Giorgio Napolitano, the first ex-communist to ascend to Italy’s presidency and the first person to be elected twice to the largely ceremonial office, died on Friday, the presidential palace said. It was 98.
A statement issued late Friday by the presidential palace confirmed Italian news of the death of Napolitano, who had been ill in a Rome hospital for weeks.
The current president, Sergio Mattarella, in a message hailed his predecessor as head of state, saying Napolitano’s life “reflected a large part of (Italy’s) history in the second half of the 20th century, with its dramas, its complexity , its goals. , his hopes”.
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As a prominent member of the largest Communist Party in the West, Napolitano had espoused positions that often deviated from party orthodoxy. He sought dialogue with Italian and European socialists to end his party’s isolation and was an early advocate of European integration.
The Turin newspaper La Stampa once wrote of Napolitano: “He was the least communist the party ever recruited.”
In a condolence telegram to Napolitano’s widow, Clio, Pope Francis said the late president “showed great intellectual gifts and a sincere passion for Italian political life as well as a keen interest in the destinies of nations.”
The pontiff, who is on a pilgrimage to France, noted that he had personal meetings with the Neapolitan, “in which I appreciated his humanity and his long-term vision to take on important choices with integrity, especially at delicate moments for the life of the country. “
During the first Gulf War, Napolitano broke with the leadership of the Italian Communist Party to oppose the withdrawal of Italy’s tiny corps.
This amounted to a radical development for a communist politician who at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 had hailed repression as necessary. Ultimately, his political reputation was shaped by his reformist views.
A former US ambassador to Italy, Richard Gardner, in comments to The Associated Press in 2006, when Napolitano was first elected head of state, called him “a true believer in democracy, a friend of the United States.” As ambassador, Gardner had helped arrange secret meetings with Napolitano at a time when any public meeting would have been considered embarrassing to Italian Communists as well as US politicians.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Napolitano was one of the most ardent supporters of his party’s reform course, which would eventually lead to the change of name and the dropping of the hammer and sickle symbol.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right party is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the late president, offered her condolences on behalf of her government.
Like many future politicians of his generation, Napolitano fought against the Italian Fascists and Nazi occupiers during World War II. When the war ended, he joined the Communist Party and in 1953 was elected a member of parliament, an office he would hold for 10 consecutive legislatures.
In 1989, he went to the United States with the party secretary for the first visit by an Italian communist leader.
While the presidential role is mostly ceremonial, the head of state can send Parliament packing earlier than his normal five-year term if he is hopelessly in-fighting, a not uncommon occurrence in Italy’s long history of short-lived governments.
The president also taps someone to try to form a new government and can reject some of the prime minister’s cabinet picks or refuse to sign legislation as a way to encourage Parliament to improve a law.
Supposedly above political fray, Italy’s president can also serve as a sort of moral compass for the country and guardian of the values enunciated in Italy’s post-war Constitution.
During his long career, Napolitano also served as president of the Lower House of Representatives of the Parliament and for five years as a legislator in the European Parliament.
In 2005, his predecessor at the Quirinal Palace, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, awarded him one of Italy’s highest honors, making him a senator for life.
A year later, Parliament would make him president of Italy, the first former communist—and so far the only one—to serve as head of state.
Fans praised Napolitano’s poise and gentlemanly manner. He was sometimes called “King Giorgio”. But critics pointed to what they saw as excessive caution.
However, when at the end of his first seven-year term as head of state, bickering lawmakers could not reach a consensus on his successor, he broke with tradition and agreed to run for a second term — on the condition that he not serve a full term because advanced age. It was 80 then.
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In April 2013, Napolitano pardoned a US Air Force colonel convicted in an Italian trial based on the unusual US rendition practice that resulted in a Muslim cleric being kidnapped from a street in Milan in 2003 and taken in Egypt where he was tortured, before finally being freed.
Napolitano said he granted the pardon in hopes of keeping U.S.-Italian relations strong, especially on security issues. The United States considered the trial and convictions unprecedented because an American serviceman had been convicted of acts committed on Italian soil.
Napolitano resigned in January 2015, paving the way for the election of Mattarella, a former Christian Democrat. Mattarella would go on to be elected twice to the presidency himself, again after the new political deadlock in Parliament prevented the election of a new candidate in 2022.
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Besides his wife, whom he married in 1959, Napolitano has two sons, Giovanni and Giulio.