Divine Julius – An Italian Politician

Giulio Andreotti

This past week for me has been a strange experience of ushering in the new, and ushering  out the old in Italian politics.  Last week I did a post on Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black Minister, who represents a clear break from the old ways of getting things done in Italian politics (See Post “Call me Black“).  This week I am writing a post on the mysterious figure who represents Italy’s political post-war history, Giulio Andreotti.  They call him “Il Divo Giulio” an Italian play on the latin “Divus Iulius” (Divine Julius)– referring to Julius Caesar.

Andreotti died this week at age 94.  He was no doubt the most powerful, controversial and enigmatic figure in the last 60 years of Italian politics.  His style of politics was considered Machiavellian and realistic.  He served as Prime Minister seven times and on 33 other occasions held ministerial posts, among them frequent turns at the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry.  He entered into parliament at age 24, and when he died this week, he was still officially a member of the Italian parliament holding the title “Senator-for-life”

In addition to the title “Il Divo Giulio” his critics also call him Beezlebub, the Prince of Darkness.  Although he was never convicted of any crimes, many questions remain about Andreotti’s relationship with the Italian Mafia.  According to several Mafia turncoats,  Andreotti was known by the Mafia as “Zio Giulio” (Uncle Giulio), the Mafia’s protector in Rome, and in exchange for protection, the Mafia delivered Sicily to Andreotti’s Christian Democratic party.

Andreotti is still so controversial that when the Senate tried to hold a minute of silence following his death last Monday, a small group of new members of Parliament from the Five Star Movement began yelling “booo”, and “shame”. A prominent anti-Mafia writer Roberto Saviano (Quoting Indro Montanelli, one of Italy’s most prominent journalists who died in 2001) tweeted “Andreotti: the biggest criminal because he got out of it, or the most persecuted?”, and anti-Mafia prosecutor Gian Carlo Caselli was quoted in various Italian dailies saying that the only reason that Andreotti was not convicted for Mafia association before 1980 was because the trial went beyond the statute of limitations.  Italy’s current President Giorgio Napolitano simply said “History will judge him.”

Giulio Andreotti speaking to journalists at his senate office

Andreotti was known for his phenomenal memory, his political acumen, and his ever-ready one-liners.  Italian papers were filled this week with historic Andreotti zingers. He seemed to have one for every occasion.  His most famous was, “Power wears down only those who don’t have it.”  Clearly, his tight grip on power never wore him down.

Over the years he had many legal difficulties for Mafia related crimes and corruption, but he never questioned the judicial system.  Unlike former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who has fought with everything in his power against judges, to change trial locations, to switching hearing dates and manipulate the system, with typical Andreottian calm, following his 2002 conviction (later-overturned) in a mafia-linked murder, Andreotti issued a simple statement, “I still believe in the justice system.”

Andreotti worked with a group of Christian Democrats -led by Italy’s first post-war Prime Minister Alicide di Gasperi – to pull Italy out of its post-war depression to become one of the world’s biggest economies.  In the early years of his political life Andreotti helped draft the post-World War II constitution, and in the later years he pushed for Italy’s strong participation in the European Union. Unfortunately, the economic system created during the years of dominance by the Christian Democratic party was characterized by a massive state presence, and widespread patronage and corruption.

Andreotti was a devout Catholic, attending mass every day.  He maintained close ties with the Vatican, and was friends with Pope’s and Cardinals — for decades he was the Vatican’s point man in Italian politics.  An Italian paper this week showed photos of Andreotti with 7 Popes going all the way back to Pius XII (the WWII Pope) and up to Cardinal Bergoglio in 2009, now Pope Francis.

In addition to “Il Divo” and Beezlebub, Andreotti has yet another nickname “il gobbo” — the hunchback. Although once a fairly tall man, over the years he became very hunched.  He had a distinctive appearance with a shock of hair brushed back from his large head, large ears, and thick glasses hiding watery blue eyes. His unusual looks made him a prime target for cartoonists, which he always took in stride.

A cartoon of Giulio Andreotti in which he says: “They are not skeletons, they are relics”

He was not a vain man, and had two famous one liners on that: “being mediocre men, the middle path, for us, is the best one” and “Humility is a stupendous virtue, but not when it is used when declaring one’s income”

Giulio Andreotti holding up a cartoon saying “Boys, keep your backs straight”

Throughout the Cold War, Andreotti maintained close ties to the US which used the Christian Democratic party to try to push back any communist party influence in Italian politics.   Photos in Italian papers this week showed him with Nixon, Kissinger and Reagan as well as other world leaders – Thatcher, and Gorbachov.

