 December 2018

Carla Bruni - former First Lady of France

Ex-model and singer who married Nicolas Sarkozy

Carla Bruni had been one of the world's leading models
Carla Bruni had been one of the
world's leading models
Carla Bruni, the model and singer who became the wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, was born on this day in 1967 in Turin.

She and Sarkozy were married in February 2008, just three months after they met at a dinner party. Sarkozy, who was in office from May 2007 until May 2012, had recently divorced his second wife.

Previously, Bruni had spent 10 years as a model, treading the catwalk for some of the biggest designers and fashion houses in Europe and establishing herself as one of the top 20 earners in the modelling world.

After retiring from the modelling world, she enjoyed considerable success as a songwriter and then a singer. Music remains a passion, her most recent album released only last year. To date, her record sales stand at more than five million.

Born Carla Gilberta Bruni Tedeschi, she is legally the daughter of Italian concert pianist Marisa Borini and industrialist and classical composer Alberto Bruni Tedeschi. 

Carla Bruni met Nicolas Sarkozy just three months before they were married
Carla Bruni met Nicolas Sarkozy just
three months before they were married
However, she revealed in a magazine interview soon after she and Sarkozy were married at the presidential residence the Élysée Palace in Paris, that her her biological father is the Italian-born Brazilian businessman Maurizio Remmert, who was a classical guitarist when he met Marisa Borini at a concert in Turin. They embarked on an affair that lasted six years.

Even without her two successful careers, Bruni would have been a wealthy woman. Through her legal father, she is heiress to the fortune created by the Italian cable manufacturing company CEAT, founded in the 1920s by his father, Virginio Bruni Tedeschi, which subsequently moved into tyre production and is now based in India.

Carla Bruni has lived in France from the age of seven, the family having left Italy in 1975 over fears they would be a target for kidnap by the Red Brigades, the left-wing terrorist group who kidnapped many wealthy or politically important individuals in the 1970s and 80s.

She was educated initially at a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, before returning to Paris to study art and architecture at the Sorbonne, although in the event she left school at the age of 19 to become a model.

Bruni signed with a prestigious agency in 1987, and after being selected for an advertising campaign for jeans manufactured by the American company Guess?, soon began to attract attention.

Sarkozy had been married twice before he met Carla Bruni
Sarkozy had been married twice
before he met Carla Bruni
Over the next few years she worked for designers and fashion houses including Christian Dior, Givenchy, Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel and Versace.

At her peak, with her image appearing on billboards and magazine covers constantly, she was earning up to $7.5 million (€5.44 million) a year, which put her among the 20 highest-paid fashion models in the world.

Bruni enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle and dated some of the world's most famous men, including veteran rockers Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

The love of music instilled in her as a child never left her, however, and in 1997, at the age of 30, she retired from modelling to focus on her music. She had always played the guitar and started singing lessons. She sent her lyrics to the French singer Julien Clerc in 1999, which he used as the basis for six tracks on his 2000 album Si j'étais elle.

Her own first album, Quelqu'un m'a dit (Someone Told Me) was released in 2003 and was a surprise hit, selling more than a million copies.  It spent 34 weeks in the top 10 of the French albums chart.  Several songs featured in movies or television commercials.

The cover of Carla Bruni's latest album
She has since released four more albums and written songs for other artists, including the rock guitarist Louis Bertignac.  In her second album, No Promises, she set to music poems by William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, W. H. Auden and Dorothy Parker among others.

Although Sarkozy represents the centre-right Republican party, Bruni’s own political leanings were to the left before they were married, although her status as First Lady gave her no powers and generally she has was careful to avoid being drawn into political debate.

She has used her profile to support a number of charities, particularly those concerned with protecting mothers and children and fighting HIV. In 2009, launched the Fondation Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, to promote access to culture and knowledge.

Bruni has been more outspoken on matters related to her charitable work. She has been critical of the Catholic Church for continuing to oppose the use of condoms - a proven way of limiting the spread of AIDS - even though the church spends millions of dollars on caring for HIV/AIDS patients.

She and Sarkozy are the parents of a girl, Giulia, who was born in 2011. Bruni has a son, Aurélien, from a previous relationship with philosophy professor Raphaël Enthoven.

