Showing posts with label Years of Lead. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Years of Lead. Show all posts

3 November 2020

Giovanni Leone - controversial politician

First president to resign over a scandal

Giovanni Leone served twice as prime minister in the 1960s
Giovanni Leone served twice as prime
minister in the 1960s
The politician Giovanni Leone, who served both as prime minister of Italy and president during a career that spanned seven decades but which was ultimately overshadowed by scandal, was born on this day in 1908 in Naples.

A co-founder, with his father, Mauro, of the Christian Democracy in 1943, Leone was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1948, served as prime minister for brief periods in 1963 and 1968 and was elected president in 1971.  He occupied the Palazzo Quirinale, the main Rome residence of the president, for seven years but was forced to resign after being implicated in the Lockheed bribery scandal, the first president to step down over such an impropriety.

The accusation levelled at him was that he accepted payment from the American aircraft manufacturer in connection with the purchase of Hercules military transport planes. The allegations originated from the United States and were published in Italy by the news magazine L’Espresso.  Other politicians were said also to have accepted bribes but Leone was accused directly after documents unearthed in the US referenced an Italian prime minister given the codename Antelope Gobbler as one of the recipients of money.  This was taken to mean Leone - lion.

A Swiss-based businessman revealed to be associated with the deal, Antonio Lefebvre, was also a close friend of Leone. The scandal caused significant damage to Leone and his office and, after several months, he resigned.  The accusations were never proven and one of his most prominent accusers was convicted of libel, yet Leone was never fully rehabilitated.  A former defence minister, Mario Tanassi, was eventually handed a prison sentence relating to the scandal, and some commentators speculated that other high-ranking politicians who escaped censure were happy for Leone to be the scapegoat.

Leone was accused of accepting bribes over contracts for the Hercules military transport plane
Leone was accused of accepting bribes over
contracts for the Hercules military transport plane
Brought up in the Pomigliano d'Arco suburb of Naples, Leone graduated in law at the University of Naples and became one of southern Italy’s most prominent lawyers and jurists, lecturing at the universities of Messina, Bari and Naples.

After the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy in World War II, Leone, who had been a military magistrate, was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat Party (DC), led by Alcide Gaspari. As the party’s provincial secretary for Naples, he became a prominent figure in the new party and was elected as a deputy in 1948 with 60,000 votes.

In all, he was elected to parliament four times, serving as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies between 1955 and 1963, and twice as prime minister, in 1963 and 1968, although on both occasions he was in office only as a stopgap because the prime candidates had been unable to command sufficient support.  Continuing to practise law and lecture while serving as a deputy, Leone remained detached from the rival factions within the DC and was thus able to fulfil the role of compromise candidate.

He became president in similar circumstances. Unable to choose between Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrats opted for Leone, although it took an exhausting 23 ballots for them to reach that conclusion, making it the longest presidential election in Italian political history. Controversially, his victory was assisted by votes from the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The diminutive Leone pictured during a meeting with US president Gerald Ford in 1974
The diminutive Leone pictured during a meeting
with US president Gerald Ford in 1974
Leone made an unconventional president, notable for his strong Neapolitan accent and a sense of humour that made no concession to the supposed dignity of his office.  He was caught more than once making the two-fingered ‘horns’ gesture - a traditional southern Italian gesture used as an insult or to ward off the evil eye - on one occasion during a visit to cholera patients at a Naples hospital. 

The behaviour of his family also did little for his reputation. His three sons - Mauro, Paolo and Giancarlo - led something of a playboy lifestyle, often touring Roman nightclubs with their presidential bodyguard. His wife, Vittoria, who came from a well known family in Caserta, was a glamorous woman 20 years Leone's junior and a high-profile society hostess who was frequently the subject of gossip and innuendo. 

Their exploits featured regularly in the pages of the magazine Osservatore Politico, whose editor, Mino Pecorelli, claimed he was offered a substantial sum of money to abandon what Leone saw as a personal campaign against him. Pecorelli was killed in a shooting a year after Leone resigned.

Apart from the Lockheed scandal, the other stain on Leone’s character was the Vajont Dam disaster, which occurred during his 1963 term as prime minister.  The catastrophe, in which 50 million cubic metres of water was sent cascading over a dam in Friuli-Venezia Giulia following a landslide, killed almost 2,000 people in villages situated below the dam. 

The kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro took place during Leone's presidency
The kidnapping and murder of former prime minister
Aldo Moro took place during Leone's presidency 
The dam was jointly owned by the Italian government and the Adriatic Society of Electricity (SADE), both of whom were found to have ignored warnings of the instability of the mountainside that ultimately collapsed into the reservoir. Leone vowed to secure justice for the victims of the disaster, but soon after leaving office he was hired as head of SADE's team of lawyers, who argued successfully to reduce the amount of compensation paid to survivors and left the families of 600 victims with no compensation at all. 

Leone's presidency coincided with the so-called Years of Lead, one of the most turbulent periods of recent Italian history, marked by assassinations, bombings and terrorism. The kidnap and murder of former prime minister Moro by the Red Brigades took place just a few months before the Lockheed scandal.

In political terms, Leone was no great friend of Moro, who positioned himself on the centre-left in the spectrum of values within the DC, whereas Leone was well to the right. It had been Moro who had fostered the idea of the so-called Historic Compromise by which the Communists of Enrico Berlinguer would have become part of the government.

Yet when Moro was being held captive at a location in Rome, Leone argued that the government should negotiate with the Red Brigades for Moro’s release, perhaps even agreeing to the release of political prisoners that had been at the head of their demands. Prime minister Giulio Andreotti refused.

Leone was made a life senator despite the circumstances of his resignation and continued to make an active contribution to political life.  Retiring to his luxury villa, Le Rughe, in Via Cassia on the outskirts of Rome, he devoted himself to the study of law and, through his writings and interviews, convinced many of his detractors that the accusations made against him had been false. He died in 2001, a few days after his 93rd birthday.

Piazza Municipio in the Naples suburb of Pomigliano d'Arco
Piazza Municipio in the Naples suburb of
Pomigliano d'Arco 
Travel tip:

Situated 17km (11 miles) northeast of the centre of Naples, Pomigliano d'Arco is effectively a suburb of the city, although it is an independent municipality. A former farming town, it is now much more industrial. Chosen as the site for a southern factory by car makers Alfa Romeo in 1938 - now owned by the FIAT-Chrysler group and one of the biggest auto plants in Italy - it now has factories in the aerospace and aeronautics sectors as well. During World War II, Pomigliano was the location of a large military airfield and base. 

A picturesque narrow street in the historic centre of Formello
A picturesque narrow street in the
historic centre of Formello
Travel tip:

The Via Cassia was an ancient Roman road stretching northwest of the centre of Rome that essentially traversed the central area of the Italian peninsula once known as Etruria, through what is now Tuscany and on towards the port of Genoa in Liguria.  The section immediately beyond the city centre begins after the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber and passes through the Tomba di Nerone area. Leone’s villa, Le Rughe, was situated near the small town of Formello, about 30km (19 miles) outside the city, close to where the Via Cassia merges into the SR2 motorway. Formello has a picturesque historic centre.

Also on this day:

1560: The birth of painter Annibale Carracci

1801: The birth of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini

1918: The signing of the Villa Giusti armistice

1931: The birth of actress Monica Vitti


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


20 July 2018

Giovanna Amati - racing driver

Kidnap survivor who drove in Formula One

Giovanna Amati survived a 75-day kidnap ordeal when she was 18 years old
Giovanna Amati survived a 75-day kidnap
ordeal when she was 18 years old
Racing driver Giovanna Amati, the last female to have been entered for a Formula One Grand Prix, was born on this day in 1959 in Rome.

The story of Amati’s signing for the Brabham F1 team in 1992 was all the more remarkable for the fact that 14 years earlier, as an 18-year-old girl, she had been kidnapped by a ransom gang and held for 75 days in a wooden cage.

Kidnaps happened with alarming frequency in Italy in 1970s, a period marked by social unrest and acts of violence committed by political extremists, often referred to as the Years of Lead. Young people with rich parents were often the targets and Amati, whose father Giovanni was a wealthy industrialist who owned a chain of cinemas, fitted the bill.

