Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

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Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (19 June 1926 – 14 March 1972) was an influential Italian publisher, businessman and communist after the Second World War. He founded a vast library of documents mainly in the history of international labor and socialist movements.[1] He became a militant and clandestine left-wing activist during the Years of Lead.[2][3] He died violently, either by his own, perhaps inadvertent, hand or at the hands of a covert enemy.[1][4]

Early life[edit]

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born into one of Italy's wealthiest families, perhaps originating in Feltre. His father Carlo controlled numerous companies including Credito Italiano, Edison and Legnami Feltrinelli, which managed vast lumber holdings in central Europe, some having provided sleepers for the enormous extension of Italian railway tracks in the nineteenth century. His father died in 1935. At his monarchist mother's instigation, Benito Mussolini had him created marquess of Gargnano at the age of twelve.[2] His mother Giannalisa Gianzana Feltrinelli married in 1940 Luigi Barzini, editor of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. During the Second World War, the family left the Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano north of Salò to be occupied by Mussolini, and moved to Monte Argentario.[1]

The young Giangiacomo first took an interest in the living conditions of workers and the poor during discussions with the staff who ran his family's estate. He came to believe that under capitalism most people could never attain his privileges and were compelled to sell their labour to the industrialists and landowners for a pittance.[5] During the latter stages of the Second World War, Giangiacomo joined the Gruppo di Combattimento "Legnano"[6] and at the same time he enrolled in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), fighting the invading German army and the remnants of Mussolini's regime.[1][7]

In the post-war period the PCI held an influential position amongst the Italian electorate (after 1948 it became the main opposition). The country was in economic ruins and the Party's opposition to Mussolini had gained it great popularity. The PCI was in coalition until 1947.[7]

Carlo Feltrinelli's will had made Giangiacomo heir to three-quarters of his assets, which came fully under his control when he came of age in 1947.[1] Banca Unione (formerly Banco Feltrinelli) was controlled by Feltrinelli until 1968, when it was taken over by Michele Sindona. According to some interpretations Sindona was pushed to buy out Feltrinelli by IOR, the Vatican bank, a minority shareholder embarrassed by cohabitation with a communist partner.[8]

From 1949 Feltrinelli collected documents for the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Library in Milan, documenting the history of ideas, in particular those related to the development of the international labor and socialist movements.[1] It later became an institute; now the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation, possessing some 200,000 rare and modern books, extensive collections of newspapers and periodicals, both historical and current, and over one million primary source materials.[9]


Near the end of 1954, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli established a publishing company in Milan, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore. Its first published book was the autobiography of the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the late 1950s Feltrinelli accidentally came across the manuscript of the novel Doctor Zhivago by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak. Set in Russia, the novel follows a multitude of characters from 1903 to 1943, the period of revolution, bloody civil war, Leninism and Stalinism. At once, Feltrinelli saw a masterpiece. The PCI leaders were reluctant to be seen to condone criticism of the Soviet Union.

His son's biography[1] records the fascinating correspondence between Feltrinelli and Pasternak, as they successfully resisted clumsy attempts by the Soviet regime to halt publication of the novel. Doctor Zhivago immediately became an international best seller, to be followed by several popular film adaptations. As a result of his defiance of Moscow, Feltrinelli was criticised and he decided not to renew his party membership in 1957 though he kept on good terms with the PCI. Feltrinelli Editore scored another coup in 1958 when it published a book rejected by every other significant Italian publisher, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Described by some as the greatest novel of the century, The Leopard centres on the Sicilian nobility during the Risorgimento, when the Italian middle class rose violently and formed a united Italy under Giuseppe Garibaldi and the House of Savoy. Despite these successes Feltrinelli Editore in this period lost about 400 million lire a year.[10]

Whatever his own reading tastes, Feltrinelli was always keen to promote the avant-garde, including the works of the influential Group 63 literary circle. He also took the risk of illegally publishing and distributing novels banned under obscenity laws, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.

In 1960 Feltrinelli married the German photographer, Inge Schönthal, and they had a son and heir, Carlo. Inge eventually became the de facto head of the publishing house as Giangiacomo came to devote himself to clandestine political activity, of which she disapproved. She and Carlo still run Feltrinelli Editore together.[11]


Feltrinelli spent the next years travelling the world and making links with various radical Third World leaders and guerrilla movements. Feltrinelli was given the iconic photo of Che Guevara now seen everywhere. Within six months of Che’s assassination, Feltrinelli sold over 2 million posters bearing the famous image.[12] In 1964, Feltrinelli met the leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro. In 1967, Feltrinelli arrived in Bolivia and met with Régis Debray. He published the writings of figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and a series of pamphlets on the unfolding insurgencies and wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.[1] He was a close friend of the student leader Rudi Dutschke, whom he invited to convalesce in Italy when seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.[1] Feltrinelli gave financial support to the Palestine Liberation Front among other causes.[11]

In 1968 Feltrinelli went to Sardinia to make contact with left-wing and separatist groups on the island, intending to make Sardinia the Cuba of the Mediterranean and "liberate it from colonialism".[13] His attempt to strengthen the rebel forces of the bandit Graziano Mesina was nullified by Italian secret military intelligence.[14][15]