The castle at Moncalieri used to be the home of Italy's King Victor Emmanuel II in the late 19th century
The castle at Moncalieri used to be the home of Italy's
King Victor Emmanuel II in the late 19th century
Travel tip:

Bruni’s father, Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, came from Moncalieri, a town of almost 58,000 inhabitants about 8km (5 miles) south of the centre of Turin and part of the greater metropolitan area. It is notable for a 12th century castle, enlarged in the 15th century, which was for a time a favoured residence of Maria Clotilde and King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and now is listed among the World Heritage Site Residences of the Royal House of Savoy.  Since 1919 it has housed a school for training carabinieri officers.

Turin's colossal Mole Antonelliana is a familiar landmark on the city's skyline
Turin's colossal Mole Antonelliana is a
familiar landmark on the city's skyline
Travel tip:

The city of Turin, the traditional seat of the Savoy dynasty, is an elegant city with several royal palaces, a 15th-century cathedral that houses the Shroud of Turin and a city centre with 12 miles of arcaded streets, dotted with historic cafés an fine restaurants, many to be found around the Via Po, Turin’s famous promenade linking Piazza Vittorio Veneto with Piazza Castello, or nearby Piazza San Carlo, one of the city’s main squares. In the 19th century, the city’s cafès were popular with writers, artists, philosophers, musicians and politicians. One of the city’s major landmarks is the Mole Antonelliana, at 167.5 m (550 ft) the tallest unreinforced brick building in the world.  Originally built as a synagogue, the building is now home to a film industry museum, the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. Mole is an Italian word for a building of monumental proportions.

More reading:

The meteoric rise of Gianni Versace

Santo Versace - the business brain behind the empire

The Red Brigades and the kidnapping of Aldo Moro

Also on this day:

1896: The birth of writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

1916: The birth of film director Dino Risi

1956: The birth of racing driver Michele Alboreto


2 August 2018

Bologna railway station bombed

Biggest terrorist atrocity in Italy's history killed 85

The scene outside Bologna Railway Station in the aftermath of the explosion on August 2, 1980
The scene outside Bologna railway station in the aftermath
of the explosion on August 2, 1980
Italy suffered the most devastating terrorist outrage in its history on this day in 1980 with the bombing of Bologna's main railway station.

A massive 23kg (51lbs) of explosive packed into a suitcase left in a crowded waiting room was detonated at 10.25am, creating a blast that destroyed much of the main building of the station and badly damaged a train on one of the platforms.

Many people, locals and tourists, Italians and foreign nationals, were caught up in the explosion. Some were killed instantly, others died as a result of the roof of the waiting room collapsing on to the victims. There were 85 deaths and more than 200 other people were wounded.

The bomb was clearly placed to cause mass casualties. It was the first Saturday in the traditional August holiday period, one of the busiest days of the year for rail travel, and the explosive-laden suitcase was left in a room with air conditioning, then still relatively rare in Italy. On a hot day, the room was naturally full of people.

The station clock is now permanently set at the exact time the bomb exploded on that fateful Saturday morning
The station clock is now permanently set at the exact time
the bomb exploded on that fateful Saturday morning
The attack was the deadliest of several during a bleak period of 10-12 years in Italian history that became known as the Years of Lead, when the ideological struggle between the left and right in Italian politics was at its height.

It began with the killing of a Milan policeman in a far-left demonstration in November 1969 followed a few weeks later by a number of bomb attacks in Rome and Milan, the biggest of which killed 17 people in a bank in Piazza Fontana, not far from the Milan cathedral.

There were several more bombings in the years that followed and countless assassinations of policemen, military personnel, government officials and other prominent public figures, the most high profile of which was the kidnap and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. In all, it has been calculated that the Years of Lead claimed the lives of 428 people.

Although the killings continued after the Bologna Massacre, they happened with much less frequency after 1980 than in the three years leading up to the bombing, which has led some commentators to regard the August 2 attack as effectively bringing to an end the darkest period in Italian history since Fascism.

The tangled remains of the waiting room roof after the blast
The tangled remains of the waiting
room roof after the blast
As is almost always the case in Italy, the process of identifying the perpetrators and bringing justice was a long and torturous process.

Although the Ansa news agency received a call within minutes of the bomb going off, purporting to claim responsibility on behalf of a right-wing terrorist group known as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Corps), it was seven years before anyone was brought to trial and 10 more years before a series of trials, appeals, acquittals and retrials finally resulted in the confirmed conviction for murder of two NAR members, Valerio Fioravanti and Francesca Mambro.

Even now, conspiracy theories still persist over who else might have been involved with the planning and execution of the massacre.

In an era when the Italian Communists were as close to winning power, or a share of power, in the government of the country as they have been at any stage in their history, most of the outrages carried out during the Years of Lead were attributed either to extreme left-wing groups such as the Red Brigades and Prima Linea or to far-right organisations such as Ordine Nuovo, Terza Posizione and NAR.

The attack in Bologna was seen as symbolic because it targeted a city with a history of of left-wing politics along with a strong civic culture and a tradition of supporting the Partisans and rejecting Fascism.

Valerio Fioravanti, pictured in police custody, was one of two terrorists eventually jailed for carrying out the attack
Valerio Fioravanti, pictured in police custody, was one of two
terrorists eventually jailed for carrying out the attack
But many commentators have theorised that behind the NAR, darker forces many have been at work, possibly involving the Italian government and its secret services via the secret movement known as Operation Gladio, or even the subversive Masonic organisation labelled Propaganda Due, of which countless civil servants, military personnel, policemen and politicians were secretly members.

It was even suggested that the Israeli secret services might have supported the attack to punish Italy for a perceived sympathetic stance towards the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The finger of suspicion was pointed at Gladio because of revelations years after the bombing that this was an organisation, in effect a shadow army, that had been put in place at the end of the Second World War, with the tacit backing of the United States, to act initially as a force primed to react to any invasion by forces from the Eastern Bloc, which Italy bordered, but later to prevent, by any means, the Italian Communist Party from forming a government, which it was feared would turn Italy into a de facto Soviet satellite.

None of these theories was ever proven, although three figures connected with Italy’s military intelligence service SISMI, along with P2 grand master Licio Gelli, were convicted during the course of the trials of supplying false information likely to mislead the investigation.

The memorial at Bologna Station to the victims of the 1980 bombing
The memorial at Bologna station to the
victims of the 1980 bombing
Travel tip:

Memorial services at which to remember the 85 victims of the Bologna Massacre are held each year, with a march and a concert in Piazza Maggiore, right at the centre of the city.  There is a plaque carrying the names of all the victims, who ranged from three years old to 86, while the clock inside the station has been stopped at 10.25am as a mark of respect for those killed. The reconstructed wall to which the plaque is attached has a jagged-edged gap left in it.

The beautiful Piazza Maggiore in Bologna
The beautiful Piazza Maggiore in Bologna
Travel tip:

The history of Bologna, one of Italy's most historic cities, can be traced back to 1,000BC or possibly earlier, with a settlement that was developed into an urban area by the Etruscans, the Celts and the Romans.  The University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, was founded in 1088.  Bologna's city centre, which has undergone substantial restoration since the 1970s, is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Italy, characterised by 38km (24 miles) of walkways protected by porticoes.  At the heart of the city is the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, which at 132m long, 66m wide and with a facade that touches 51m at its tallest, is the 10th largest church in the world and the largest built in brick.

More reading:

December 12, 1969: The Piazza Fontana bombing

How magistrate Felice Casson revealed the existence of Operation Gladio

The kidnapping of ex-prime minister Aldo Moro

Also on this day:

1854: The birth of author Francis Marion Crawford

1945: The death of opera composer Pietro Mascagni


21 June 2018

Pope Paul VI

Former pontiff is to be made a saint by Pope Francis

Cardinal Montini was elected Pope Paul VI on June 21, 1963
Cardinal Montini was elected Pope Paul VI
on June 21, 1963
Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was elected as Pope Paul VI on this day in 1963 in Rome.

He succeeded Pope John XXIII and immediately re-convened the Second Vatican Council which had automatically closed after Pope John’s death.

Pope Paul then implemented its various reforms and as a result had to deal with the conflicting expectations of different Catholic groups.

Following his famous predecessor Saint Ambrose of Milan, Pope Paul named Mary as the Mother of the Church.

He described himself as ‘a humble servant for a suffering humanity’ and demanded changes from the rich in North America and Europe in favour of the poor in the third world.