When I married my Italian husband and moved to Rome, my mother-in-law wanted my husband to present his new wife to her friend, Giulio Andreotti.  I resisted.  We were married in 1993 a year after Andreotti finished his last term as Prime Minister.  He was preparing a defense against various legal attacks.  I knew I would have to cover his upcoming trial on charges of Mafia association in Palermo and I didn’t want to mix my marriage up with my job, so I dragged my heels.  In the end I went, and we had a fascinating conversation about US policy in the Middle-East.  The Middle-east was one of his passions and his knowledge of US policy was formidable.  I was impressed.

Shortly thereafter I would return with a camera crew to interview him about his upcoming trial in Palermo on charges of Mafia Association.   I asked him about one turncoat’s accusation that he had met with Toto Riina, the Mafia’s “Capo di tutti Capi” — Boss of all Bosses, and exchanged a kiss on each cheek.  I can’t remember if it was in the interview with me or in a public statement, but Andreotti frequently said “Everyone knows who I am.  If I had really gone to Sicily and met Toto’ Riina in broad daylight, you should send me to a lunatic asylum, not to jail.”

As with many journalists who interviewed Andreotti, I discovered he had a capacity to talk anyone under the table.  He calmly, effortlessly spilled forth facts, figures, information that were sometimes related and sometimes irrelevant.  One went away with plenty of video-tape but few clear answers.

I remember clearly the chaos the day the trial opened at the bunker-courthouse in Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison, built for the Maxi-Trial of nearly 500 mafiosi in 1986.  It was a media circus outside the with crowds of curious on-lookers, journalists from all over the world pushing and shoving about and satellite trucks lining the streets around the prison.  Little old ladies dressed in black peered out from windows of nearby buildings at the confusion below. Just before the trial was to start at 9am, Andreotti was whisked through the gates in an unmarked car.

TV cameras were not allowed inside, so I left my cameraman (AP Television’s Gianfranco Stara) outside and slipped inside to sit high above and stare down at Giulio Andreotti’s “gobbo”.   In retrospect, his manner was in such sharp contrast with Silvio Berlusconi.  In the courtroom, Berlusconi is active always giving interviews on the side to reporters and busily talking with his lawyers and showing his disdain from the judges and prosecutors.  The unflappable Andreotti sat calmly and listened.

He was accompanied by a young woman laywer, Giulia Bongiorno, who made her reputation for her brilliant defense of Andreotti.  (She also defended Raffaele Sollecito, the boyfriend of Amanda Knox in that murder trial).  She later described how Andreotti remained unperturbed by the media attention.  She described watching him take full advantage of being in Palermo to eat Parmigiana Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) and Sicilian Cannoli.

The trial went on for six and a half years and eventually Andreotti was acquitted.

One of the prosecutors on the team, Gian Carlo Caselli told Italy’s Daily Corriere Della Sera” this week: “His acquittal was only for actions that occurred after 1980.  For those that were committed up until that date, Andreotti was recognized as guilty of association for the delinquency with the Mafia, it is just that it fell under the statute of limitations.”

Andreotti’s lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno told reporters this week, “He was fully acquitted, and I say that because I know the documents.  All the accusations were overturned, even in the famous “statue of limitations” there was never a guilty judgment.”

Giulio Andreotti is such an enigmatic figure that he was a magnet for books and movies.  In “The Godfather III”, which came out in 1990, Franics Ford Coppola created the character Don Lucchesi who was was clearly based on Andreotti, then nearly 20 years later, in 2008, Italian movie director Paolo Sorrentino made the film “Il divo” about Andreotti which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The day after he died, Massimo Franco, a prominent Italian journalist who wrote the comprehensive biography “Andreotti: The Life of a Political Man, the History of an Era”, went to pay his respects — as Italians do — to the deceased before the funeral. He described “Divo Giulio” appearing as calm as always, laid out in his blue double-breasted suit in his bed in his elegant Roman apartment, as the friends and powerful acquaintances moved in and out of the room.  In his hands was a black rosary, a white porcelain cross fixed to the wall above the bed.

There are many secrets that Giulio Andreotti has taken with him to the grave.  He was an extraordinary man who did much to shape Italy in a complicated era. The debate in Italy continues over whether he was good or evil or somewhere in between, but no one questions that he was the most powerful politician of the post-war period and his death marks the end of that era.

