Jump to content

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Feltrinelli in the late 1960s
Born(1926-06-19)19 June 1926
Died14 March 1972(1972-03-14) (aged 45)
Segrate, Lombardy, Italy
Other names"Osvaldo"
Occupation(s)Businessman, political activist
Years active1945–1972
Known forEuropean translations of Doctor Zhivago; publishing Lampedusa's The Leopard; founding Italy's biggest chain of bookstores; articles anticipating a fascist coup in Italy;[1] patronage of left wing terrorist groups
Political partyItalian Socialist Party
Italian Communist Party (1945–1958, lapsed)
Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups, 1970–1972)
Bianca dalle Nogare
(m. 1947⁠–⁠1956)
Alessandra de Stefani
(m. 1956⁠–⁠1964)
(m. 1960⁠–⁠1969)
Sibilla Melega
(m. 1969⁠–⁠1972)
ChildrenCarlo Fitzgerald Feltrinelli (1962–)
Military career
AllegianceKingdom of Italy
Service/branchItalian Co-belligerent Army
Years of service1944–1945
Unit"Legnano" Combatant Group

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Italian: [dʒanˈdʒaːkomo feltriˈnɛlli]; 19 June 1926 – 14 March 1972) was an influential Italian publisher, businessman, and political activist who was active in the period between the Second World War and Italy's Years of Lead. He founded a vast library of documents mainly in the history of international labour and socialist movements.

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 in 1972.

Early life[edit]

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was born in 1926 into one of Italy's wealthiest families, perhaps originating in Feltre. His father, Carlo Feltrinelli, controlled numerous companies including Credito Italiano, Edison S.p.A. 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, Giannalisa, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had him created Marchese di Gargnano at the age of 12 by King Vittorio Emmanuele III.[3] In 1940, Feltrinelli's mother married 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]

World War II[edit]

The young Feltrinelli first took an interest in the living conditions of the poor and working class 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 war, Feltrinelli joined the Italian Co-Belligerent Army's Combat Group "Legnano"[8] and enrolled in the Italian Communist Party (PCI), fighting the invading German Wehrmacht and the remnants of Mussolini's Fascist regime.[6]

In the post-war period, the PCI had a great deal of popular support and political influence; after 1948 it became the main opposition. Italy was in economic ruins and the party's previous opposition to Mussolini had gained it great popularity. The PCI was in coalition until 1947.[9]


Carlo Feltrinelli's will made Giangiacomo heir to three-quarters of his assets, which came fully under his control when he reached the age of 21 in 1947.[6] Banca Unione (formerly Banca Feltrinelli) was controlled by Giangiacomo until 1968, when it was acquired by Michele Sindona. According to some interpretations, Sindona was pushed to buy out Feltrinelli by the Vatican Bank, a minority shareholder embarrassed by cohabitation with a communist partner.[10]


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 labour 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, Feltrinelli established a publishing company in Milan, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore. Its first published book was the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India.

Dr. Zhivago[edit]

In late 1956, an Italian journalist showed Feltrinelli the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago by the Russian writer Boris Pasternak.[4][12] Feltrinelli's Slavist advisor told him to publish the novel, stating that to not do so would "constitute a crime against culture".[13] His son Carlo's biography of Feltrinelli[6] records a 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 bestseller.[15]

Feltrinelli sold the film rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $450,000. Produced in 1965, the resulting adaptation became one of the highest-grossing and critically acclaimed films of all time.[16] The communist leadership in Moscow, which had not wanted the book published, criticised Feltrinelli, who in turn decided not to renew his PCI membership in 1957. While Feltrinelli remained on good terms with the PCI, party 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 twentieth 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 lost about 400 million lire a year on a turnover of 1.207 billion lire, as Feltrinelli believed in keeping his prices low for maximum readership access.[17] Still, the Feltrinelli Libra bookstore chain had a nominal capital of 120 million lire in 1956. The following year, Feltrinelli built up a chain of retail outlets which after his death became the largest in Italy; it had over a hundred bookshops.[18] Feltrinelli Masonite, which he chaired, had a turnover of 1.421 billion lire in 1965. Another firm which he advised on real estate development had a capital of 400 million lire in 1970.[1] So ample funds were available from Feltrinelli's 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 Italian obscenity laws, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.[9]

