The seance that came back to haunt Romano Prodi

The former European Commission president has come under attack over his role in the search for the kidnapped Italian premier Aldo Moro. An attempt to solve a 30-year-old mystery? Or a bid to defuse the only real challenge to Silvio Berlusconi in April's elections? Peter Popham reports from Rome

Four months before Italy's general election, a ghost has returned from Romano Prodi's past to haunt him.

Mr Prodi, who became fairly well known a few years ago as the tubby, mumbling, avuncular president of the European Commission, is the second most formidable politician in Italy. This is on the face of it strange. Prodi has no identifiable charisma. But many Italians trust him, and voters of the centre left gave him an overwhelming mandate in their primary elections six weeks back.

In 1996 he beat Silvio Berlusconi in the general election, the only man so far to have bested the media mogul at the polls. Something like half of Italy is desperately hoping that in April he will do it again.

But first he has to face down this ghost. The name of the ghost is Giorgio La Pira, who while he lived was one of the most dynamic Christian Democrat politicians of modern Italy, and a pioneer of creative diplomacy between West and East, meeting and trying to forge agreements with Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and others, at the height of the Cold War.

La Pira died in November 1977. But in April of the following year, Prodi has claimed, he came back from the dead in spirit.

The occasion was a wet spring Sunday, in the countryside outside Bologna, at the country home of one of his professor friends, Professor Alberto Clo. Being so wet, Prodi says, he and the seven other academics present settled down around a ouija board for what Italians call a seduta spiritica, a séance.

It was the first time, Prodi makes clear, that he had ever attempted such a thing - and for such a pious and conventional Catholic it was perhaps out of character. But as it happens the séance was a success.

It took place at a moment of grave national crisis in Italy: these were what were called the anni di piombo, the "years of lead", when terrorist outrages by extreme left and extreme right shook the nation month after month.

On 16 March 1978, in one of the boldest attacks, Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democratic party and two times prime minister, was ambushed and kidnapped by a unit of the Red Brigades, who killed his five-man escort. Photographs of Moro and his heart-rending pleas for help were dispatched from the place where he was hidden by his captors. But no one had any idea where he was.

Where have they hidden Aldo Moro? It was the question on everyone's lips. So once Prodi and his professorial chums had succeeded in calling forth the shade of Giorgio La Pira, it was the question they put to him, too.

The saucer in the midst of the circle they had formed trembled and started to spin, settling on one letter after another. Letter by letter, place names emerged: Bolsena, Viterbo ... Gradoli. All of them knew Bolsena and Viterbo. But Gradoli?

"No one had heard of it," Prodi testified three years later to the Moro Commission inquiring into the statesman's death. "Then we saw in an atlas that there was a village called Gradoli ..."

One can imagine the looks of consternation exchanged by the professors, the dawning of a desperate hope that the ouija board was telling the truth. They broke up the session; La Pira returned whence he had come. The word "Gradoli" was on everyone's lips.

"We asked around in case anyone knew about the place," Prodi told the commission, "and seeing as nobody knew anything I regarded it as my duty, even at the cost of appearing ridiculous, as I indeed felt at that moment, to pass the word on. If the name of the place had not been on the map, or conversely if it had been [somewhere famous like] Mantova or New York, nobody would have said anything about it. But the fact is that the name was unknown, so I passed it on immediately."

He told colleagues at Christian Democrat party headquarters in Rome, and he also informed a criminologist at Bologna University. The word was passed to the police. Four days later, the inhabitants of the tiny and unoffending village of Gradoli, on the shores of Lake Bolsena near Viterbo, north of Rome, were startled by the sight of vanloads of police, who proceeded to turn it over. But they found nothing to link the village to Aldo Moro or his captors.

The end of the story, one might think - but even while the police were prowling through that irrelevant village, Aldo Moro was being held prisoner in a luxury block of flats on a street called Via Gradoli, in a suburb of the capital. He was never found; once Gradoli proved a dead-end, Prodi's ghost was written off as an unreliable source and no further inquiries were made. Moro's wife, it is said, asked the police whether there was not in fact somewhere in the capital with the word Gradoli in it where they might also search. She was bluntly and quite wrongly told that there was not.

Weeks later, after 55 days in captivity, Moro was taken from the cubbyhole in Via Gradoli, put in the back of a car, wrapped in a blanket and shot 10 times at close range. He was found stuffed in the boot of the car abandoned in the centre of Rome, midway between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and the Communists - the two parties between which he had been trying to forge what he called a "historic compromise" when he was kidnapped.

