Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s longest-serving president who clashed with Berlusconi as the embodiment of ‘civic virtue’ – obituary

Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy (2006-2015), with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in 2011
Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy (2006-2015), with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in 2011 - Giorgio Cosulich de Pecine

Giorgio Napolitano, who has died aged 98, was president of Italy from 2006 until 2015; the longest-serving holder of the office, and the first to be re-elected, he was a former Communist Party politician turned defender of the institutions of state, albeit his active interpretation of the remit of his role drew criticism as well as praise.

To avoid a repeat of Fascism, Italy’s postwar constitution ensured it was difficult for any one party to dominate parliament. It aimed instead for consensus through coalition. This led, however, to an endless series of unstable governments brought down by petty factional disagreements and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.

The spiral gathered pace in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War, which deprived the traditional parties, including the PCI (Italian Communists), of their raison d’être, and the Tangentopoli (meaning “Bribesville”) scandal publicly exposed their corruption. In an uncertain world, with Italy’s economy vulnerable to shocks, the largely ceremonial post of head of state came to assume more day-to-day political importance.

This process quickened still further after Napolitano’s election in 2006. Mild mannered but straight talking, he had been in politics by then for half a century, and was respected even by opponents as a man of principle and a patriot.

La Stampa newspaper once described him as “the least Communist member the Party ever enlisted”, and he had long been identified with moderate reformers within the Party who asserted their independence from Moscow and sought integration with Europe. Following the fall of the Soviet empire, he had journeyed still closer to the political centre, serving in government as interior minister and as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s House of Commons.

Giorgio Napolitano in 2016
'The least Communist member the Party ever enlisted': Giorgio Napolitano, pictured in 2016 - Shutterstock

Promoted as the candidate of the Left to be Carlo Azeglio Ciampi’s successor as president, Napolitano also secured the backing of the Vatican, as well as that of the centre-Left government of Romano Prodi. He was opposed, however, by Silvio Berlusconi, who favoured the Lombard separatist Umberto Bossi.

Napolitano’s time in office began with promising auguries when, soon afterwards, Italy won the World Cup in Germany. Yet in 2008, Berlusconi swept back into power at the general election. Suspected by many of using the post of prime minister to further his own ambitions rather than the prospects of the nation, Berlusconi was thereafter at loggerheads with a president perceived as the embodiment of civic virtue.

One flashpoint was Napolitano’s refusal to rubberstamp a populist government decree which would have overturned a court ruling enabling feeding tubes to be withdrawn from a woman in a permanent coma. Another came when the president refused Berlusconi’s request to limit the powers of magistrates to intercept telephone calls, which threatened to expose the prime minister’s evasion of legal and social norms.

When Berlusconi resigned in 2011, amidst fears that Italy would be subjected to a Greece-style bailout, Napolitano exercised his right as to whom to offer the premiership by parachuting in Mario Monti, a technocrat and former EU commissioner. In a Machiavellian move, intended to forestall objections that Monti was not a politician, Napolitano had made Monti a senator for life the week before he showed his hand.

Napolitano in 2012 at the celebration of 150 years of the Carabinieri
Napolitano in 2012 at the celebration of 150 years of the Carabinieri - Alamy

Such kingmaking led Napolitano himself to be dubbed “Re Giorgio” – King Giorgio – by the press. It also drew criticism that he had overstepped the bounds of his office, as the president is only meant to referee the political arena. Yet Napolitano undoubtedly believed Italy was in crisis and that he needed to act to prevent paralysis. His position was strengthened by approval ratings of 80 per cent.

Thus, when five ballots could not yield an agreed successor following the end of his seven-year term in 2013, Napolitano – then 87 – reluctantly agreed to resume his post. A general election had also ended in deadlock and so he once again used his prerogative, inviting the centrist politician Enrico Letta to form a coalition of Left and Right.

The following year, however, Letta was knifed by the Blair-esque young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who won their party’s leadership, promised more rapid economic reforms and succeeded Letta as prime minister.

Napolitano stepped down in 2015, at the end of Italy’s presidency of the European Union. He said he was looking forward to going home, commenting of the presidential residence, the Quirinal Palace: “It’s very beautiful here, but it’s a bit of a prison.”

He was an ardent admirer of Queen Elizabeth II, pictured with him in Rome in 2014
He was an ardent admirer of Queen Elizabeth II, pictured with him in Rome in 2014 - Getty Images

Giorgio Napolitano was born in Naples on June 29 1925. His father was a lawyer and a poet, while his mother was descended from nobility. He grew up in the city’s Spanish Quarter and read law at its Federico II university.

He harboured theatrical ambitions for a time, but this was the era of Fascism and at the end of the war he became involved in Resistance activities. Like many of his contemporaries, he admired Russia and thought Communism would solve Italy’s numerous problems, not least the poverty of the South.

After joining the Party, he worked to alleviate this and was continuously elected to parliament for Naples from 1953. He also twice served as an MEP and in 2005 was made a senator for life.

Napolitano was an Anglophile and an ardent admirer of Queen Elizabeth II. In 2012, at an official reception, he expressed gratitude to the Royal Family for its support of the Resistance during the war, and in 2014 he hosted the Queen and Prince Philip when they visited Rome.

He married, in 1959, a lawyer, Clio Bittoni. She survives him with their two sons.

Giorgio Napolitano, born June 29 1925, died September 22 2023

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