Pope Paul had been born in Concesio near Brescia in 1897 and was ordained a priest in Brescia in 1920. He took a doctorate in Canon Law in Milan and afterwards studied at various universities, therefore never working as a parish priest.

He had one foreign posting, to the office of the papal nuncio in Poland.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, he created an information office for prisoners of war and refugees, producing more than 11 million replies to enquiries about missing persons.

He was attacked by Mussolini’s government several times for allegedly meddling in politics.

Pope Paul VI pleaded with the Red Brigades to release the kidnapped former PM Aldo Moro
Pope Paul VI pleaded with the Red Brigades to
release the kidnapped former PM Aldo Moro
Pope Pius XII made him archbishop of Milan in 1954 and Pope John XXIII made him Cardinal Priest of SS Silvestro e Martino ai Monti in 1958.

After Pope John XXIII died of stomach cancer in 1963, Cardinal Montini was elected as his successor on the sixth ballot.

He later wrote in his journal: ‘The position is unique. It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitude becomes complete and awesome.’

Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit six continents, earning the nickname ‘the Pilgrim Pope.’

A man tried to attack him with a knife after he had arrived at Manila in the Philippines in 1970 but one of his aides managed to push the aggressor away.

Pope Paul wrote a personal letter to the terrorist group the Red Brigades in 1978 pleading with them to free the politician Aldo Moro, who had been his friend when they were both students.

After the bullet-ridden body of Moro was found in Rome, Pope Paul personally conducted his funeral mass.

Later in 1978 Pope Paul VI died at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo after suffering a massive heart attack. According to the terms of his will he was buried beneath the floor in St Peter’s Basilica and not in an ornate sarcophagus.

Pope Paul VI has already been declared Venerable and has been Beatified, and it has recently been confirmed by the Vatican that he will be made a Saint in October this year.

The house in Concesio where Pope Paul VI was born
The house in Concesio where Pope Paul VI was born
Travel tip:

Concesio, where Pope Paul VI was born, is a town in Lombardy about 8km (5 miles) to the north of Brescia. The town is in the lower Val Trompia at the foot of Monte Spina. The footballer Mario Balotelli was placed in foster care at the age of three with Silvia and Francesco Balotelli who lived in Concesio. Eventually he was permanently fostered by the couple and took their surname.

The pontifical palace in Castel Gandolfo, with the two domes of the Vatican observatory
The pontifical palace in Castel Gandolfo, with the two
domes of the Vatican observatory
Travel tip:

Castel Gandolfo, where Pope Paul VI died, overlooks Lake Albano from its wonderful position in the hills south of Rome. The Pope spends every summer in the Apostolic Palace there. Although his villa lies within the town’s boundaries, it is one of the properties of the Holy See. The palace is not under Italian jurisdiction and is policed by the Swiss Guard. The whole area is part of the regional park of Castelli Romani, which has many places of historic and artistic interest to visit.

Also on this day:

1891: The death of architect and structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi

1919: The birth of the architect Paolo Soleri


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 façade owes its appearance to Giuseppe Piermarini, who restored the palace in 1784.

5 August 2017

Felice Casson - politician and magistrate

His investigations revealed existence of Operation Gladio

Felice Casson identified the bomber behind the Peteano killings
Felice Casson identified the bomber
behind the Peteano killings
Felice Casson, the magistrate whose investigations exposed the existence of the NATO-backed secret army codenamed Gladio, was born on this day in 1953 in Chioggia, near Venice.

A former mayor of Venice and a representative of the Democratic Party in the Italian Senate, Casson devoted much of his career in the judiciary to fighting corruption and rooting out terrorists.

In 1984, his interest in terrorism led him to examine the unsolved mystery of the Peteano bombing in 1972, in which three Carabinieri officers were killed by a car bomb placed under an abandoned Fiat 500 in a tiny hamlet close to the border with Yugoslavia in the province of Gorizia.

Casson discovered flaws in the original investigation into the bombing, which at the time was blamed on the left-wing extremist group the Red Brigades, who would later be responsible for the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro, a former prime minister. 

Afterwards, Italy launched a nationwide crackdown on left-wing organisations and made more than 200 arrests.

Vincenzo Vinciguerra confessed to planting bomb that killed Carabinieri officers
Vincenzo Vinciguerra confessed to planting
bomb that killed Carabinieri officers
But Casson found no record of any investigation of the scene of the bombing and discovered that a report claiming the explosives used in the bomb was the same as previously used in Red Brigades activity was a forgery.

