Illustration by Leo Cardini
On March 15, 1972, the body of a man was found at the foot of one of the main electricity pylons at Segrate, a suburb of Milan. It appeared he had been killed when the dynamite he was attempting to strap to the pylon detonated. Although the identity card found in his pocket bore a false name, within 24 hours he was identified as Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the visionary publisher, left-wing radical and one of the richest men in Italy.
Feltrinelli was born into a wealthy family in Milan on June 19, 1926. During World War II, while still a teenager, he joined the National Liberation Committee as part of a unit attached to the American Fifth Army, which fought to free Italy from the fascists. This led him, in 1945, to become a member of the Italian Communist Party, to which he made significant financial contributions.
In 1948, at the suggestion of the leader of the party, Palmiro Togliatti, he set up a library in Milan dedicated to the history of socialist and labour movements in Europe. This library is now part of the Feltrinelli Foundation and houses 140,000 works, in 10 different languages, devoted to social history.
Feltrinelli founded the publishing house Feltrinelli Editore in 1954. The first volume he published was the autobiography of the then Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. A progressive and far-sighted publisher, in 1957 Feltrinelli, despite objections from the Soviet Union, published Borís Pasternàk’s Doctor ivago in Italian, two years after Pasternàk had completed the book and a year before he won the Nobel Prize for it. Another of Feltrinelli’s important successes was Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which he published in 1958.
In the 1960s, he began publishing inexpensive paperbacks by writers from abroad, such as James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. As an outlet for his books, he started acquiring bookshops, which, today, under the direction of his son, Carlo, are part of Italy’s largest book-selling chain.
In 1958, Feltrinelli met the German photographer, Inge Schoenthal, who became the third of his four wives and Carlo’s mother. She played—and still does—an important role in continuing her husband’s work.
Politically disillusioned by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the brutal suppression of the revolution there, Feltrinelli gradually became more radically left-wing. He was fascinated by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their form of revolution. He visited Cuba in 1964, and, in 1967, he was arrested and expelled from Bolivia on the basis of information supplied by the American secret service. After Che Guevara’s death, Castro gave him the Diario in Bolivia (‘The Bolivian Diary’) to publish in Italy. It would rapidly become a best-seller.
Feltrinelli was also given the iconic photo of Che Guevara we now see on t-shirts everywhere. It was likely taken by Alberto ‘Korda’ Gutierrez, a staff-photographer at the Cuban newspaper Revolution in 1960. Within six months of Che’s assassination, Feltrinelli, always the astute businessman, sold over 2,000,000 posters bearing the famous image. Later, Feltrinelli would supply the pistol used to kill a Bolivian colonel called Quintanilla, reputed to be one of the men responsible for Guevara’s death.
After a bomb killed 16 people and wounded 90 in Piazza Fontana in Milan on December 12, 1969, Feltrinelli increasingly believed a right-wing coup d’état was imminent. He decided not only to finance the first extreme left-wing terrorist splinter groups but also to go underground himself, choosing ‘Osvaldo’ as his battle name. In 1970, he founded the Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana, the second terrorist organisation to be set up during the anni di piombo (‘years of lead’). His idea was to organise a national liberation army to prevent the coup he so much feared.
His direct involvement in guerrilla warfare ultimately led to the fateful night of his death. In its aftermath, rumours were rampant that he may have been assassinated on the orders of the government. It was later revealed that, in order to dispel any uncertainty, the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), the most efficient and deadly extreme left-wing terrorist organisation in Italy at that time, with whom Feltrinelli had been in contact, held its own investigation. After interviewing the members of his small group, the Brigate Rosse came to the conclusion that his death had been caused by the bomb’s defective timer.