In 1960, Feltrinelli married German photographer Inge Schönthal, who gave birth to a son named Carlo. Inge eventually became the de facto head of Feltrinelli Editore as Feltrinelli came to devote himself to clandestine political activity, of which she disapproved. Mother and son still run the publishing house together today.[19]


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

Third world activism[edit]

Feltrinelli spent the 1960s 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 Korda's iconic photo of Che Guevara.[20] Within six months of Che's assassination, Feltrinelli sold over two million posters bearing the image.[21] In 1964, Feltrinelli met Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. In 1967, he went to Bolivia and met with Régis Debray.

Feltrinelli published the writings of figures such as Castro, Che 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 after Dutschke was seriously wounded by an assassination attempt.[6] Feltrinelli gave financial support to the Palestine Liberation Front, among other causes.[19]

Guerilla activity[edit]

In 1968, Feltrinelli went to Sardinia to make contact with left-wing and separatist groups on the island, intending to make Sardinia a socialist republic similar to Cuba and "liberate it from colonialism".[22] His attempt to strengthen Graziano Mesina's rebel forces was eventually nullified by Italian military intelligence.[23][24]

Feltrinelli increasingly advocated guerrilla activity in Italy on behalf of the working class. In 1970, fearing a right-wing coup d'etat, he founded the militant Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups, or GAP).[3][25] GAP would become Italy's second-largest militant organization to be formed during the Years of Lead, after the Red Brigades. 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 an electricity pylon at Segrate, near Milan, apparently killed by an explosive device he and other GAP members were planting the day before.[26] Some 8,000 people attended Feltrinelli's funeral.[9] His death, like his father's 37 years before, was viewed as suspicious by several intellectuals, including investigative journalist Camilla Cederna, but Barzini rejected the hypothesis of a state-sponsored assassination:

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?[27]

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.[28]

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.[29] 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:[29] finally they affirmed that the relationships between GAP and RB were characterized by the maximum correctness, without competitive spirit.[29]

The trial ended with eleven convictions, seven acquittals, two prescriptions and nine amnesties[30] (this legal sentence was largely confirmed in 1981).[31]

In cultural memory[edit]

  • Senior Service, by Carlo Feltrinelli, 2001. This lengthy biography, written by 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.[32]
  • 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.[33]
  • Feltrinelli's life story was the subject of the 2013 concept album and theatrical performance Praxis Makes Perfect by the group Neon Neon.[34]
  • 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ "Sibilla Melega, the Fourth Wife". Corriere della Sera. 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.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  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.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Cesana, Roberta (2010). Libri necessari : le edizioni letterarie Feltrinelli, 1955–1965. Milano: UNICOPLI. ISBN 978-8840013961.
  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.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  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 978-8858814413.
  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.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 37.
  18. ^ "Dagospia.com". 7 July 2012. 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". balene.it. 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. ^ Alberto Ronchey (1979). "Guns and Gray Matter: Terrorism in Italy". Foreign Affairs. 57 (4): 921–940. doi:10.2307/20040207. JSTOR 20040207.
  26. ^ Hofmann, Paul (1990). That fine Italian hand (1st ed.). New York: H. Holt. pp. 180–185. ISBN 0805009779.
  27. ^ Barzini, Luigi (July 1972). "Feltrinelli". Encounter: 40.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ a b c Luciano Gulli, Il giudizio dei terroristi su Feltrinelli "Un rivoluzionario caduto combattendo", il Giornale nuovo, 1 April 1979.
  30. ^ Già presentato l'appello per Lazagna e altri sette, il Giornale nuovo, 3 April 1979
  31. ^ Trentaquattro anni di carcere per Curcio e altri 8 brigatisti, il Giornale nuovo, 10 April 1981
  32. ^ "Feltrinelli". DSCHOINT VENTSCHR FILMPRODUKTION AG. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  33. ^ Pedro Armocida (27 November 2011). "Bombe, sangue di Stato e G8 Il cinema torna a fare politica". Il Giornale.
  34. ^ Sawdey, Evan (1 May 2013). "Neon Neon: Praxis Makes Perfect". PopMatters. Retrieved 14 June 2013.

Further reading[edit]