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Obituary: Amintore Fanfani

SHORTLY AFTER being elected chairman of the UN General Assembly in 1965, Amintore Fanfani tripped and broke his foot. According to popular legend, he exploited the mishap for some of his characteristically wry self-analysis in a letter to party colleagues: "It's not the first time I've fallen, and it won't be the first time that I've pull myself back up again."

"Il rieccolo" - "Here he is again" - as Fanfani was dubbed by the veteran commentator Indro Montanelli on one of his many returns to the political limelight, is often remembered for the spectacular failures which sidelined him: not being elected Italian head of state on three occasions when his own party defeated him behind the cover of the secret ballot; and campaigning furiously, over-emotionally and resoundingly unsuccessfully against the introduction of divorce onto Italy's statute books. "Divorce will hurl the nation into ruin," he warned on that occasion. "How will you like it when your wife leaves to marry your best friend's wife, or runs away with the chambermaid?"

But this leading light of the now-defunct Christian Democratic Party - a six-times prime minister and 11-times minister - did as much to shape modern Italy as any of his once all-powerful party colleagues. And if his irascible temper and arrogant manner made him as unpopular amongst his allies as it did amongst his rivals, his profound honesty and dedication to his Catholic-inspired ideals have brought together the whole of Italy's deeply divided political world in praising a contribution which spanned the whole of the post-war period.

Amintore Fanfani was born near Arezzo in 1908, the son of a Tuscan lawyer and a Calabrese mother, the only person, he was to say in later life, who ever scared him physically. A Fascist-by-default in his youth, he studied economics at Milan's Cattolica university, where he first came in contact with leading figures in the Christian Democrat movement.

Fanfani was a professor at the Cattolica from 1936 to 1955 - interrupted only by two years' exile from 1943-44 in Switzerland where he organised university tuition for fleeing Italians - and at La Sapienza university in Rome from 1955 to 1983, earning himself one of his many nick-names, "il professorino".

Teaching, however, came in a distant second behind politics: he was elected to the constituent assembly of the Italian Republic in 1947, going on over the following five decades to occupy every key ministry, and chalking up records positive and negative, including two of the Republic's shortest- ever governments, a 12-day one in 1954 and a 10-day one in 1987. In between, he nationalised the electrical energy sector in the first step towards reining in the power of Italy's private entrepreneurs and bringing the economy under political control, he reformed the country's backwards agricultural sector, introduced low-price housing for the poor, and focused Italian foreign policy on the Mediterranean basin, initiating a pro-Arab foreign policy which lasts to this day.

His greatest political coup, however - and one which was to help ensure that the Christian Democrats remained in power until corruption scandal brought the party down in the early 1990s - was cosying up to the Left in the late 1950s. When forming his fourth government, which lasted from 1962-63, Fanfani successfully performed the Herculean task of convincing both the Vatican and Italy's watchful ally the United States, that Italy's Socialists were not the thin edge of a red wedge which would change the face of Europe: for the first time, a left- wing party joined a governing Italian coalition.

Despite his contribution to country and party, Fanfani was never a popular figure. "There are two things that you just can't do in Italian politics," goes a saying attributed to the former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, "live with Fanfani, and live without him."

In a party where few veteran leaders have escaped the ignominy of accusations and arrests from the judiciary, Fanfani escaped unscathed. "He never needed to turn down a back-hander," wrote a commentator in yesterday's Corriere della Sera, "for the simple reason that no one would ever have dared offer him one." Fanfani made a very public stir when, as interior minister, he was offered access to secret funds for his activities.

His frenetic activity was legendary, and perhaps partly responsible for the animosity towards him: in a country where every tiny decision required a committee or two, and months of circular deliberations, a man who was famous for getting down to work at dawn, never allowing dossiers to gather dust on his desk, was bound to attract rancour.

But his acumen extended beyond the strictly political, a fact which benefitted even those colleagues who most taunted him. He was the first powerful Italian to recognise the power of television: with the collaboration of his close friend Ettore Bernabei, director of the state broadcaster RAI for 13 crucial years, Fanfani ensured that mass communications remained firmly in the hands of the Christian Democrats.

Fanfani died at his home, a stone's throw away from the senate where he had held a life senator's seat since 1972.

Amintore Fanfani, politician: born Pieve Santo Stefano, Italy 6 February 1908; married (seven children); died Rome 20 November 1999.