"Twenty-four years!" exclaims the hunchbacked, bat-eared, black-suited figure in the cartoon on the front page of Monday's Corriere della Sera. "Do they think I'm immortal?"
On Sunday evening – and why any court in the world sits on a Sunday evening is a minor detail yet to be explained – the assizes court of Perugia in Tuscany staggered Italy's political world, delighted millions of ordinary Italians and appalled millions more when it overturned the acquittal of the ex-prime minister Giulio Andreotti on charges of ordering the murder of a journalist, and gave him a 24-year jail sentence.
So Andreotti – "Uncle Giulio", "Little Caesar", the man who goes on and on and on and who was an inevitable figure on Italy's top political table from 1947 to 1992 – is back in the headlines again. And though the cause of his return to the spotlight clearly does not gladden his heart – after hearing the court's decision on Sunday, he said, "I have always believed in justice, but this evening I am struggling to accept such an absurdity" – it will be true to his character if he resigns himself to what has happened with a world-weary sigh, a shrug of his bent shoulders, a twitch of the the eyebrows and a sardonic quip. Nobody doubts that he will launch an appeal.
No figure on the British political scene begins to compare to Andreotti for endurance, for wiliness, for the Machiavellian craft of politics which is still at the heart of the way it is practiced in Rome. It is as if Harold Wilson had not faded away into premature senility but was still a presence in the wings of television studios, ever on hand to utter well-honed homilies about the Labour Party through the pipe smoke.
And it is the proof of Andreotti's toughness, his agelessness, that he still is as familiar a figure in Italy today as he was during the decades when he became prime minister seven times, and was never out of the Christian Democratic party's cabinet. In 1992, as his last tenure as prime minister ended, it looked as if his whole incredible career was about to unravel: Mafiosi were singing in Sicilian courts; a vital link, it is claimed, between Andreotti and the Sicilian underworld was murdered; in Milan a massive purge of political corruption – Tangentopoli, "Bribe City", the media called it – was under way. And Andreotti, untouchable for so long, now under investigation for Mafia links and for the murder allegation that was so sensationally approved yesterday, suddenly looked frail and vulnerable. Later he admitted to Alexander Stille, writing in The New Yorker in 1995, that these were tough times. "I suffered a kind of nervous exhaustion, and I was really afraid I might go insane," he said. "Then I found a new doctor, who helped me a great deal, making it easier to sleep. And my religion is of great comfort."
Seven years on, looking quite unchanged, Andreotti, aided by a public relations company he hired to help with his image, has quietly re-established himself as part of the furniture of Italian public life. Hundreds of politicians vanished into obscurity in the early Nineties, brought down by corruption charges; Andreotti's rival for political endurance, Bettino Craxi, the perennial head of the Socialist Party, fled into exile in Tunisia and died there, reviled and disgraced. Not so Uncle Giulio. The Pope is to address Italy's parliament for the first time ever – who is the one inevitable authority figure to tell us that this is a good and glorious reconciliation? Divo Giulio, Andreotti the Eternal.
The continuing centrality of the man in Italy's political life is amazing. His conviction and sentence on Sunday provoked an immediate, furious denunciation by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – not merely of the judges' decision, but of the whole judicial system from which it emanated. (Berlusconi, of course, has had his own legal problems, although he has the advantage of still being in power and thus being in a position to change the law.) "In the papal apartments," reported La Repubblica, "there was consternation, incredulity and revulsion." One unnamed Vatican source declared: "It puts me in mind of what they did to Jesus Christ." Uncle Giulio, one fancies, must have smiled his crooked smile on reading that extraordinary comparison: grateful that, as ever, he has friends in the very highest places. In 10 years, Italy's politics have been turned upside down; all the parties fighting for power 10 years ago, including Andreotti's own Christian Democrats, have disintegrated under the weight of their historical contradictions. Yet Andreotti, small, wry, impish, bat-eared, is still there, his claw-like hands very close to the controls. It suggests strongly that, while everything has changed here, perhaps nothing fundamental has changed at all.
Giulio Andreotti was born in 1919 in Rome, the son of a primary school teacher who died when his son was still small. He had a chilly childhood, short of maternal affection; he once admitted that he could not remember his mother ever having kissed him. He grew up closer to the Church that to any living individual, becoming an altar boy and then, rapidly, the one who got the other altar boys organised. Political skill seems to have been innate. And the man's character, with its distinctive combination of piety, cunning and detachment, were likewise formed early on. He imbibed from an aunt these words of Catholic wisdom: "Never overdramatise things, everything can be fixed; keep a certain detachment from everything; the important things in life are very few."
