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.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
The video, titled 'A Message to America', was released a day after Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has overrun large parts of Iraq, threatened to attack Americans 'in any place'. U.S. officials said they were working to determine the video's authenticity
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager

£40000 - £43000 Per Annum plus company bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHELTENHAM - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - A...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape