The anni di piombo - the years of lead - had left Italians bitterly accustomed to terrorist attacks. The 1970s had been punctuated by fatal bomb blasts; "enemies of the revolution", both left- and right-wing, were knee-capped, kidnapped and killed with alarming regularity. Only two years previously, former premier Aldo Moro had been seized by Red Brigade commandos who abandoned his bullet-riddled body in the boot of a car after 55 days in captivity.
But the Bologna tragedy knocked Italy out of its numbed acceptance of violence. That provincial station, bustling with backpackers and summer holiday-makers, immediately became a symbol of the absurdity of terrorism; few families were without a relative who "could have been there". The whole country felt profoundly wounded.
Days after the bombing, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Francesca Mambro, charging her with having committed the atrocity. "At first, I laughed," she says. "It seemed so silly. Then I got panicky. I felt this desperate need to tell everyone I didn't do it. I wanted to stop people on the street and say that the whole thing was a terrible mistake. In a way, it was even a relief when I was arrested. In my naivety, I believed that I could just explain everything to the judges and they would understand."
They didn't and, as a result, Mambro is in the high-security unit of Rome's Rebibbia prison with a life sentence stretching away before her.
It is difficult to picture this softly spoken, gentle-faced woman of 38 as a Fascist hoodlum, but when she was seriously wounded in a gun-fight with police and placed under arrest in March 1982, that's precisely what she was. Given her criminal record, you can hardly blame the Italian judiciary for harbouring serious doubts about her claim to be innocent of the Bologna attack. Co-founder with Valerio Fioravanti, now her husband, of the extreme- right Nuclei armati rivoluzionari, this sole female in the chauvinist world of Fascist extremism was also wanted for a string of politically motivated murders, and robberies - often bloodily bungled - carried out to finance her terrorist group.
"There was nothing in my family or my upbringing to explain why I should end up a terrorist. My father was a policeman, for God's sake. I wanted to study law," she laughs. "But I've always felt this awful attraction for the losers, the underdogs. The 1970s were days when left-wing kids were forever beating up right-wing ones and vice versa. At the beginning, I had friends on both sides. But the right somehow always seemed to get the worst of it. I couldn't help identifying with that."
It was when a friend died in her arms, killed by a stray police bullet during a demonstration, that she took a decision that was to colour the rest of her life. At the age of 19, "I swore I would never go anywhere without a gun," she recalls. For a frantic four years, she stuck to her resolution, with grim results.
But 18 years and several life sentences later, Mambro is still doggedly proclaiming herself innocent of the Bologna massacre. She has admitted to many counts of armed robbery and murder - "I didn't actually do all those things either, but they were my idea, so I accept moral responsibility for them, and I'll pay the price" - but, she says, "we had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with that bomb."
Mambro is glowing as she enters the interview room in Rebibbia prison, just back from one of her regular visits to her husband in the men's unit down the road.
"Our relationship has kept me going through everything; it has pulled me through resignation and despair. Of course, it's not easy. We couldn't even think of having children, however much we'd like to," she says, and her eyes brim with tears as she stops to mull this over. "But it's so important, just having him there. He's making a film, you know, about some of his fellow lifers. There's been all kinds of flak about public money being squandered to fund murderers' hobbies. But he's riding the storm in his calm way, as usual."
The couple met when they were members of the Fuan, a far-right university club, in the mid-1970s. Fioravanti, who came from a comfortably-off Roman family, had been a child star in a popular television sitcom of the 1960s. Ostensibly, he had little in common with the very lower-middle-class Mambro, save a cold-blooded extremism in his approach to politics.
"But he accepted me straight away, in a way that many males wouldn't have," she recalls. "Obviously, given the times and the political side I had chosen, I had to be far more competent and merciless than any man to prove myself."
Plans of action were drawn up and carried out jointly. The pair's political philosophy was shared, "and we chose our targets together: individual representatives of what we considered a repressive state. We made a point of never shooting anyone in the back. We certainly did not attack crowds of defenceless people."