17 thoughts on “Divine Julius – An Italian Politician”

  1. Six and a half years! Are you kidding me? Oh my.

    I know next to nothing about this gentleman. but I guess to generations of Italians he really is a fixture, having been a force in Italian politics for so long. What a fascinating profile. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Adri — he was a fascinating man. I wanted to include some video clips from “The Godfather III” and “Il Divo Giulio” but believe it or not I still don’t know how to insert videos into a post. But do a Youtube search for Don Lucchesi, Godfather III and for Il Divo Giulio — you will be fascinated by them both.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Dad, and thanks for your help and advice. One blog post is not enough to do justice (no pun intended) to Giulio Andreotti — but there are loads of articles, book and movies out there for anyone who is interested.

  2. . . such a good informative read – knew some stuff about him and his links from past reading but he (like much else) had slipped into the shadows. His involvement in and admissions about Operation Gladio and the suppression/murder of leftist individuals and groups was surpassed by the revelations that the innocent were targeted as a matter of policy to induce the public to turn to the state for protection in return for the loss of fundamental rights and liberties, shows him for what he truly was – a fascist corporatist criminal. The ‘Gladio’ policy is now on clear, public display in the US.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Alan –Thanks for your interesting comment and pointing out something important. Andreotti was deeply involved in many things in Italy’s post-war history that I don’t fully understand and it would have been to difficult for me to get into in a blog post. As you mentioned there was Operation Gladio, then there was the P2, and the Banco Ambrosiano — it is a real pandora’s box. I also didn’t even touch an important topic which was the kidnapping and murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro and Andreotti’s role during that period. Lots of Italian friends have told me about their personal experiences around the Aldo Moro kidnapping and murder and it is still so sharp in their minds. It shocked and frightened the nation.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post about this controversial figure – and the fact that your mother-in-law was friends with him. I remember when I was interviewing for a job in the Rome office, when I replied that I knew one of the senators. The first thing they wanted to know was if it was Andreotti.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Yes, my mother in law was very good friends with Giulio Andreotti and I have lots of stories that I didn’t put down in that post. But I will say that the day after he died my mother-in-law called at 7am to see if my husband would go with her to pay his respects to the deceased. In other words visit the laid-out body in his home. I said that Gustave had just run out for an early appointment but maybe he could go with her to the funeral in the afternoon. She scoffed and said, “what’s the point of going to something like that. Half of Rome is thinking right now of what they are going to wear.”

  4. Trisha this was – as usual – wonderful to read. I love how modern Italian politics references Ancient Roman politics and Imperial Cult (Senate for life, divine Julius). The ties that bind the ancient and modern are shorter than we imagine.
    I guess the city is beginning to brim with molti touristi. I wonder if they heard anything about this very, very interesting man in their wanderings around bella Roma?
    Thank you again, Trisha.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Kathy — yes, it is all so fascinating how it is tied together, ancient Rome, modern Rome, the Vatican — and yes Rome is now packed with tourists and I doubt many of them knew/know who Giulio Andreotti is/was. I didn’t before I met my husband. The mix of old and new pops up sometimes and weird moments — like when Pope Benedict XVI announced he was going to resign in Latin, and only one journalist (an Italian) got it. I never studied Latin. Even after working here for 20 years I think I still miss a lot because I am not sufficiently steeped in the history, art and culture.

      1. Interesting about the Latin language. I see it and often listen to it with my students. When they announced Pope Francis’ appointment, I was watching it live. It was in Latin and I heard them say his name – I said to my son ‘oh wow the Pope’s name is Francesco!’ but the Australian journalists on the live news feed didn’t notice or understand. I love the sound of Latin – it’s so ancient and beautiful – almost musical to listen to (as opposed to my appalling attempts to speak Italian which amuse the Italian teacher at my school no end….but I have taken your advice on board, Trisha. As long as you are understood – then you are speaking the language!)

        1. Trisha Thomas

          Well, good for you on the Latin. I never studied a word of it and am absolutely hopeless. Living in Italy and covering the Vatican I probably should, but I think this old dog can’t learn any new tricks. Also, I am one who likes to communicate and use languages to talk to people. I think there are a couple of priests in the Vatican who might be able to talk to me in Latin if I wanted to try, but that is about it. Better to learn Chinese or Arabic at this point.

  5. Trisha I love reading your posts you bring politics to life and until now I have never had any interest in the subject. A fascinating man who clearly will remain an enigma. Thank you for putting it so clearly and vividly, I get a real sense of the man and his part in history. Oh and if you want to know how to insert video I’m sure I could help you out. xx
    ciao lisa

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Lisa! I am glad I am not boring you with my political stories. This blog set out to be a series of posts on the joys and difficulties of trying to be a good Mamma in Italy and I have ended up writing about the Vatican and Italian and politics and so many others things — but I can’t resist the temptation.
      As far as attaching a video is concerned, I am meeting with a web designer friend (who designed this blog for me) and I will ask her. Thanks for your offer though.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *