Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

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Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.jpg
Feltrinelli in the late 1960s
Born(1926-06-19)19 June 1926
Milan, Italy
Died14 March 1972(1972-03-14) (aged 45)
Segrate, Italy
Allegiance Kingdom of Italy
Service/branchItalian Co-belligerent Army
Years of service1944–1945
Unit"Legnano" Combatant Group
Bianca dalle Nogare (m. 1947–1956)
Alessandra de Stefani (m. 1956–1964)
Inge Schönthal (m. 1960–1969)
Sibilla Melega (m. 1969–1972)
ChildrenCarlo Fitzgerald Feltrinelli (1962–)

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Italian: [dʒanˈdʒaːkomo feltriˈnɛlli]; 19 June 1926 – 14 March 1972) was an influential Italian publisher and businessman active following the Second World War. He founded a vast library of documents mainly in the history of international labor and socialist movements. He became a militant and clandestine left-wing activist preceding the Years of Lead.

Feltrinelli is perhaps most famous for his decision to translate and publish Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago in the West after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, in the late 1950s. He died violently under mysterious circumstances.

Early life[edit]

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born in 1926 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. Carlo died in 1935. At the instigation of Giangiacomo's monarchist mother, Italian leader Benito Mussolini had him created marquess of Gargnano at the age of twelve.[3] His mother Giannalisa Gianzana Feltrinelli married in 1940 Luigi Barzini,[4] editor of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. During the Second World War, the family left the Villa Feltrinelli[5] in Gargnano, north of Salò, to be occupied by Mussolini, and moved to Monte Argentario.[6]

Early political activity[edit]

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 for a pittance to industrialists and landowners.[7] During the latter stages of the Second World War, Giangiacomo joined the Legnano Combat Group[8] and at the same time enrolled in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), fighting the invading German army and the remnants of Mussolini's regime.[6]

In the post-war period, the PCI held an influential position in 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.[9]

Inherits enormous wealth[edit]

The elder Carlo Feltrinelli's will had made Giangiacomo heir to three-quarters of his assets, and they came fully under his control when he came of age 21 in 1947.[6] Banca Unione (formerly Banca Feltrinelli) was controlled by Giangiacomo 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.[10]

Begins left-wing library[edit]

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.[6] The Library later became an Institute; later still the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation, possessing some 200,000 rare and modern books, extensive collections of newspapers and periodicals, both historical and current, and over a million primary source materials.[11]


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.

Dr. Zhivago[edit]

In late 1956 an Italian journalist showed Feltrinelli the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak.[4][12] Set in Russia, the novel follows a multitude of characters from 1903 to 1943, the period of revolution, bloody civil war, Leninism, Stalinism, and the early part of the Second World War. Feltrinelli's Slavist advisor told him, "Not to publish a novel like this would constitute a crime against culture".[13] His son Carlo's biography of Feltrinelli[6] records the fascinating correspondence between him and Pasternak, as they successfully resisted clumsy attempts by the Soviet regime to halt publication of the novel.[14] Doctor Zhivago immediately became an international best seller.[15] Feltrinelli sold the film rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer for $450,000 and, adjusting for inflation, it was produced in 1965, and became one of the highest-grossing films of all time; it was also critically acclaimed.[16] As a result of his defiance of the communist leadership in Moscow, which had not wanted the book published, Feltrinelli was criticised, and he decided not to renew his party membership in 1957, though he kept on good terms with the PCI. But the PCI leaders were reluctant to be seen to condone criticism of the Soviet Union.

The Leopard[edit]

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.[4] Described by some as the greatest novel of the century, The Leopard centres on the Sicilian nobility during the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, 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 on a turnover of 1.207 billion lire, because Feltrinelli believed in keeping his prices low for maximum readership access.[17] Still, Feltrinelli Libra (a chain of bookstores) had a nominal capital of 120 million in 1956. Feltrinelli Masonite, which he chaired, had a turnover of 1.421 billion in 1965. Another firm which he advised on real estate construction had a capital of 400 million in 1970.[2] So ample funds were available from his other investments.