It was while looking for a book in the Vatican Library that he discovered his destiny. He ran in to a veteran Catholic politician, Alcide de Gasperi, the two hit it off and De Gasperi, made prime minister in 1945, became the clever young man's patron. He appointed Andreotti chief of staff in 1947. From the start, the two men's styles were complementary. "When De Gasperi and Andreotti went to church together," one Italian journalist wrote, "De Gasperi talked to God while Andreotti talked to the priest." Under De Gasperi's tutelage, Andreotti rose rapidly through the party ranks. His piety was authentic, but so was his quality of furbizia, cunning. He quickly gained a brilliant and detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure; but he also, from early on, seemed happy to surround himself with the sort of political folk more scrupulous politicians would not be seen dead with: former Fascists, convicted criminals, an ex-boxer. One former Fascist ran his party machine in Rome. He was once asked why he suffered such people. "Trees need manure in order to grow," he answered.
In the process of becoming the most powerful man in Italy, therefore, Andreotti from the start became compromised in a way that would probably bring the swift downfall in a country such as Britain. Mrs Thatcher, for one, disapproved of the man. "He seemed to have a positive aversion to principle," she wrote, "even a conviction that a man of principle was doomed to be a figure of fun." But Uncle Giulio knew well the soil of his native land, and he knew what was required to grow tall in it.
The decisive, Machiavellian alliance in Andreotti's career was his alliance with a Sicilian politician called Salvatore Lima. Lima had been mayor of Palermo and had close connections to the Mafia. By bringing him over to his own faction in Rome, Andreotti swung huge and vital Sicilian votes his way, enabling him to become prime minister for the first time, in 1972. Lima was rewarded in 1974 with an appointment in the Ministry of the Budget. "I think Andreotti saw it this way," said one former Christian Democrat. "The Mafia has always been around, why shouldn't their votes go to a good cause rather than a bad one?" It is a distinctively Catholic position: man is fallen, we are all sinners, but all can be redeemed and there is no room for false scruples since we are all in the same boat. The views of Mother Teresa about accepting donations to the Sisters of Charity from dictators and other disreputable figures is comparable: far from tainting the recipient, the contribution helps to save the giver.
But, of course, because he is in fact a politician and not a holy man, Andreotti has also been obliged consistently to deny that he had any dealings, connection or knowledge of the Mafia at all. No less was expected of him. "Andreotti's sinister reputation was actually part of his popular appeal," wrote Alexander Stille. "Over the years I can recall Italians saying with a mixture of horror and pride, 'He's behind everything but he's so smart he never gets caught!'" There was even a popular ditty that went, "Who stole the cake? Andreotti. Who made the stockmarket drop? Andreotti. Who's behind the Mafia? Andreotti."
As long as Italy's political system remained sealed under the Christian Democrat hegemony, the tricky dealing by which Andreotti and his party clung to power remained secret: suspected by all, known to none. But in 1983, Mafia supergrasses began to confess. Then, nine years later, in January 1992, the conviction of 300 Mafiosi was upheld by Italy's highest court. Two months later, Salvatore Lima, Andreotti's point man in Sicily, whose links to the Mafia have been exhaustively documented, was himself murdered by the Mob. The presumption is that the Cosa Nostra bosses, enraged that their man in Rome had proved unable to protect them from the law, killed him in revenge. But the man, it is alleged, who double-crossed the Mafia was not Lima but his boss, Andreotti. Uncle Giulio denies all. The case focusing on his alleged links to the Sicilian Mafia was thrown out by one court, but the prosecutor is appealing that verdict and, given the weight of evidence, may yet give Andreotti a nasty surprise.
But astonishment at Sunday's guilty verdict has been general. There are close links between Andreotti and the maverick journalist Mino Pecorelli, murdered in Rome in 1979. In 1993, Franco Evangelista, Andreotti's lifelong confidant, admitted he had paid £17,000 to Pecorelli to suppress a story that might have brought Andreotti down. It is believed that Pecorelli had stumbled on connections between Andreotti's financial backers and organised crime. Pecorelli was murdered the day after receiving the money.
Andreotti has been far too clever to allow forensic evidence of his connections to Pecorelli to survive; but the judges in Perugia decided to believe the confession of supergrass Tommaso Buscetta naming the ex-prime minister which prompted the case.
Whether or not this verdict will survive the expected appeal remains to be seen. Berlusconi – who said that Andreotti was "the victim of justice gone mad" – was merely the most prominent Italian figure to denounce the ruling. But it is hard to find anyone in Italy, outside perhaps of the Vatican, who believes that Uncle Giulio is truly innocent. But popular opinion divides between those who see his type of wrongdoing as the unchangeable heart of Italian politics, and those who wish Italy to be transformed.
With a supporter like Berlusconi at the nation's helm, and a major operator such as Uncle Giulio still at large, those advocating profound reform are going to have the fight of their lives.
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