He reopened the case and his new investigation established that the explosive used was called C4, a very powerful agent of which large stocks were kept by NATO.

At around the same time he found details of the chance discovery earlier in 1972 by other Carabinieri officers of a hidden arms cache near Trieste, which had been mysteriously hushed up at the time.  Among the weapons and munitions stored there was C4.

Ultimately the investigation led Casson to order the arrest of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, a member of the right-wing extremist group Ordine Nuovo – New Order – who confessed that he had planted the car bomb and confirmed a connection Casson had already made between Ordine Nuovo and the Italian secret services.

Marco Morin, the police explosives expert who had provided false evidence about the explosives used at Peteano, was also a member.

Under questioning from judges, Vinciguerra went further, linking a series of atrocities in Italy during the so-called Years of Lead, beginning with the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969, which killed 17 people, and culminating in the massacre of 85 people at Bologna railway station in 1980, to a secret organisation working on behalf of the Italian government and its allies.

Giuliano Andreotti admitted in 1990 that the Gladio operation existed
Giuliano Andreotti admitted in 1990 that
the Gladio operation existed
He said that the Peteano outrage, after which the secret services helped him flee to a place of refuge in Spain, had made it clear to him that there existed “a structure, occult and hidden, with the capacity of giving a strategic direction to the outrages” and that it lay “within the state itself.”

Vinciguerra said that it was “composed of civilians and military men, in an anti-Soviet capacity, to organise a resistance on Italian soil against a Russian army...and which, lacking a Soviet military invasion which might not happen, took up the task, on NATO's behalf, of preventing a slip to the left in the political balance of the country (Italy). This they did, with the assistance of the official secret services and the political and military forces.”

The explosives used at Peteano actually came from another hidden arms cache near Verona, which Casson concluded was part of a network of more than 100 such caches belonging to NATO.

Naturally, the revelations of a convicted criminal could easily be dismissed, yet the existence of Operation Gladio was confirmed in 1990 by the Italian Christian Democrat prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, who in 1990 told a parliamentary commission looking into the Years of Lead that Gladio had been set up in 1953 as one of several “stay-behind” armies put in place across Europe as NATO sought to be aware of any potential Soviet military action but also to monitor any signs of Soviet-sponsored political activity.

Italy was a particular concern in the 1960s and 1970s because of the rise in popularity of the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party. 

Andreotti admitted that there was “a structure of information, response and safeguard” in place, in which he and the Italian president, Francesco Cossiga, had both been involved.

However, he said that 127 weapons caches had been dismantled and that Gladio had not been involved in any of the bombings committed between the 1960s and the 1980s.

Nonetheless, political historians note that each outrage, whether judged to be committed by left-wing extremists or aimed at them - as in the case of Bologna, a Communist stronghold -  tended to weaken the appetite for change and to strengthen the position of the conservative Christian Democrats.

Parts of Chioggia have the look of Venice
Parts of Chioggia have the look of Venice
Travel tip:

Chioggia, where Felice Casson was born, is a historic fishing port at the southern limit of the Venetian lagoon, accessible by boat direct from Venice. It is actually a small island, linked by a causeway to the resort of Sottomarina.  Like Venice, it has a number of canals but, unlike Venice, it is not closed to cars. The main street, Corso del Popolo has a number of churches and some fine fish restaurants.

The Piazza della Vittoria in the centre of Gorizia
The Piazza della Vittoria in the centre of Gorizia
Travel tip:

Gorizia has the appearance of an historic Italian town but it has changed hands several times during its history, which is not surprising given its geographical location.  It sits literally on the border with Slovenia and, in fact, is part of a metropolitan area shared by the two countries, the section on the Slovenian side being now known as Nova Gorica. It has German, Slovenian, Friulian and Venetian influences, which can be experienced in particular in the local cuisine.

22 July 2017

Indro Montanelli – journalist

Veteran writer who cast a critical eye on Italian politics and society

Indro Montanelli, in the offices of Corriere della Sera, working
from an improvised chair made from a pile of books
A writer and journalist regarded as one of the greatest of 20th century Italy, Indro Montanelli, died on this day in 2001 in Milan.

