Obituary: Nilde Iotti

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WHEN NILDE Iotti announced her resignation from the Italian parliament last month after 53 years in politics, her long-time party colleague, the Speaker of the Lower House Luciano Violante, felt moved to add only very few words of his own to her short farewell message calling for unity "in the face of the dangers threatening this country".

"Iotti is very rigorous, and would not appreciate too many words being spent on her behalf," he said. "Parliament will now have the opportunity to reflect . . . on the enormous dignity with which she handled all her political roles."

In a political world more used to undignified, acrimonious sparring, the woman known as "the tsarina", "the Red Queen" and "Queen Victoria" stood out for her restraint and rigour. "One word from her was enough to bring parliament to heel," said the Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, recalling Iotti's 13-year stint as Speaker of the Lower House. ("I'm just a woman trying to do a difficult job tactfully," was her characteristically self-effacing comment.)

Born to working-class parents in the Communist stronghold of Reggio Emilia in 1920, Iotti grew up in a strongly anti-Fascist environment. A graduate of the Catholic university in Milan, she joined the Resistance during the Second World War.

At the age of 26 she moved to Rome, was elected on a Communist Party ticket to the Constituent Assembly, and was responsible for drafting the family policy section of the country's new Republican constitution. From that point on, she never left parliament: she was the only MP elected in 13 consecutive legislatures, becoming the first woman, and the first Communist, to hold high institutional office when, in 1979, she was elected Lower House Speaker. She was to hold that post uninterruptedly until 1992.

The role of Speaker placed this leading representative of western Europe's biggest Communist party second-in-line to succeed the head of state in an emergency; when, in 1987, Iotti was given an exploratory mandate to assess whether a governing alliance could be formed to replace one which had tendered its resignation, western powers looked on in dismay. In the event, Iotti could only detect complete political stalemate, and elections were called.

The dignity with which Iotti carried on her private life was also to contribute, in the long run, to the respect in which she was widely held. Shortly after reaching Rome, she fell under the spell of the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, a married man and father, 27 years older than herself. It would be many years until - thanks in part to Iotti's tireless campaigning - divorce appeared on Italian statute books. Undeterred by convention, Iotti and Togliatti set up house together, adopting a daughter, Marisa, in 1950.

In more extreme Catholic circles, their "irregular" relationship was held up as an example of the threat posed by Communism to "proper" family life. Elsewhere, Iotti was merely an embarrassing shadow of the great man: in contemporary reports of an assassination attempt on Togliatti in 1948, the fact that she was beside him is hardly mentioned; in reports on Togliatti's funeral in 1964, the presence of his estranged wife, his son, and his adopted daughter is duly recorded, while Iotti is listed only amongst MPs attending.

Iotti refrained from rising to the insults and ignominy. But although their relationship was a strong one, Iotti was forced to admit after Togliatti's death that his presence had tied her hands. "His shadow weighed me down," she said.

Yet her relationship with Togliatti lent her an air of authority which went well with her natural dignity, allowing her, in the 1970s, to forge the kind of close relationship with the social opinion-makers of the Catholic Church which might have compromised less well-established Communist members.

Having been Togliatti's companion also made her a revered living link with the Communist Party's past. Her backing of the party's rebirth as the Democratic Left Party (PDS) in 1991, therefore, lent an air of historical approval to the post-Berlin-Wall shift away from the far left and towards the political centre.

In a poetical outburst which Iotti probably would have poured cold water on, the current leader of the ex-Communist party Walter Veltroni told journalists waiting outside the clinic where she died, "Unfortunately even the most beautiful stars fall from the sky." Her personal physician, Mario Spallone, who was also with Togliatti when he died, commented more simply: "I have met all too few people of the moral stature of Iotti and Togliatti."

Anne Hanley

Leonilde Iotti, politician: born Reggio Emilia, Italy 10 April 1920; married (one daughter); died Rome 4 December 1999.