Carlo Caracciolo: Newspaper publisher who founded 'La Repubblica' founder and champion

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The Independent Online

Tall and distinguished-looking, a prince of the long-defunct royal house of Naples, the son of a diplomat father and Californian mother, Carlo Caracciolo was born with most advantages in life except money. But with flair and determination that belied his languid persona, he not only restored his family's fortunes but in the process became one of the most important media publishers in Italy, responsible for the creation of its liveliest daily paper and weekly news magazine.

"The promoters of this newspaper," ran the front page editorial in the first issue of his weekly, L'Espresso, in October 1955, "maintain that the absolute independence of the press is the most solid foundation of democracy. This independence, in the present conditions of the Italian press, is very often illusory. Obsequiousness, and the mere suspicion of obsequiousness, towards owners results in the press having less authority and weaker educative influence".

It was paradoxical that a man with royal charisma should set his face against "obsequiousness", and that a prince should found a paper called La Repubblica. But this was not hypocrisy; these were the paradoxes at the heart of a life of extraordinary achievements, which left Italy's media in a far healthier condition than had he not lived. He was said to be the only man in Italy regarded as an equal by his brother-in-law Gianni Agnelli, and his princely geniality masked a "very quick, very decisive" brain, according to an old friend, who said the best word to describe him was "disinvoltura", which might be translated "disciplined nonchalance."

Though half-American and educated at Harvard as well as Sapienza University in Rome, his English was heavily accented, but for the Italians he was the epitome of (semi-mythical) British style, with his beautifully cut tweed suits and gift for self-deprecation. "Who calls you 'Prince'?" Claudio Sabelli Fioretti of La Stampa asked him. "Nobody," he replied, "only car park attendants." His titles were Prince of Castagneto and Duke of Melito but he laid no claim to either place. "One day I happened to go to Melito by taxi. I was groggy with sleep and when I saw the road sign I said to the driver, 'I am the Duke of Melito.' He looked at me and said, 'Yes, yes, sure, you are the Duke of Melito, take it easy.'"

Born and raised near Florence, at age 18 Caracciolo dropped out of school to fight for the Partisans in the anti-Fascist resistance during the Second World War. After gunfights in the mountains he was arrested and condemned to death and at the same time ordered to clean the latrines. "If I'm going to die tomorrow," he declared, "I refuse to clean the latrines tonight." He was excused the duty and showed the first sign of his deal-making talents when he succeeded in negotiating his survival with the promise, later redeemed, that he would return the favour for his jailor at the war's end.

His time at Harvard gave him the idea of trying his hand at publishing, and after starting out with trade publications he launched L'Espresso with the sponsorship of Adriano Olivetti, the visionary manufacturer of typewriters. But the magazine lost money and its attacks on the powerful threatened Olivetti's typewriter sales so he sold it to Caracciolo for the token sum of half a million lira, about £250.

One of Caracciolo's gifts was for finding brilliant collaborators and chief of them was Eugenio Scalfari, who became editor of L'Espresso in 1963 and made it a sensational success in 1974 when he relaunched it in the format of Time magazine. Two years later the two men took their boldest gamble, launching La Repubblica into the stagnant pool of Italian dailies. With its tabloid format, stylish graphics and fusion of daily and weekly qualities it was decades ahead of its time.

Today La Repubblica is Italy's second most popular daily with sales of around 600,000, but its birth and early years were fraught with uncertainty. Caracciolo was still far from wealthy but he had one unique advantage: his sister Marella was married to Gianni Agnelli, "the uncrowned king of Italy", head of Fiat, Italy's most important company. "Everyone deluded themselves into thinking that with Agnelli behind us we would make it," says Mario Pirani, one of the founding journalists at La Repubblica. "But in fact Agnelli said he wouldn't give us a penny. And he wanted that fact to be known, because he was worried that if it was thought that he was involved in an opposition newspaper it would be a problem for him."

