Oscar Luigi Scalfaro: Former president of Italy, renowned for his honesty

 

Oscar Luigi Scalfaro was a Catholic politician whose anachronistic virtues, in particular his complete honesty and his commitment to the constitution, came to Italy's rescue during the gravest political crisis of the post-war era, the corruption scandal which erupted in 1993.

Born the son of a post office official in Novara, Piedmont, in the north-west but with family roots in the southern province of Calabria, Scalfaro's devoutness made itself apparent when he was still young: he joined the lay Catholic organisation Azione Cattolica at the age of 12. The event that changed the course of his life was a personal tragedy: his wife, Maria Inzitari, died in 1944 at the age of 20, a few weeks after giving birth to their daughter. Scalfaro vowed never to re-marry, dedicating himself to bringing up their daughter. Later she, too, pledged to stay single so she could remain by his side for life, and was at his bedside when he died.

Scalfaro's religious views were reflected in the stoutly traditionalist positions he took throughout his political career; and in the increasingly permissive context of Italy during the post-war boom he was often lampooned as a prig. Yet he was keenly aware that the separation of church and state was at the heart of Italy's post-war constitution, which he had played a part in writing, and when he rose to senior positions he was careful to prevent his religious convictions undermining his commitment to the secular state.

Scalfaro graduated in law from Milan's prestigious Cattolica university and practised as a magistrate before being selected as a prospective MP by the Christian Democratic Party that dominated Italian politics for 40 years. During his first decades in politics there were few signs that this short, wiry, old-fashioned figure would ever attain great heights: even though his notionally Catholic party was in power, he seemed too much out of sympathy with the way his country was evolving. The incident which engraved his personality on the Italian psyche occurred in 1950, in a restaurant in Rome, when a woman dining with friends nearby took off her jacket, revealing bare shoulders and Scalfaro leapt to his feet and denounced her; he later denied reports that he had also given her a slap. It was enough to establish his identity as a politician hopelessly out of step with the times, the representative of a world and an ethos that much of Italy had turned its back on.

He consolidated that reputation four years later when his right-wing patron Mario Scelba became prime minister and made him junior minister for the arts. Scalfaro took full advantage of the opportunities the job offered, taking the censor's scissors to films he judged lubricious and banning plays and TV serials he decided were immoral. He became a hate figure for the liberal left, but showed no signs of being intimidated. His thick skin was to prove invaluable later in his career.

In the early 1990s, with the break-up of the eastern bloc and the end of the Christian Democrats' role as de facto guardians of Nato's eastern flank, Italy was plunged into crisis. In 1992 Scalfaro was speaker of the house of deputies as parliament struggled and repeatedly failed to agree on a candidate for president. Then came the news that the Sicilian Mafia had murdered the crusading magistrate Giovanni Falcone, along with his wife and bodyguards, after the political establishment turned its back on him, and in a reflex of remorse and guilt, MPs united around the most upright of their number, Scalfaro, thrusting him into the presidency.

He was thus the incumbent president less than a year later when the so-called Tangentopoli ("Bribesville") scandal exploded, which led to the speedy collapse of both the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties. Throughout the crisis, during which 40 per cent of parliamentarians found themselves under investigation and the trust of Italians in their rulers plummeted to new lows, the rigid and old-fashioned yet avuncular figure of Scalfaro was one of the main factors holding Italy together. It was also noted that, although as president he saw plenty of Pope John Paul II, he never once kissed his ring: his loyalty to Italy's secular constitution was as solid as his probity.

With Silvio Berlusconi's meteoric rise to power in the wake of the Tangentopoli scandal, Scalfaro found himself pitted against a man who represented very different values: in the words of Vittorio Ragone, writing in La Repubblica, it was "sobriety versus sequins, substance versus appearance, rules against the arbitrary, a sense of the state versus a sense of personal interest." When Umberto Bossi of the Northern League abandoned Berlusconi's first coalition government after a few months, it was Scalfaro who stood up to the media mogul and insisted on his resignation. Relations between these two very different Italians never recovered.

Peter Popham

Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, politician: born Novara, Piedmont 9 September 1918; married Marianna Inzitari (died 1944; one daughter); died 29 January 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Finance / Accounts Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established and expanding ...

Recruitment Genius: Bench Locksmith / Engineer / Technician

£14000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading Key Cutting equipm...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss