Henry Kissinger, the US elder statesman, once told Giorgio Napolitano he was his “favourite communist”. With a broad smile, the tall, stooping Italian politician replied: “Your favourite former communist.”
Napolitano, who has died at the age of 98, was Italy’s longest-serving head of state in the nation’s post-second world war democratic era — and the first with a communist background.
Among a political class often held in disdain by the public for incompetence, corruption and selfishness, Napolitano stood out for his integrity, his strong sense of public service and his ability to bridge Italy’s sharp postwar ideological divide between Christian Democracy and communism, the right and the left.
During his nine years as president between 2006 and 2015, Napolitano played an indispensable role in stabilising Italian politics at a time when it seemed that the eurozone’s sovereign debt and banking sector crises might overwhelm the country and force its exit from Europe’s monetary union.
Some critics felt that Napolitano had overstepped the constitutional limits imposed on presidential power when he helped to orchestrate the departure from office in 2011 of Silvio Berlusconi, the then-prime minister. However, most Italians — as well as Italy’s European allies — were grateful to Napolitano for having averted disaster.
Napolitano’s contribution to public life extended well beyond his role in the eurozone emergency. From the 1960s to the 1980s, he was one of the leading figures behind the transformation of the Italian communist party (PCI), once the largest in western Europe, from a movement blinded by subservience to the Soviet Union into a party that embraced liberal democracy and accepted Italy’s membership of Nato and the EU, the west’s premier institutions.
For these activities, Napolitano won the respect not only of Kissinger but of numerous other American politicians and foreign policy specialists. When he visited the White House in 2013, the then president Barack Obama praised him as a “visionary leader” who “has helped to guide and steer Europe towards greater unification, but always with a strong transatlantic relationship in mind”.
It was telling that in 1978 Napolitano became the first Italian communist to be granted a visa to travel to the US. In his memoirs, “Mission Italy”, Richard Gardner, the US ambassador to Rome in the late 1970s, recalled that he had opened secret channels of communication with communist leaders at a time of acute political tensions in Italy. “For the first of these meetings I chose Giorgio Napolitano, who had a reputation for being highly intelligent, pragmatic and sincerely committed to moving the PCI towards western-style social democracy . . . Eventually we became good friends,” Gardner wrote.
Born in Naples on June 29 1925 into a liberal-minded lawyer’s family, Napolitano despised Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and joined the resistance as a university student. He became a PCI member in 1945 and was elected to parliament in 1953.
Like all his comrades, Napolitano defended the Kremlin’s violent suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Over the next 10 years he came to see it as a serious misjudgment. At the PCI’s 11th congress in 1966, when the party’s hardline left clashed with the reformist right, Napolitano and his colleague Giorgio Amendola were the leading voices calling for more democratisation and independence from Moscow.
Napolitano spent more than 30 years as a member of parliament’s lower chamber before being chosen as speaker of the house in 1992 and serving in Romano Prodi’s 1996-1998 government as interior minister — the first former communist to hold this sensitive post. With his fluent command of English and immense knowledge of the Italian constitution and modern history, Napolitano generously helped many Rome-based foreign correspondents to navigate their way through the complexities of Italian politics.
When he took over as president in 2006, he was, at 80, the oldest of the 11 men to have served as head of state since Italy became a republic in 1946. Although the presidency is much less powerful under the constitution than in the US or France, its incumbent is influential because he (there has never been a woman president) embodies national unity, appoints the prime minister, dissolves parliament, calls elections and can temporarily block legislation.
It was these powers which Napolitano used to immense effect when the eurozone crisis threatened to engulf Italy in 2011.
Germany, France, the European Central Bank and many Italian policymakers shared Napolitano’s concern that Berlusconi’s government was proving incapable of adopting the fiscal and economic reforms required to save Italy from catastrophe.
Berlusconi resigned after losing his majority in parliament, but Napolitano played a crucial part in the drama by ensuring that the new prime minister was Mario Monti, a respected former EU commissioner.
It was a measure of the high regard for Napolitano that, despite his wish to serve a single seven-year presidential term, he was prevailed upon to accept re-election in 2013.
Throughout the turbulent political events that shaped his career, Napolitano cultivated a calm, thoughtful image — he used to joke that he was “ataraxic”, or not prone to emotional disturbance. His marriage to Clio Maria Bittoni, a lawyer who survives him, produced two sons, Giovanni and Giulio.
In an official statement, Sergio Mattarella, his successor as president, paid tribute to Napolitano as a man who fought for the “peace and progress of Italy and Europe”.