The previous year he had been named as one of 50 World Press Freedom Heroes by the International Press Institute.

Montanelli had been a witness to many of the major events of the 20th century. He was in Danzig when Hitler rejected the ultimatum from Britain and France in September 1939. He was in the streets of Budapest in 1956 when Soviet tanks rolled in and he was shot in the legs by Red Brigades terrorists on an Italian street in 1977.

Montanelli was born Indro Alessandro Raffaello Scizogene Montanelli in 1909 at Fucecchio near Florence.

He studied for a law degree at the University of Florence in the early 1920s and began his journalistic career by writing for the Fascist newspaper, Il Selvaggio.

Montanelli in Ethiopia in 1936
Montanelli in Ethiopia in 1936
He then worked as a crime reporter for Paris Soir before serving as a volunteer with Italian troops in the Eritrean Battalion in Ethiopia - Abyssinia as it was then - where he wrote war reports which later formed the basis for the first of his 40 books. 

It was a book that honestly conveyed what Montanelli had seen, some of which caused him to change his mind about Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader. It was a little too honest for the Fascist oligarchy, however, and, after his similarly objective reporting on the Spanish civil war did not meet with Fascist approval, his press accreditation was withdrawn.

Despite this, he continued to write, the Corriere della Sera getting around the ban on his working as a journalist by hiring him as a ‘collaborator’, in which capacity he sent back reports from Scandinavia and the Baltic States, the Balkans and Greece.

After witnessing the disastrous Italian invasion of Greece, Montanelli decided to join the partisan movement against the Fascist regime.

During the Nazi occupation of Italy he was arrested and narrowly avoided being executed. His reprieve was thanks to the intervention of some influential admirers who put pressure on the Germans.

His prison experiences inspired him to write a novel, Il Generale della Rovere, based on his meeting in prison with a German spy posing as an Allied military commander, which was later filmed by Roberto Rossellini and won the Venice Golden Lion in 1959.

Montanelli pictred in Milan in 1992
Montanelli pictred in Milan in 1992
After the war, Montanelli co-edited a magazine called Il Borghese, which tried to cater for what remained of right-wing cultural tastes in a country divided between the Communists and Christian Democrats.

His increasing anger at the Communists was to eventually win the approval of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who backed the right-leaning newspaper, Il Giornale, which Montanelli had founded in 1973 after breaking away from Corriere following a change in the paper's political direction.

Montanelli remained as the editor until 1994 when he fell out with Berlusconi after criticising his entry into politics.

The journalist was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1995.

It was Gianni Agnelli, then proprietor, who persuaded Montanelli to return to Corriere, where he commented on prominent Italians in editorials and on a letter’s page entitled Montanelli’s Room.

He spent his last years vigorously opposing Silvio Berlusconi’s politics.

Montanelli also wrote a series of successful history books, including one about Rome, which became a regular textbook used in schools.

Towards the end of his life, Montanelli lived in an apartment overlooking Piazza Navona in Rome.

He died at the age of 92 after a prostate cancer operation at a clinic in Milan.

The day after his death, Corriere della Sera published a letter he had written on its front page, ‘Indro Montanelli’s farewell to his readers’.

The journalist had also left instructions for his ashes be placed in an urn above his mother’s tomb at Fucecchio.

Montanelli's reputation was tarnished by his admission that he bought a 12-year-old Ethiopian girl to be his wife during Mussolini’s campaign in Ethiopia, in common with other Italian soldiers, who took advantage of local laws that made such marriages legal. Asked about the marriage on a television interview in 1969, Montanelli refused to apologise. 

The house in Piazza Garibaldi in Fucecchio, near Florence, where Montanelli was born
The house in Piazza Garibaldi in Fucecchio, near
Florence, where Montanelli was born
Travel tip:

Fucecchio, where Indro Montanelli was born, is a municipality  of Florence. One of the major sights in the town is the Abbey of San Salvatore which was built in the upper part of Fucecchio in the 11th century. The town is mentioned frequently in the 1917 opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini.

Travel tip:

Indro Montanelli was among many distinguished Italian writers who worked for Corriere della Sera, a daily newspaper founded in 1876 in Milan. The newspaper’s headquarters have been in the same building in Via Solferino in the centre of Milan since the beginning of the 20th century.

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)