But the family link proved a sort of intangible collateral and helped persuade a core of ambitious journalists from a daily called Il Giorno to sign up. "Caracciolo was quite different from any other publisher," says Pirani. "He wasn't an industrialist, he actually wanted to publish a newspaper for journalists." And La Repubblica would be genuinely independent, tied neither to political parties nor to industrial tycoons. "So we all said, let's take a chance on this adventure." Their gamble was rewarded when, almost miraculously, the book publisher Mondadori agreed to finance the launch.

A tough line on the terrorism of Italy's "years of lead" gave La Repubblica a reputation for principle, though Caracciolo later said that he found the paper's rejection of negotiations for the release of the kidnapped former prime minister Aldo Moro "physically repugnant – a person's life was at stake." But he stuck to his principle of non-interference in editorial matters. And when his titles started giving away games and selling cut-price literary classics with the papers, circulations soared.

In the late 1980s Caracciolo fought a fierce battle with Silvio Berlusconi over the ownership of the titles. At the end of the bout Berlusconi walked away with half of Mondadori's publishing empire, but his bid to take over L'Espresso and La Repubblica was foiled. Now owned by Berlusconi's rival Carlo De Benedetti, the papers remain a thorn in Berlusconi's flesh.

Caracciolo was viscerally committed to the idea of the free press as a bulwark of democracy, and he began building bridges to like-minded newspapers elsewhere in Europe, including The Independent. Investment in The Independent by La Repubblica and the Madrid paper El Pais helped this newspaper survive a dramatic financial crisis in the early 1990s, and ties between the titles remain friendly.

Caracciolo became rich after selling his stake in his publishing group to De Benedetti, and sank much of the money in two estates, one in Tuscany and the other south of Rome, on which he lavished his love of gardening. He was married to Violante Visconti di Modrone, but was discreet to the point of silence about his personal relationships; this week Eugenio Scalfari said of him, "Carlo had many loves and several children here and there in the world."

His commitment to the centre left and the free press was firm and lifelong, as he proved by buying a 30 per cent stake in the French daily Libération last year, when he was already seriously ill. But his charm and curiosity brought him friendships from across the political spectrum. At the height of his war with Berlusconi he called him "mascalzone" (scoundrel) to his face and warned that he would end up before a judge, but he was not known for holding grudges. "I don't forgive, but I forget," he said. "It's difficult to fight me. I run away..."

Peter Popham

In Britain, "press barons" are usually people of modest backgrounds who have nobil ity thrust upon them after clawing their way to the pinnacles of media power, writes Alexander Chancellor. In the case of Carlo Caracciolo it was the other way round. He was an aristocrat who chose the rough-and-tumble of the media world.

Carlo had all the quiet dignity and exquisite courtesy that one associates with the Prince of Salina in Lampedusa's The Leopard, but unlike him embraced the world of commerce with enthusiasm. He was the kind of figure almost unheard-of in this country, the elegant, gracious and revered entrepreneur. He was a man of extraordinary charm and good looks, of broad culture and interests, but as dynamic a risk-taker as any more humbly-born businessman.

I got to know him when his Espresso Group bought an interest in the then ailing Independent, which he saw as an innovative, Europhile newspaper and a natural partner to La Repubblica. The partnership did not last, but I was to see a lot of him in subsequent years, staying with him in his elegant flat in Trastevere and on his two beautiful country estates.

He would be the most relaxed of hosts, driving one around the countryside to look at his pedigree cattle, organising party games and other entertainments; but one would also sometimes catch him early on a Sunday morning doing high-powered business deals on the telephone.

He was a left-leaning liberal of fine democratic and anti-Fascist credentials with a strong aversion to Silvio Berlusconi, but he also enjoyed the company of the toughest in the media world. Many were surprised by his friendship with the former Mirror Group chief executive David Montgomery, a dour Northern Ireland Protestant who seemed his opposite in so many ways. "I like Montgomery" was all he would say in explanation.

Carlo went on visiting his office at the headquarters of his media empire right until the end. Asked why he bothered, he would reply: "Work is my recreation". And it seems that it really was.

Carlo Caracciolo, newspaper publisher: born Florence, Italy 23 October 1925; married Violante Visconti di Modrone (died 2000); died Rome 15 December 2008.