Piazza Fontana. 1969-2019.

Piazza Fontana, 1969-2019. History, memory, confusion.


I studied Piazza Fontana for 10 years or so, in the 1990s. I was interested in the divided memories produced by the bomb, the trials and the deaths of Giuseppe Pinelli and Luigi Calabresi. Not many people were interested, at that time. It was many years in the past, and the militancy and campaigns which had accompanied the Piazza Fontana case, and the Pinelli mystery, had faded. A new case, connected to the same events, was attracting lots of attention – after Adriano Sofri and others were charged with the murder of Calabresi at the end of the 1980s. This story inspired a whole new series of trials. My research took me to some strange places. I went to see Enrico Baj, in his beautiful house in Brianza, and he gave ma an original catalogue of the famous exhibition of his art work The funeral of Giuseppe Pinelli, which was due to open the day Calabresi was murdered, and thus never did. I interviewed some of the protagonists from the time – the great journalist Corrado Stajano, Aldo Aniasi (the mayor of Milan for much of the 1970s who had spoken at many anniversaires), some anarchists, Enrico Deaglio, Giorgio Boatti, Mario Capanna. I saw Dario Fo on many occasions – he would turn up to meetings and events and put on a ‘show’. There was also a big, new trial, going on in Milan at the time. I went along. Nobody was there, in the audience, watching. It almost seemed to be taking place in silence, amidst the indifference of the general public. Something had happened. New generations had not learnt, or had not been taught, about Piazza Fontana at all. Few knew what had happened that fateful day – the 12 December 1969 – when a bomb in a bank caused carnage, and brought Italian democracy to the brink.

I studied the incredible funerals of the victims of the bomb, and Pinelli and Calabresi. I looked at what had happened on every anniversary since 1969 – the first years were particularly violent, and led to more deaths, including that of the student Saverio Saltarelli killed by a police tear gas cannister fired at close range near the university in the centre of Milan on the first anniversary of the bomb. I looked at the plaques and the shifting memories – a ‘memory war’ which is still going on even today – with plaques being changed, re-written, broken, moved around and discussed almost continually since 1969. I studied the numerous trials and investigations – into Pinelli, Calabresi, Piazza Fontana itself. It was all connected, and it never seemed to stop. The trials went on and on and on, but nobody was ever found guilty or, if they were, many people refused to believe in the verdict or the sentence. Incredible conspiracy theories continued to do the rounds – two bombs, anarchists in disguise, SISDE, CIA, NATO. Who had placed the bomb? Why? With what aim? Who was Nino Sottosanti, ‘Nino il fascista’ (see the latest, beautiful book by Sofri himself for more)? Were Calabresi and Pinelli really ‘good friends’? Why was Delfo Zorzi living in Japan?

Milan was still home to many of the protagonists of the vicenda in those years. Pietro Valpreda, for example, had a bar in Corso Garibaldi called Le barricate: 1898 (it was close to one of the places where workers had put up barricades during the revolt of that year). On the walls were numerous posters relating to the campaign to free Valpreda after three years in prison without trial (the law had been changed to allow him out, at last). He was often quite grumpy and would only let in the people he liked the look of. After a few years, the bar shut down.

My research took me far and wide – way beyond Milan itself. On holiday in Tuscany, I forced my poor family, one hot August day, to go to the cemetery in Carrara. It is an amazing place, with a huge monument to Gaetano Bresci (who shot the Italian King dead in 1900 in Monza) outside. Inside, Giuseppe Pinelli is buried (his family moved him from Musocco in Milan) with a large, white piece of marble and an inscription from his favourite book by Edgar Lee Masters – Spoon River. I also found strange connections with my own life. Pinelli had set up the Circolo Anarchico “Ponte della Ghisolfa” in Bovisa, right in front of Piazzale Lugano, 22 – where I lived for more than ten years. He used to visit the cartoleria run by my mother-in-law. Milan is a city, but also a village. Everyone knows everyone else.

Piazza Fontana and the Pinelli case divided Milan, and Italy, in half. It was Italy’s Dreyfus case. People lined up on different sides of the argument. There were two truths (at least), two memories (at least). In the end, these divisions produced the famous two Pinelli plaques in Piazza Fontana itself – a perfect representation of divided memory. Two plaques, about the same event, with slightly different versions of that event. Take your pick. Everyone was (sort of) satisfied. Now Calabresi has a monument too – which is much less well-known, and much less visited – at the place where he was shot in 1972.

The bomb, and the dead anarchist, and the murdered policeman led to numerous books, poems, films, documentaries, a few novels, incredible journalism (Marco Nozza, Camilla Cederna, Giorgio Bocca, Corrado Stajano, Giampaolo Pansa), one of the most famous and produced plays in theatrical history (Accidental Death of an Anarchist, of course), art, photography, songs, a new form of ‘inchieste’ (Strage di Stato, produced by a anonymous collective in 1970). Piazza Fontana was full of mysteries and shady characters, who seemed to come from the world of fiction – Guido Giannettini the spy, the white-haired fascist Franco Freda, the long-haired anarchist Valpreda, the stoic and tireless wives of the victims – Licia Pinelli and Gemma Calabresi – the tragic taxi-driver/witness Cornelio Rolandi. The whole affair also led to an extraordinary number of trials, which rarely found anyone guilty, but which lasted for years. Benedetta Tobagi’s new book for Einaudi recounts the first series of trials relating to the bomb, moved to Catanzaro (about as far away as possible from Milan for the poor relatives of the victims) and caught up in a number of political and judicial controversies. Justice was not done for the victims, nor for Pinelli – nor was it seen to be done. Only the Salvini inquest, much later, was able to get close to the truth – and by them most of the key protagonists were dead, or (in one key case) in Japan.

What do Piazza Fontana, and the Pinelli case, and the Calabresi murder mean for Italian history. Was 1969 a turning point? Did it mark a ‘loss of innocence’? Certainly, many saw in those events the reason to take up what became romantically known as ‘the armed struggle’. The bomb, and the cover-up, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, led to hatred, anger, verbal and real violence. The role of the state itself seemed to legitimise violence against the representatives of the state. The idea that Pinelli had died thanks to ‘un malore attivo’ seemed completely ridiculous. And then there were the other massacres, often linked to Piazza Fontana – Via Fatebenefratelli in 1973 (at the inauguration of a statue of Calabresi, when a so-called ‘anarchist’ threw a bomb into the waiting crowd, killing 4 people), Brescia 1974, Bologna 1980 (to mention the most well-known). It was a dark week in Italian history, and its shadow still hangs over Italy today. Maybe in 2069, we might – finally – find out what really happened. But don’t hold your breath.


John Foot, 11.12.2019