She was snatched outside the family’s villa in Rome in February 1978 and held first in a house only a short distance away and then at a secret location, where she was physically abused and threatened with having her ear cut off while her captors negotiated with her 72-year-old father.

Critics accused Brabham of hiring  Amati as a publicity stunt
Critics accused Brabham of hiring
Amati as a publicity stunt
Eventually, Giovanni is said to have paid 800 million lira (about $933,000 dollars), for her release, having raised the money through a combination of box office receipts from the Star Wars movie playing at his cinemas, and from the sale of some of his 42-year-old former actress wife’s jewellery.

Seven of the kidnappers were arrested but the ringleader, a gangster from Marseille called Jean Daniel Nieto, evaded the police and got away. He was caught later after contacting Amati, with whom he had allegedly become infatuated, and agreeing to meet her on the fashionable Via Vittorio Veneto in the centre of Rome.

Amati, who has dismissed as untrue newspaper stories at the time that she and Nieto had become romantically involved, returned to normal life and the love of driving she had developed as an eight-year-old, when her father allowed her to drive a tractor on the family estate.

She bought a Honda motorcycle when she was 15 and was inspired to race cars by her friend, the dashing young Roman racing driver Elio de Angelis, with whom she attended a motor racing school.

She first raced professionally in the Formula Abarth series - effectively Formula Four - before graduating to Formula Three. She won some races in both yet it still came as something of bombshell when she was contacted by the then-Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone in January 1992 and offered a drive in Formula One.

Giovanna Amati failed to qualify in any of the three Grand Prix she entered
Giovanna Amati failed to qualify in each of
the three Grand Prix she entered
With only weeks to raise the budget she needed to take up the offer, Amati feared she would have to turn down the chance of a lifetime. But at the 11th hour her dream was made possible by an unlikely benefactor, the prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, who had been a friend of her father, by then passed away.

Sadly, her excursion into F1 was not a success.  She failed to qualify for the first three races of the season, in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil, and was promptly sacked, to be replaced by Damon Hill, amid suspicions that, at a time when the Brabham team was desperately in need of exposure and cash, hiring a driver who happened to be an attractive, photogenic young woman was all a publicity stunt.

It was not the end of Amati’s career. She competed in sports and touring cars for a number of years with some success but by the end of the 1990s she was more often sitting alongside TV commentary teams than in the cockpit of a car.  Her compatriot, Lella Lombardi, who started 12 World Championship races between 1974 and 1976, remains in the last female to race in a Formula One Grand Prix.

The Vallelunga autodrome was the home of the Rome Grand Prix between 1925 and 1991
The Vallelunga autodrome was the home of the Rome
Grand Prix between 1925 and 1991
Travel tip:

Racing drivers in Rome have never had their own home Formula One event but a Rome Grand Prix took place at the Vallelunga circuit between 1925 and 1991. The Vallelunga track is near the town of Campagnano, about 32km (20 miles) north of Rome. It still hosts race meetings and is used by various F1 teams for testing. The city did almost get its first F1 World Championship event in 2013, when plans had been put forward for a street circuit in the EUR district of the city. The idea was eventually abandoned through lack of support and amid fears that it would undermine the supremacy of Monza, home of the Italian Grand Prix, as Italy’s number one racing circuit.

Monza's striking Duomo is one of a number of attractive architectural features in the city
Monza's striking Duomo is one of a number of
attractive architectural features in the city
Travel tip:

Monza, which has hosted the Italian Grand Prix every year since 1950, is situated about 15km (9 miles) north of Milan.  Because so many visitors are interested in little more than cars, Monza’s many notable architectural attractions tend to be under-appreciated. These include the Gothic Duomo, with its white-and-green banded facade, which contains the Corona Ferrea (Iron Crown), which according to legend features one of the nails from the Crucifixion. The crown is on show in the chapel dedicated to the Lombard queen Theodolinda.  The adjoining Museo e Tesoro del Duomo contains one of the greatest collections of religious art in Europe.

More reading:

How Lella Lombardi became the only female racing driver to win a point in a Formula One GP

Maria Teresa de Filippis - the first woman to start a Formula One world championship event

Elio de Angelis - the last of the 'gentleman racers'

Also on this day:

1890: The birth of 20th century still life 'master' Giorgio Morandi

1937: The death of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi