GIOVANNI SPADOLINI was one of Italy's most respected politicians, a former prime minister and speaker of the Senate. Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid him is that, in a country where hardly a single one of the leading politicians and businessmen has remained untouched by some devastating corruption scandal, he will be remembered as an honest man who was convinced that the exercise of politics without ideals becomes a mere pursuit of power.
Spadolini was first and foremost a historian and a journalist. He obtained a law degree from the University of Florence and worked as a journalist while teaching contemporary history at the university, where he became a professor when he was only 25 years old. At the ago of 30, he became the editor of the Bologna daily paper II Resto del Carlino.
In 1968, he left Bologna to become the editor of the Corriere della Sera, in Milan, a post he held until 1972. These were the years of la contestazione, as the student protests were known in Italy, and of growing political terrorism.
Spadolini had little sympathy for the students and even less for the terrorists. It was he who coined the term opposti estremismi, or 'opposite extremisms', underlining the fact that he had no sympathy for the ideas and the methods of either right- or left-wing groups and, under his guidance, the Corriere della Sera took a strong anti-Communist stance. More than once the newspaper's building was attacked by groups of angry demonstrators and, once, the window of the editor's office was smashed by a stone. During the four years that Spadolini stayed at the paper, that stone remained on his desk, as a constant reminder of the turmoils the country outside his office was going through.
Notwithstanding his youth, Spadolini was old-fashioned and a stickler for formalities. At the Corriere della Sera, few appreciated a sort of stop-light set up outside his office, with strict rules that were to be observed by all. Red meant that he was on the telephone - and not to be disturbed; yellow meant admittance would be granted after a brief delay; green, that one could knock and enter. Dino Buzzati, the novelist, who was the editor of the arts page, publicly signalled his displeasure with the system, sitting on a chair placed right in front of Spadolini's door.
After leaving the Corriere, Spadolini was persuaded to undertake a political career and in 1972 he was elected senator as an independent with the Republican Party, He was appointed to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, his first cabinet post, in 1974.
In June 1981, Spadolini was chosen to be Italy's first non-Christian-Democrat prime minister by the Socialist President, Sandro Pertini. It is widely believed that, together, these two men did much to restore the credibility of Italy's political institutions after years of terrorist violence and the scandal of the secret P2 Masonic lodge, a powerful lobby whose members included top politicians and entrepreneurs, among them Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's present prime minister, described by Italian investigators as a secret society that had attempted to create a 'state within a state'.
Spadolini's popularity as prime minister benefited from two events that boosted Italian pride: the liberation by a crack anti-terrorist unit of the Italian police of the US General James Lee Dozier, who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigade, a left-wing terrorist organisation, and Italy's victory at the World Cup in Spain.
Spadolini was known as a connoisseur of good food and drink and his wide girth became one of the favourite targets of Italy's political cartoonists, who depicted him naked with tiny private parts overshadowed by a huge, bulging belly.
In the 1983 national election, the Republican Party capitalised on Spadolini's popularity, reaching a historic maximum of 5.1 per cent of the vote. More recently, Spadolini was one of the few politicians who survived the collapse of Italy's First Republic and it was widely known that he was dismayed by the new crowd that had taken over after the general elections at the end of March. He observed that with this breed, seemingly preoccupied only with grabbing all the spoils of power, the country was in serious danger of further degeneration.
As the speaker of the Senate from 1987, Spadolini took pains to underline his concern for Italy's institutions and to establish himself as someone super partes. His friends, who had made fun of Spadolini on account of a generous dose of vanity, say that, last April, when he was forced to abandon that post after being defeated by a single vote by Carlo Scongnamiglio, a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, he felt hurt and humiliated.
And yet, even though Spadolini was greatly disappointed by a class of politicians that he felt would be unable to cure Italy's many ills, he believed that it was his duty to continue working for his country. In recent weeks, he had felt extremely frustrated after he had been confined to a hospital room by his illness. 'The sickness that afflicts me is called Italy,' Spadolini told his aide.
Spadolini was an expert on the 19th-century unification of Italy and the author of more than 40 books. While in hospital, he completed his final work, a fifth, 450-page volume of his personal notes, entitled Global Disorder, covering the 1992-94 period.
In his villa at Pian dei Giuliari, in the countryside near Florence, Spadolini has left a library containing some 70,000 volumes on contemporary history and the 19th century. The villa is the home to a cultural foundation dedicated to the study of Italian unity.