Sandro Pertini

The people’s president

Deirdre Pirro
May 6, 2010

In 1978, Giovanni Leone, a Christian Democrat senator and president of the republic resigned after a smear campaign claimed he and his family had been involved in corruption related to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation bribery scandal. Although these allegations were never proved true, the prestige of the high office that Leone held as Italy's head of state hit rock bottom.

 

On the 16th ballot with an unbroken record number of 882 out of 995 votes, the Socialist Senator Alessandro Pertini, known to all as Sandro, was elected Italy's new president on July 8, 1978. A turning point in Italian politics, Pertini, at 82 years old, was the first left-wing, non-Christian Democrat politician to be made president. By re-establishing a sense of national unity, he would become the most popular incumbent to ever fill the job.

 

Yet Pertini's years as president were not easy ones. He took office only months after Aldo Moro had been murdered by terrorists. This marked the beginning of the tragic ‘anni di piombo' (years of lead) when terrorism cast its dark shadow over Italian society. In 1980 alone, the terrorist bomb that ripped through the Bologna railway station killed 85 and wounded at least 200 people. That same year, the calamitous Irpinia and Basilicata earthquake stuck causing the deaths of 2,924 people, injuring 8,848 and leaving 280,000 homeless. But Pertini's time at the nation's helm also included swearing in two new governments, the first, in 1982, led by Giovanni Spadolini (Republican) and the other, in 1983, by Bettino Craxi (Socialist) and few can forget his joy when, in 1982, he watched Italy defeat West Germany in the Football World Cup in Madrid.

 

Pertini was born into a well-off family in Stella, a small town near Savona, on September 25, 1896. After fighting with valour in World War I, he joined the Socialist Party in 1918 and graduated in Law from the University of Modena in 1923. It was not, however, until he moved to Florence to take a degree in political science in 1924 that he became an active opponent of Mussolini's regime, which had come into power in October 1922. He joined the Italia Libera movement and met important antifascist leaders living there at the time like the Rosselli brothers and Gaetano Salvemini.

 

Charged with distributing a pamphlet entitled ‘Under Barbarous Fascist Domination,'  Pertini was arrested for the first time in 1925 and sentenced to eight months in jail. The following year, arrested once again under the new laws repressing dissidents, the Special Tribunal for the Defence of the State inflicted the maximum penalty of five years' internment on him. However, he escaped and fled to France in a fishing boat. In Paris, he worked as a taxi driver or an extra in films and as a bricklayer in Nice. Expelled from France for subversion, on returning to Italy in 1929, his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Mussolini cost him an 11-year prison sentence. He was finally freed in August 1943, only days after the fall of fascism.

 

Together Pertini with Pietro Nenni and others set about rebuilding the old Socialist Party, and as a representative of the Partito Socialista Italiano di Unità Proletaria he became a member of the Committee for National Liberation in Northern Italy that coordinated the partisan struggle against German occupation and the last vestiges of fascist power. Towards the end of 1943, he participated in the fight to free Rome but was captured by the German SS and sentenced to death. But again, he managed to escape. On August 11, 1944, Pertini was in Florence when the city was liberated and, in April 1945, he was in Milan where he helped organise the insurrection that brought an end to Nazi fascism. For his part in these events, he was awarded a Gold Medal for Military Valour.

 

With the war over, Pertini was elected in 1946 to the Constituent Assembly and, then in 1948 to the Senate. From 1953 until 1978, he served in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, from 1968 to 1975, as its speaker. When his term as president of the republic was over, he was nominated a life senator.

 

A short man with a small frame and shock of snow-white hair, Pertini always dressed elegantly, wore large horn-rimmed glasses and was often seen with a pipe in his hand. Sometimes intractable, even downright authoritarian, he did not suffer fools gladly, especially among the political class, thus fuelling his already enormous popularity. During the war, he met a much younger partisan dispatch rider, Carla Voltolina (1921-2005), whom he married in 1946. They had no children.

 

After a fall at his apartment overlooking the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Pertini, aged 93, died on February 24, 1990. Large crowds, many in tears, flocked to the piazza below to express their sorrow for the death of a man they respected, an honest and courageous politician and, above all, their president, a man who made them proud to be Italians. 

 

The Sandro Pertini Foundation was set up in Florence on September 23, 2002 on the initiative of Pertini's widow, Carla Voltolina Pertini, to promote studies related to his political views and work and to spread knowledge about the ideals to which he dedicated his life such as democracy, freedom, justice and the history of the Resistance. The foundation organizes  events throughout the year and offers scholarships to students.

 

Fondazione Sandro Pertini

via Lorenzo il Magnifico, 14, 50129 Firenze

www.fondazionepertini.it/index.asp (tel) 055/484620; (fax) 055/471982

[email protected]

 

The Sandro Pertini National Association, founded in Florence in June 20, 1995, has an archive, library, virtual museum and exhibition centre dedicated to the life and work of Pertini and to the political thought and history in Italy during the last century.

 

Associazione Nazionale ‘Sandro Pertini'

via Buonarroti, 13, 50122 Firenze

www.pertini.it/Default.htm

(tel) 055/244811; (fax) 055/243123

[email protected] 

 

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