Mambro pushes a tiny tin of liquorice sweets about on the Formica table in front of her and nervously wrings long thin fingers as she explains why she and Fioravanti could not possibly have planted a bomb of such enormous proportions in the railway station at Bologna.
"We were too small, too unimportant, too disorganised," she insists. "We were a thorn in everybody's sides. The political right wanted nothing to do with us. The extra-parliamentary right, the grown-up Fascist bands, thought we were just a bunch of snotty kids. We simply didn't count. We certainly couldn't have found that much explosive, even if we'd wanted to, which we didn't."
As she repeats the story she has told unswervingly through five trials, a pleading look spreads over her face, the look of someone who is painfully accustomed to having her words rejected. Judges and prosecutors have discounted her version of events, placing the NAR firmly within the labyrinth of extreme-right groups working to destabilise the Italian state from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. The influential association which supports the relations of the bomb victims has consistently refused her pleas for meetings, convinced that she is personally responsible for their suffering. For them, Mambro's desperate attempts to clear her name in the Bologna case can be put down to the fact that, with a life sentence for mass murder, she will never be able to benefit from special concessions granted to other "political" prisoners, who enjoy day release from prison.
But as the hysteria which surrounded the initial search for a guilty party in the Bologna case recedes into the distance, many people are not so sure about the couple's guilt. Some, including high-ranking left-wing politicians, are gradually beginning to lend an ear to Mambro.
To reopen the case now would be a painful admission of defeat for the police and judiciary. But after years of swinging back and forth between bitter resignation and deep despair, and elated but still somewhat incredulous, Mambro is finally beginning to feel it may happen.
It was a recent statement by Giovanni Pellegrino, the left-wing chairman of a parliamentary committee which is still investigating the terrorist years, which gave Mambro most hope. "For someone in Pellegrino's position to be saying that the inquiry should be continued, it must mean that there's a chance."
The alibi offered by the couple is not water-tight. Ham-fisted attempts by other extreme-rightists to mislead investigations were taken as evidence of a concerted plan to cover the tracks of these Fascist youngsters. Then there was the uncomfortable case of the murder of NAR member Francesco Mangiameli - Mambro and Fioravanti maintain he was done away with in September 1980 as punishment for embezzling NAR funds; the prosecution insists that he was killed because he knew too much about the Bologna bomb.
But champions of the couple's innocence argue that public prosecutors leaned too heavily on the often self-contradictory testimony of one key witness - petty criminal Massimo Sparti, who claimed to have provided the fleeing couple with false documents two days after the blast. Sparti was released from prison 15 years ago, reportedly in the final stages of terminal cancer; today he's alive and kicking.
"It wasn't until OJ Simpson was acquitted that I realised the true significance of 'reasonable doubt'," says Mambro, chuckling. The concept bears little weight in Italian jurisprudence. But, she adds, a guilty verdict was the only way the case could go, given the climate which surrounded the various hearings in the solidly left-wing city of Bologna. "Bologna couldn't contemplate anything but a right-wing attack. In fact, they put up a plaque commemorating the victims of a 'Fascist' bomb even before a first-degree sentence had been issued."
Before the case can be reopened, and Mambro is called to cross the threshold of a courtroom again, investigators will have to come up with very convincing new evidence. From her cell in Rebibbia, Mambro has no doubts about where they should look.
"Think Lockerbie," she says, smiling smugly. "That wasn't an Italian bomb - that much is perfectly clear. It had all the hallmarks of Arab terrorism. If I'd been investigating Bologna, I would have thought immediately of Libya."
At the time, Rome had every reason to wish to ensure stability around the Mediterranean basin by maintaining good relations with an increasingly restive Tripoli. Tripoli, however, was making no bones about its displeasure over a defence pact between Italy and Malta.
"Italy certainly wouldn't have wanted to stir things up by publicly accusing Libya of murdering 85 people in Bologna," Mambro insists. What better solution, then, she argues, than to nail the atrocity on two terrorist- delinquents with no protectors in high places? She laughs bitterly, shrugs her shoulders and casts a hostile look at the two prison guards outside the glass door. "You have to hand it to them. We were perfect"n