The old, strange and rather sad yarn of Romano Prodi's fruitless encounter with the spirit world has been dusted off again this week. The man doing the dusting is a senator in Silvio Berlusconi's party called Paolo Guzzanti, who has several claims to fame: his striking red hair and beard, first of all, framing his piercing, rather alarming eyes, and then his three children, all of whom are now famous comedians.

The most celebrated is Sabina Guzzanti, who does an amazingly hurtful and funny impression of Silvio Berlusconi - so hurtful and true, in fact, that the satirical series in which she starred was ejected from the screen after a single episode.

Mr Guzzanti probably does not find his daughter's impression of Berlusconi either hurtful or true. He used to be a left-winger, and a journalist on the Roman newspaper La Repubblica, but in a Pauline conversion a dozen years ago he swung dramatically round to the right and now has a column in Il Giornale, the daily owned by Berlusconi's brother.

He is also the head of something called the Mitrokhin Commission, and it was in this capacity that he reminded Italy this week of Prodi's encounter with the ouija board. A parliamentary committee called the Mitrokhin Commission was set up when Berlusconi came to power in 2001 to rake over KGB documents connected to Vasili Mitrokhin, the Russian double agent who died last year and whose exhaustive spying on his own agency yielded an immense amount of material about the KGB's activities in the West.

In a television interview on Wednesday, Guzzanti claimed that Prodi's tale of ghosts and spirits was a load of rubbish, designed to hide the identity of the person who had told him, Prodi, that Aldo Moro was hidden in a place called Gradoli - a person, Guzzanti insinuated, who was closely connected to the KGB. "Professor Prodi knew that Moro was held prisoner in Via Gradoli," Guzzanti boomed. "He said "Gradoli" without mentioning "Via". This was deliberately misinterpreted as Gradoli the village ... None of us believe in ghosts and witchcraft. Prodi is hiding behind his revolving saucer, as a way of providing information without revealing the source."

In his column in Il Giornale, Guzzanti called on Prodi "to come to court and say finally what he has never said to the magistrates who questioned him and to the parliamentary committees ... Prodi has over and over again repeated this story of a séance that is not only incredible but profoundly offensive ... I believe that a man who aspires to govern our country has the duty to clarify an episode that until now has been completely obscure."

For his part Romano Prodi, through a spokesman, said he had already given exhaustive explanations of what happened, and that he was planning to sue Guzzanti.

Despite Guzzanti's tone of righteous indignation, there was little excitement in Rome about his initiative. For one thing, there is nothing new in his claim, besides the offensive insinuation that Prodi knew where Moro was hidden but failed to do everything in his power to save him. For another, Guzzanti was pushing on a door that has long been wide open: everybody here has long believed that Prodi's ouija board tale was no more than an ill-advised and bizarre way to conceal the identity of his true source, probably a person from Bologna's seething far-left underground whom he was pledged to protect. That the police knew of Gradoli but were unable to take it a step further and look in Via Gradoli looks like stupidity or worse - but it's difficult to pin the blame for that on Prodi. He did, after all, provide the lead.

More than anything it reveals about Prodi or the Moro case, Guzzanti's outburst is an eloquent testimony to the fraying of nerves within Berlusconi's coalition as the election draws near. After five years of Berlusconi - the first post-war Italian government to have completed a full term - the Prime Minister declared this week that he has fulfilled all his promises made in the famous "contract with the Italian people" that he signed on television before the last election.

If that's the case - and it's open to serious doubt - people say, well he must have promised the wrong things. How come Italy is growing poorer by the day, its debt ballooning, its companies folding in huge numbers, written off as the new sick man of Europe, and yet Berlusconi is satisfied with his achievements?

So Guzzanti, Berlusconi's Barbarossa, is rolled out on to the battlements, with his smoking tales of Communist conspiracy, his insinuations of treachery and worse. And the case of the dodgy ouija board, we understand, is only the beginning. "This is just the taster", writes Corriere della Sera, "for the 'real lunacy', that, Guzzanti declares, will be contained in the final report of the Mitrokhin Commission."

So it's going to be a dirty election campaign. No surprises there: Berlusconi, it is reported, has been taking strategy lessons from George Bush's "little genius", Karl Rove. But they will have to do better than trying to embarrass Prodi by reminding him of a silly old lie. Five years of Italian failure is no fairy tale.

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