Whatever his own reading tastes, Feltrinelli was always keen to promote the avant-garde, including the works of the influential literary circle, Group 63. He also took the risk of publishing and distributing novels banned under obscenity laws, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.[9]

Starting in Pisa in 1957, Feltrinelli built up a chain of retail outlets which after his death became the largest in Italy; it had over a hundred bookshops.[18]

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. Mother and son still run Feltrinelli Editore together.[19]


In the post-war period Feltrinelli had joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) before moving to the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which he left in 1957.[4]

Cuba, Bolivia[edit]

Feltrinelli spent the Sixties travelling the world and making links with various radical Third World leaders and guerrilla movements. In the Cuban house of the photographer Alberto Korda, Feltrinelli saw and was given the iconic photo of Che Guevara now seen everywhere.[20] Within six months of Che’s assassination, Feltrinelli sold over two million posters bearing the image.[21] In 1964, Feltrinelli met the leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro. In 1967 Feltrinelli went to Bolivia and met with Régis Debray. Feltrinelli published the writings of figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, and a series of pamphlets on the unfolding insurgencies and wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.[6] 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.[6] Feltrinelli gave financial support to the Palestine Liberation Front among other causes.[19]

Moves toward extremism[edit]

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".[22] His attempt to strengthen Graziano Mesina's rebel forces was eventually nullified by the Italian secret military intelligence.[23][24]

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.")[25] In 1970, fearing a right-wing coup, Feltrinelli founded the militant Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups, GAP).[3][26] 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 ("Osvaldo") and went underground.[6]


On 15 March 1972, Feltrinelli was found dead at the foot of a pylon of a high-voltage power-line at Segrate, near Milan, apparently killed by his own explosives while on an operation with other GAP members.[27] Some 8,000 people attended Feltrinelli's funeral.[9] His death, like his father's 37 years before, was immediately viewed suspiciously, but Luigi Barzini had considered and rejected the possibility of it having been a killing 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?[28]

In 1974 an audio recording found in a shelter of the Red Brigades described Feltrinelli as

sitting astride the pylon preparing the dynamite. At that time the first accomplice, half-way up the pylon, felt a strong and dry explosion but clung tightly to the pillar … He fell to the ground, looked upward and saw nothing, looked down and saw Osvaldo [Feltrinelli] rolling on the ground. His immediate impression was that Osvaldo had lost both his legs.[4]

In 1979, during an anti-terrorist trial, the Red Brigades defendants read into the court record 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.[29]

The defendants denied the thesis of the murder, claiming it was a commemoration of the publisher and his political ideas, and a critique addressed to the circles of the extra-parliamentary left who had tried to deny them[30]. They also admitted that Feltrinelli was not obsessed with a neo-fascist coup, because he wanted to establish in Italy the armed struggle and was one of the first to have had contacts with the German Red Army Faction[30]: finally they affirmed that the relationships between GAP and RB were characterized by the maximum correctness, without competitive spirit[30].

The trial ended with 11 convictions, 7 acquittals, 2 prescriptions and 9 amnesties[31] (this legal sentence was largely confirmed in 1981)[32].

In cultural memory[edit]

