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ITALY: Little Political Pope

5 minute read

One rainy day when Florence’s Mayor Giorgio La Pira was a Deputy in Rome, he characteristically started for the door without umbrella, overcoat, or hat. A fellow Deputy insisted on lending him a raincoat. An hour later, La Pira returned, dripping from head to foot. To the astonished Deputy, he explained: “I came across an old man in the street who was cold . . .” “Yes,” stammered the Deputy, “but that was my raincoat.” La Pira replied soothingly: “You can buy another, my son, you can buy another.”

Last week this willingness to sacrifice other people’s property to his own Christian impulses had got controversial Mayor La Pira, the man who wrested Florence from Communist control for the Christian Democrats four years ago, into his deepest trouble yet.

Villas on the Hill. It is the precept of bachelor Mayor La Pira, who for years lived in a single cell in the famed Convent of San Marco, that every man in Florence is entitled to a roof over his head—no matter what the law says. When, in late 1952, yielding to landlords’ pleas, the national government began to permit evic-ions from rent-controlled apartments, La Pira took action. “A Christian society is a fraternal society,” he proclaimed, “and when even one man is excluded, when even one man lacks bread or a roof, society ceases to be fraternal.”

La Pira’s eye fell on the huge, handsome old villas that perch on the hillsides above Florence. Most belong to rich Italians who occupy them only a few months a year. Drawing on his experiences as onetime aw professor at the University of Florence, La Pira rummaged among old ar-:hives, finally found what he wanted: a aw of the Kingdom of Italy, passed in 1865, which empowered Italian mayors to requisition private buildings in grave emergencies.

At first requisitions were few, and Florentines were amused at the procedure. Scouts spotted an empty villa. In great secrecy, La Pira signed the requisition or der the night before. Next morning early, the decree was delivered to the owner. An hour later, before the hapless owner had time to move in fake tenants, a task force arrived at the villa comprising a requisition functionary, a blacksmith (in case the owner had barred the doors), two city cops on motorcycles (“policemen on motorcycles are always more impressive,” (explained La Pira), and sometimes La Pira himself. In a matter of minutes, the evictees rolled up in a truck with all their furniture and took possession.

Act of Charity. But as evictions increased, La Pira stepped up his requisitions. Early this year. La Pira ran into his first big trouble. La Pira coveted the splendid Fiesole villa of septuagenarian Princess Emilia Ruspoli. He moved in 57 evictees, delivered a note to the princess, reading: “I am sure you are grateful for the opportunity I have given you to do a great act of charity and so to insure that God will take you up to paradise.”

It was a tactic that had often appeased other irate owners, but not Princess Ruspoli. She entered a suit against La Pira before Italy’s highest administrative court. Before the court could pass judgment. Mayor La Pira compounded the injury by requisitioning the villa of the princess’ son. He topped that by taking over the villa of Pietro Romani, Italy’s High Commissioner for Tourism and brother-in-law of the late Premier Alcide de Gasperi.

Soon La Pira was tangling with the national government over empty former Fascist buildings which the government had taken over. The government ringed the buildings with carabinieri and turned back La Pira’s task forces. La Pira, who has an acute sense of publicity, then began bombarding press and politicians with letters studded with Biblical citations. To Christian Democratic Party Secretary Amintore Fanfani, La Pira sent an open letter congratulating him, among other things, on his seven children, and demanding, “Isn’t it true that the first and fundamental law … consists in the fact that there is at least a little bread and a modest roof for all seven of them?” Rome’s Tempo angrily denounced “these ridiculous but dangerous attitudes of a little political pope.”

La Pira’s tactics have infuriated and alarmed the big industrialists that provide the Christian Democrats’ finances, ever since he used his requisitioning powers to seize a bankrupt factory and hand it over to its workers (TIME, Feb. 28). But the Demo-Christian leaders are well aware that popular Mayor La Pira is an attraction to left-minded voters all over Italy; he is also their one hope of holding heavily Communist Florence.

Living Art. Last week, bobbing around his ornate desk in the ancient Palazzo Vecchio, as chipper as the two canaries he keeps in a cage in the corner, La Pira was unabashed by criticism. Some nineteen other owners had joined Princess Ruspoli in suing him, and the Interior Ministry had issued a circular declaring the 1865 law was supposed to be applied only to disasters such as earthquakes. He was also under attack from a new quarter. The Superintendency of Monuments was horrified to discover that evictees moved into another villa were setting up cooking stoves and driving nails into walls on which 16th-century frescoes were recently discovered.

“Works of art only flourish when they are surrounded by normal life,” answered La Pira. “The Superintendency ought to thank me.”

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