Giacomo Matteotti was born on 22nd May 1885 in Fratta, a small town in Polesine, the area between the Adige and Po rivers, about fifteen kilometres from Rovigo. His parents were wealthy landowners and also ran a small emporium in the town centre. The province of Rovigo was one of the poorest Italian regions, as can be seen from the Jacini report of that period on the conditions of farmers and farm workers. The population, consisting mainly of farmers and farm labourers, lived in wretched conditions and leaned towards socialism. Migration was very common and over the next thirty years about a third of the population emigrated, mainly to South America. Giacomo’s political and moral inclinations were certainly stimulated by the extremely poor environment he lived in.
The Matteotti family was originally from Trentino, and had moved to the Polesine in the first half of the 19th century, when the province was part of the Lombardo-Veneto kingdom, in its turn part of the Hapsburg empire. The Matteottis were the owners of an iron mine at Comasine, in Val di Pejo and worked in the commerce of wrought and semi-wrought iron and copper. They had already become fairly wealthy when they moved their activity to the Rovigo area, working both in the town itself, and the surrounding areas. Matteo, Giacomo’s grandfather, settled in Fratta and opened a shop there in 1852, while keeping his official residence in Comasine, where Girolamo, the father of the future MP was born.
In 1858 Matteo was killed in a brawl in front of his shop, so all his property passed to his twenty-year-old son. Over the next few years, and especially after the Veneto was annexed to Italy (1866) Girolamo became wealthier with land purchases, thanks to the compulsory purchase orders, and consequent sale, of church goods in 1866 and 1867, and through a constant activity of money lending with interest. In 1875 the family fortune grew still more, thanks to Girolamo’s marriage to Isabella Garzarolo. She was only semi-literate, but had a very strong character, great business sense, and a sizeable dowry. When Giacomo was born in 1885 the family was one of the wealthiest in the province. Girolamo died in 1902, leaving his wife to run the shop and its connected activities.
Giacomo was the penultimate of seven children, four of whom died at a very early age. Of the three who grew up to adulthood Matteo (born in 1876) studied political economics at Venice and then Turin, under Francesco Saverio and later with Luigi Einaudi. He died when barely thirty. This older brother, who died too soon, was a major influence both on Giacomo’s choice of studies and his political activity with the socialists. The other brother, Silvio, who was probably destined to carry on the family business, died in 1909, when he was twenty-two.
Giacomo, the last surviving sibling, studied in Rovigo then graduated in Law at Bologna University, starting his academic career in the criminal sector. His immediate superior was Alessandro Stoppato, one of the best-known jurists at that time. Stoppato later became a Member of Parliament and then senator. He worked on the new code of criminal procedure, approved in 1913. Matteotti published his thesis- Recidivism- with the Flli Bocca publishers in Turin. This work dealt with one of the most topical subjects at that time: repetition of crimes- and it is still quoted in specialist bibliographies. It reveals the strong social and political sensitivity already present in its young author’s legal culture.
Matteotti had been working for some time with the local socialist magazine ‘La Lotta’, and in 1910 he was elected to the Rovigo provincial council. He later became town councillor in various places where the family owned land. In 1912 he was elected mayor of Villamarzana, a small town near Fratta. From that time on his political and administrative activity took up all his time. He was an able organizer of farm labourers’ leagues, as well as being a good administrator, and his considerable abilities soon brought him to the attention of his fellow socialists and his adversaries. During this initial period of political activity he was solely concerned with the problems of rural Polesine. He paid close attention to the basic school system, becoming more and more convinced that if the farmers didn’t reach higher social and cultural levels, there would never be any change in Italy. He was a reformer, but with a volatile temperament, not inclined to compromise. He soon became the undisputed leader of socialism in Polesine, taking the place of Nicola Badaloni, the philanthropist doctor from Trecenta, who had been a member of parliament from 1886.
When the First World War broke out Giacomo took a strictly neutral position. Following a speech against the war that he gave in the provincial council, he underwent a trial for defeatism, and he was acquitted only after two appeals. Military authorities thought it best to remove this ‘subversive’ person from his administrative activity. In spite of being declared unfit for military service because of a documented lung weakness which had meant interruption of all his activities in 1915, and had even threatened his life (both his brothers Matteo and Silvio had died of tuberculosis) he was called up and in 1916 he was sent to the Campo Inglese barracks near Messina, in Sicily. He stayed there till the spring of 1919. He was very far from the war scene, so it was difficult for him to imagine the drama that was playing out in the Veneto, especially after the rout at Caporetto. During these years of inactivity he returned to his law studies, publishing various essays in specialist journals.
Thanks to his wealthy family he was able to visit various European countries, especially during the preparation of his thesis, and he could speak fairly good French, English and German. In 1912 he had met Velia Titta, younger sister of the famous baritone Ruffo Titta, and they married in a civil ceremony in 1916. They had three children: Giancarlo (1918-2006), Matteo (1921-2000) and Isabella (1922-1994). Velia had no connection to politics and was a fervent Catholic, unlike her husband, who was radically anti-clerical and secular , as were all socialists at that time. She had a discreet but profound influence on her husband. Their abundant correspondence is extremely useful in illuminating the personal as well as political and public Matteotti.
When Matteotti was demobilized in 1919 and returned home from Sicily, he threw himself back into politics and was elected to parliament as member for Rovigo and Ferrara in November 1919. These were the first elections using the proportional system. The Socialist party PSI got 70% of the votes in Rovigo, the highest percentage in Italy. The following year the socialists confirmed this result, winning in all 63 towns of the Polesine. In spite of being a young, unknown member, Matteotti started to speak in the House, even on important occasions. He was relaxed and not cowed by the importance of the House, and his speeches alternated reasoning and analysis with irony and jokes. He soon became well-known, and his attacks on the old liberal ruling class were directed primarily at Giovanni Giolitti.