  • Senior Service, by Carlo Feltrinelli, 2001. This lengthy biography, written by his Giangiacomo's son Carlo, was first published in Italian, and then translated into English.
  • Feltrinelli, an 80-minute documentary by Alessandro Rossetto, was released in 2006.[33]
  • Feltrinelli, played by Fabrizio Parenti, appears in the 2012 film Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (Romanzo di una strage) by Marco Tullio Giordana. The film is about the 1969 bomb explosion in Milan's Piazza Fontana, the subsequent fall to his death from a police window of an anarchist suspect, and the putative murder of Luigi Calabresi, the investigating police commissioner. In the film he takes part personally in the discovery of Feltrinelli's body: Calabresi in reality directed the investigation from Milan.[34]
  • Feltrinelli's life story was the subject of the 2013 concept album and theatrical performance Praxis Makes Perfect by the group Neon Neon.[35]
  • Feltrinelli, his publishing, and his suspicious death are mentioned several times in The Flamethrowers, a novel by Rachel Kushner which is set during the Years of Lead.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sibilla Melega, the Fourth Wife". Historical archive. Corriere della Sera. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  2. ^ a b Biscione, Francesco. In Fiorella Bartoccini (ed.). "Feltinelli, Giangiacomo". Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, Rome 1996 (Italian). Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  3. ^ a b Probst Solomon, Barbara (1 May 2001). "Man of all qualities: the enigma of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli". Harper's Magazine.
  4. ^ a b c d e Montanelli, Indro (1991). L'Italia degli anni di piombo. Milan: Rizzoli.
  5. ^ "Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli". Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Feltrinelli, Carlo; translated by Alastair McEwen (2001). Senior Service: a story of riches, revolution and violent death. London: Granta Books. ISBN 1862074569.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Cesana, Roberta (2010). Libri necessari : le edizioni letterarie Feltrinelli, 1955–1965. Milano: UNICOPLI. ISBN 8840013962.
  9. ^ a b c Mulholland, Niall (October 2002). "Review of Carlo Feltrinelli's 'Senior Service'". Socialism Today. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
  10. ^ ^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 July 2000
  11. ^ "Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli". Archived from the original on 12 August 2013. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  12. ^ Finn, Peter and Petra Couvée (2014). The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book. Pantheon. ISBN 9781846558856.
  13. ^ Couvée, Peter Finn, Petra (2014). The Zhivago affair: the Kremlin, the CIA, and the battle over a forbidden book. London: Harvill Secker. p. 89. ISBN 9781846558856.
  14. ^ The complete Pasternak–Feltrinelli correspondence—mostly intercepted at the time by the KGB—is given in Mancosu, Paolo (2013). Inside the Zhivago Storm: the Editorial Adventures of Pasternak's Masterpiece. Milan: Feltrinelli. ISBN 885881441X.
  15. ^ Scammel, Michael (10 July 2014). "The CIA's Zhivago". New York Review of Books.. "Feltrinelli rushed the Italian translation of Doctor Zhivago to market in November 1957, and translations into English, French, German, and other languages followed in the spring of 1958."
  16. ^ Couvée, Peter Finn, Petra (2014). The Zhivago affair: the Kremlin, the CIA, and the battle over a forbidden book. London: Harvill Secker. pp. 255–6. ISBN 9781846558856.
  17. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 37.
  18. ^ "". Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  19. ^ a b Michaelsen, Sven (4 March 2013). "Seize the Right Moment". 032c. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
  20. ^ "La storia della foto del Che". Archived from the original on 27 March 2013. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  21. ^ Pirro, Deirdre (6 March 2008). "Giangiacomo Feltrinelli: the millionaire revolutionary". The Florentine. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  22. ^ "Sardinia a political laboratory". Gnosis online. Archived from the original on 11 December 2013. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
  23. ^ "Morto Pugliese, l' ex ufficiale del Sid che "fermò" nel ' 60 il latitante Mesina". Corriere della Sera. 3 January 2002. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
  24. ^ On the relationship between Feltrinelli and Sardianian separatism see Cabitza, Giulinao (1968). Sardegna: rivolta contro la colonizzazione. Milan: Feltrinelli Editore.
  25. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 38.
  26. ^ Alberto Ronchey (1979). "Guns and Gray Matter: Terrorism in Italy". Foreign Affairs. 57 (4): 921–940. doi:10.2307/20040207.
  27. ^ Hofmann, Paul (1990). That fine Italian hand (1st ed.). New York: H. Holt. pp. 180–185. ISBN 0805009779.
  28. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 40.
  29. ^ Brambilla, Michele (1991). L'eskimo in redazione. Quando le Brigate Rosse erano "sedicenti" (1. ed.). Milan: Ares. 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.
  30. ^ a b c Luciano Gulli, Il giudizio dei terroristi su Feltrinelli «Un rivoluzionario caduto combattendo», il Giornale nuovo, April 1, 1979.
  31. ^ Già presentato l'appello per Lazagna e altri sette, il Giornale nuovo, April 3, 1979
  32. ^ Trentaquattro anni di carcere per Curcio e altri 8 brigatisti, il Giornale nuovo, April 10, 1981
  33. ^ "Feltrinelli". DSCHOINT VENTSCHR FILMPRODUKTION AG. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  34. ^ Pedro Armocida (27 November 2011). "Bombe, sangue di Stato e G8 Il cinema torna a fare politica". Il Giornale.
  35. ^ Sawdey, Evan (1 May 2013). "Neon Neon: Praxis Makes Perfect". PopMatters. Retrieved 14 June 2013.

Further reading[edit]