Giorgio Napolitano, the first former communist to rise to Italy’s presidency and the first person to be elected twice to the post, has died aged 98.
A statement issued on Friday night by the presidential palace confirmed Italian news reports of the death of Napolitano, who had been in a Rome hospital for weeks.
The current president, Sergio Mattarella, hailed his predecessor as head of state, saying that Napolitano’s life “mirrored a large part of [Italy’s] history in the second half of the 20th century, with its dramas, its complexity, its goals, its hopes”.
As a prominent member of what had long been the largest communist party in the west, Napolitano had advocated positions that often veered from party orthodoxy. He sought dialogue with Italian and European socialists to end his party’s isolation, and he was an early backer of European integration.
Turin daily La Stampa once wrote of Napolitano: “He was the least communist Communist that the party ever enlisted.”
In a condolence telegram to Napolitano’s widow, Clio, Pope Francis said the late president “showed great gifts of intellect and sincere passion for Italian political life as well as strong interest for the fates of nations”.
The pontiff, who is on a pilgrimage to France, noted he had had personal meetings with Napolitano, “during which I appreciated his humanity and long-range vision in assuming with rectitude important choices, especially in delicate moments for the life of the country”.
A former US ambassador to Italy, Richard Gardner, in comments to the Associated Press in 2006, when Napolitano was first elected to be head of state, called him “a true believer in democracy, a friend to the United States”. As ambassador, Gardner had helped arrange secret meetings with Napolitano at a time when any public meeting would have been seen as embarrassing for both Italian communists and US politicians.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Napolitano was among the staunchest supporters of his party’s reform path, which would lead to changing its name and dropping the hammer-and-sickle symbol.
Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right party is at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the late president, expressed condolences in the name of her government.
Like many other future politicians of his generation, Napolitano fought against the Italian fascists and Nazi occupiers during the second world war. When the war ended, he joined the Communist party, and in 1953, he was elected to parliament, an office he would hold for 10 straight legislatures.
While the presidential role is mostly ceremonial, the head of state can send parliament packing sooner than its normal five-year term if it is hopelessly squabbling, a not-rare occurrence in Italy’s long history of short-lived governments.
During his long career, Napolitano also served as speaker of parliament’s lower chamber of deputies and for five years as a lawmaker in the European parliament.
Admirers praised Napolitano’s balanced attitude and gentlemanly ways, but critics pointed to what they saw as excessive caution.
Still, when at the end of his first, seven-year term as head of state, bickering lawmakers couldn’t reach consensus on his successor, he broke with tradition and agreed to be elected to a second term – with the proviso that he wouldn’t serve a full term due to advancing age. He was then 80.
Napolitano resigned in January 2015, paving the way for Mattarella, a former Christian Democrat, to be elected. Mattarella would go on to be himself twice elected to the presidency, again after renewed political gridlock in parliament thwarted the election of a fresh candidate in 2022.
Beside his wife, whom he married in 1959, Napolitano is survived by two sons, Giovanni and Giulio.