In accepting the task, he confirmed that next year's budget would not be withdrawn. It was in protest at that budget that the hard-left Rifondazione Comunista withdrew its support for the centre-left government led by Romano Prodi.
Meanwhile, the opposition has promised, or rather threatened, "spectacular initiatives" for tomorrow to protest against an appointment that it considers undemocratic. If Mr D'Alema succeeds, he will become Italy's first left-wing Prime Minister. It will be a left-wing government with a difference. At one end of the spectrum it will incorporate the small centrist party, the Unione Democratica per la Repubblica (UDR), most of whose members were actually elected on the opposition centre-right ticket. At the other would be one or both of the two small hardline Communist groups.
Mr D'Alema, 49, is known by his allies and enemies for two fundamental traits. From the party that was condemned to remain in opposition because of the Cold War, he learnt patience. From his studies of politics and military strategy, he learnt never to take too firm a stance in moments of crisis and to wait for his enemies to make mistakes.
He has politics in his blood. His father, Giuseppe D'Alema, fought in the resistance and later went on to become an MP for the Italian Communist Party. As a child, Massimo joined the pionieri (pioneers), the Communist equivalent of the Boy Scouts. In 1968, the year Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and Europe's youth took to the streets, he joined the FGCI, the Communist Youth Federation.
Mr D'Alema abandoned his studies of philosophy at Pisa University to become national secretary of the FGCI after his leadership potential was noticed by the party leader, Enrico Berlinguer.
After heading a regional federation in Puglia, Mr D'Alema took over as editor of L'Unita, the party newspaper. Journalists remember him as a hands-off editor whose main concern was the political pages. He spent hours playing video games on the newspaper computers but had less interest in the problems of news stories, one journalist recalled.
The passion for video games, especially those of a tactical nature, remains. He recently told a technology magazine that he had "many times indulged in the thrill of winning the battle of Waterloo".
When, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Italian Communist Party embarked on a painful transition, he had no qualms about where he stood, supporting the birth of a new Social Democratic party.
Politics, according to Mr D'Alema, "should make the institutions work but not take the place of the economy or society, not be intrusive". He was elected secretary of the Partito Democratico della Sinistra by a handful of votes in a showdown with the cultural affairs minister, Walter Veltroni.
After the fall of the Berlusconi-led government in 1994, as the prospects of the left improved, the spin-doctors decided he needed a make-over. His dress sense was a liability in image-conscious Italy. Brown, khaki and tweeds were traded in for sharper grey and blue suits and old school ties. The new look was at the same time softer and more official.
The one thing he has not renounced is his Stalinist moustache which earned him the nickname Baffino (little moustachioed one) as opposed to il Baffone, who was Stalin. But the change was not limited to appearances. He was encouraged to be less clever, less abrasive and to smile more.
While still an intensely private man, Mr D'Alema has been convinced to allow glimpses of his personal life to filter through. Married to a research librarian with two school-age children, he lives in a discreet apartment in the middle class area of Prati. His family were forced to shift after the "golden rents scandal'' when it was revealed that many politicians and celebrities paid pittance rents for properties belonging to public utilities.
He earned a reputation as a gourmet after an amateur video of him preparing dinner, risotto ai funghi porcini, was shown on a television talk show.
Unlike other left-wing leaders, Mr D'Alema has not sought the counsel of intellectuals but he has sought that of economists. Before the 1996 elections, he made a pilgrimage to the City of London to reassure investors that Marxist doctrines were a thing of the past, but communist rigour would be applied to getting the country's accounts in order.
He takes English lessons in his lunch-break a couple of times a week.
Despite the strategy and the waiting, in his first institutional role he had to admit defeat. As president of the Bicamerale, a committee of 70 MPs from all political persuasions, he was hoping to ensure the passing of fundamental constitutional reforms.
Success would have marked him as the architect of a new Italy but after more than a year of negotiation the Bicamerale failed, after the opposition bloc, led by Silvio Berlusconi, made their support conditional on justice reforms that would have drastically limited the powers of magistrates.Reuse content