Feltrinelli increasingly advocated guerrilla activity in Italy on behalf of the working class. (His sometime stepfather Luigi Barzini thought Giangiacomo preferred the company of men who "despised the masses as he did, who thought them something they could play with.")[4] In 1970, fearing a right-wing coup, Feltrinelli founded the militant Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups, GAP).[2][3] GAP would become the second militant organization after the Red Brigades to be formed during the Years of Lead. Anticipating assassination attempts by the CIA or Mossad, Feltrinelli assumed a nom de guerre and went underground.[1][16]


On March 15, 1972, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead at the foot of a high-voltage power-line pylon at Segrate, near Milan, apparently killed by his own explosives while on an operation with other GAP members.[17] His death, like his father's, was immediately viewed suspiciously, though in 1979, during an anti-terrorist trial, the Red Brigade defendants read a signed statement that Feltrinelli

was engaged in an operation to sabotage electricity pylons intended to cause a blackout in a wide area of Milan … It was a technical error committed by him … which led to the fatal accident and the subsequent failure of the whole operation.[18]

Forty years after Feltrinelli died, however, previously suppressed forensic reports surfaced in Corriere della Sera, arguing Feltrinelli had been mugged and later tied to the pylon before the bomb was detonated. The implication was that he had been killed and framed by Italian or Israeli security police.[16][19] Luigi Barzini had considered and rejected this possibility at the time of Feltrinelli's death:

Yet is it very likely that a conspirator with the gifts of a great novelist or a great film-director was to be found among the secret agents? a plotter capable of staging a death so faithful to the victim—his past, his nature and his character?[20]

Others have speculated Feltrinelli was murdered by the KGB.[21]

Some 8,000 people attended Feltrinelli's funeral.[7]

In Popular Culture[edit]

Feltrinelli's life story was the subject of the 2013 concept album and theatrical performance Praxis Makes Perfect by the group Neon Neon. The performance was in conjunction with National Theatre Wales.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Feltrinelli, Carlo; translated by Alastair McEwen (2001). Senior Service: a story of riches, revolution and violent death. London: Granta Books. ISBN 1862074569. 
  2. ^ a b c Probst Solomon, Barbara (2001-05-01). "Man of all qualities: the enigma of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli". Harper's Magazine. 
  3. ^ a b Alberto Ronchey (1979). "Guns and Gray Matter: Terrorism in Italy". Foreign Affairs 57 (4): 921–940. doi:10.2307/20040207. 
  4. ^ a b Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 38. 
  5. ^ Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, "autobiographical profile" for PCI, Milan, 1950 quoted by Feltrinelli, Carlo; translated by Alastair McEwen (2001). Senior Service: a story of riches, revolution and violent death. London: Granta Books. pp. 53–60. ISBN 1862074569. 
  6. ^ Cesana, Roberta (2010). Libri necessari : le edizioni letterarie Feltrinelli, 1955-1965. Milano: UNICOPLI. ISBN 8840013962. 
  7. ^ a b c Mulholland, Niall (October 2002). "Review of Carlo Feltrinelli's 'Senior Service'". Socialism Today. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  8. ^ ^Senato della Repubblica - Commissione parlamentare d'inchiesta sul terrorismo in Italia e sulle cause della mancata individuazione dei responsabili delle stragi, Relazione del gruppo di Alleanza Nazionale, Roma, 31-7-2000
  9. ^ "Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli". Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  10. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 37. 
  11. ^ a b Michaelsen, Sven (4 March 2013). "Seize the Right Moment". 032c. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  12. ^ Pirro, Deirdre (6 March 2008). "Giangiacomo Feltrinelli: the millionaire revolutionary". The Florentine. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  13. ^ "Sardinia a political laboratory". Gnosis online. Retrieved 4 December 2013. 
  14. ^ "Morto Pugliese, l' ex ufficiale del Sid che "fermò" nel ' 60 il latitante Mesina". Corriere della Sera. 3 January 2002. Retrieved 4 December 2013. 
  15. ^ On the relationship between Feltrinelli and Sardianian separatism see Cabitza, Giulinao (1968). Sardegna: rivolta contro la colonizzazione. Milan: Feltrinelli Editore. 
  16. ^ a b Ferruccio Pinotti (12 March 2012). "Feltrinelli, le ombre 40 anni dopo". Corriere della Sera. Retrieved 2013-11-29. 
  17. ^ Hofmann, Paul (1990). That fine Italian hand (1st ed.). New York: H. Holt. pp. 180–185. ISBN 0805009779. 
  18. ^ Brambilla, Michele (1993). L' eskimo in redazione : quanto le brigate rosse erano "sedicenti" (Ed. aggiornata e ampliata, 1. ed.). Milan: Bompiani. ISBN 9788845220708.  Original text (Italian): Osvaldo non è una vittima, ma un rivoluzionario caduto combattendo. Egli era impegnato in un'operazione di sabotaggio di tralicci dell'alta tensione che doveva provocare un black-out in una vasta zona di Milano; al fine di garantire una migliore operatività a nuclei impegnati nell'attacco a diversi obiettivi. [...] Fu un errore tecnico da lui stesso commesso, e cioè la scelta di utilizzare orologi di bassa affidabilità trasformati in timers, sottovalutando gli inconvenienti di sicurezza, a determinare l'incidente mortale e il conseguente fallimento di tutta l'operazione.
  19. ^ Henning Klüver (12 March 2012). "Mord im Auftrag des Staates?". Süddeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved 2013-11-29. 
  20. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 40. 
  21. ^ Rayfield, Donald (June 2014). "Pasternak Bound". Literary Review (421). Retrieved 7 June 2014. 

Further reading[edit]