These are the post-war years in Italy, called the ‘biennio rosso’ (the red two years)a chaotic time of violence and illegality during which the socialists became more and more isolated, and the wealthier farmers and landowners found in the fascist groups a ruthless and determined counterpart. The lower Po valley, including the Polesine, was at the centre of this complex situation, which was a source of fear and violence. Matteotti, the local socialist leader and a member of Parliament, was totally immersed in this dramatic period of Italy’s history. He often seemed to be two-sided: observer of the law in Rome and a rebel in Polesine, a fireman in Rome and an pyromaniac in his own province.
Before the war he had already borne the brunt of numerous violent verbal attacks by his adversaries who considered him to be a kind of ‘class traitor’: the wealthy landowner turned socialist. The cutting remarks against the ‘ millionaire socialist’ and the ‘revolutionary in a fur coat’ in both the liberal and Catholic press of Polesine were incessant. But at that point he was still only a local figure. After the war, in the violent climate of the post war years, he was a national politician and he found himself at the centre of a much vaster political issue, with the gradual collapse of liberalism, the defeat of socialism and the Catholic popular vote, and faced with the rise of Mussolini’s movement. Matteotti was a victim of fascist violence on several occasions and in the space of a few months the fascists managed to overturn the political status quo in Rovigo. On 12th March 1921 he was brutally attacked in Castelgugliemo (rumour had it that he was even raped) after which he had to leave the Polesine to avoid more serious problems.
He was re-elected to Parliament in the 1921 elections and in 1922 he became secretary of the United Socialist Party (PSU) the reformist wing to the right of the PSI, under the leadership of Filippo Turati. During the Livorno congress of the previous year the Socialist party had already suffered the spilt on the left with the birth of the Communist Party (Pcdl). The result was that during the march on Rome the socialists were divided in three parts, more taken up with arguing among themselves than in fighting their adversaries. The victory of fascism was virtually inevitable.
Matteotti spent the last two years of his life in growing solitude. He was alone in the political archipelago of the left, given that he was equally distant from both communism and fascism, as he wrote in an icy letter to Palmiro Togliatti, when he rejected a possible alliance for the 1924 elections. But he was also alone within the PSU, and he denounced their cowardice, incompetence, betrayals and underlying intention of taking part in a government with the fascists. Matteotti, who was well aware of the reality of fascism from when he lived in the Polesine, continued to warn them about the dangers of this new movement, trying to incite his party to oppose them. His letters of this period, especially those he wrote to Turati, with whom he had established a close personal and political relationship, are a dramatic deposition of the disaster that the contemporary political class was facing, and of the responsibilities the left had in this.
Matteotti was re-elected in 1924, in the elections which took place after the reform of the electoral system decided by Mussolini, and the introduction of the Acerbo law. His passport was confiscated but he left the country anyway, and went to England to collect documents on the compromises and corruption of the men in power in the supply of oil to Italy. On 30th May he gave an impassioned speech during the opening session of the new Parliament. His speech was largely improvised and attacked the climate of violence and illegality that the elections had taken place in, demanding their annulment . His speech lasted more than an hour and took place in an incandescent atmosphere, interrupted frequently by shouts and threats from the fascist majority. When he finally sat down exhausted, and his fellow party members congratulated him, he allegedly replied that they should now prepare his funeral commemoration. Salandra referred this comment of Mussolini who had followed his speech from the government bench’ When will I be freed of this pain in the a… of Matteotti?’
Ten days later, in the afternoon of 10th June he was attacked, beaten and kidnapped on Lungotevere Arnaldo da Brescia, not far from his home. He was forced into a car and was probably assassinated inside the car itself. The political crisis of the following days was the most serious fascism faced in its twenty years in power. Then things quietened down and Matteotti’s body was found in a wood not far from Rome on 15th August. His body was was transferred to Fratta by train at night to avoid scenes of grief, and was laid out on the ground floor room of the villa where he had lived. This villa is now a museum and has been declared a national monument.
His funeral procession through the streets of the town and the burial in the town cemetery took place on 21st August. It’s estimated that about ten thousand people took part in the procession- almost three times the population of Fratta at that time.
Matteotti’s assassination was a watershed in the history of fascism and of our country. The importance of his life and death became apparent from this time. Between 1925 and 1926, once the crisis passed, Mussolini promulgated the so-called ‘ extremely fascist laws’, which dismantled the legally constituted state and established a dictatorship. For the next twenty years Matteotti’s name was banned. Just saying his name could have disastrous consequences. His family- his widow and children- lived closely watched in Fratta. Abroad instead, in the post war period his reputation spread from South America to Europe as shown by the quotes in the best European literature: he is remembered in the works by Ivo Andric, Miguel de Unamuno, Stefan Zweig, George Orwell, Marguerite Yourcenar, Leonardo Sciascia. In 1927 the town council of Vienna and Mayor, the socialdemocrat Karl Seitz, named a large popular residential block of 452 flats after Matteotti, calling it Matteottihof , in the Margareten District of Vienna. It still exists today, but the name was changed under the dictatorship of Dolfuss to please Mussolini, going back to Matteottihof in 1945.
After the war he emerged as one of the most honest protagonists of 20th century Italian history, rapidly becoming the symbol of anti-fascism and love of liberty, as can be seen from the streets, squares and public places in our cities named after him. In this his name is second only to the heroes of the Risorgimento.