The demonisation of Pietro Valpreda

“THE TERROR machine has been blown apart. It is now only a matter of picking up the pieces. The beast responsible for the fourteen lives lost in the Piazza Fontana and perhaps also the death, the suicide in the Via Fatebenefratelli, has been arrested and locked down: his face is here on this newspaper page. We must never forget it. The beast made us cry and brought the taste, the bitterest taste of pain and rage to our hearts of hearts. Now we can begin to breathe again and start to get the measure of the diabolical adventure. The butcher’s name is Pietro Valpreda; he is thirty-seven years old and has never amounted to anything in his whole life.  Apart from one elderly aunt who irons his shirts and brushes down overcoat, he has fallen out with his entire family. She helps him out. He comes from the madcap world of be-bop and rock, a world where the men are men and the girls are too. He has dabbled in outdoor dances and dances on the city centre streets.  Available also for stage work in musical revues, he used to play the boy, one of those with arching pencilled eyebrows, dressed in the most foppish trousers, like some soubrette walking or leaping down from a staircase of glittering neon lights. What a short-lived, unhappy and poorly paid profession. This wretch is also unwell. The circulation in his legs is not as it should be. He has Burger’s disease, a savage ailment that causes a blockage and could bring on an embolism and death. Step by step, Pietro Valpreda is on the road to becoming a monster.”

This was the opening paragraph of an article published on the front page of the Corriere d’Informazione of Wednesday 17 December 1969, over the by-line of Vittorio Notarnicola. The editor was Giovanni Spadolini who was adding this job to his post as number one at the Corriere della Sera. Two large photos — one of the taxi-driver Cornelio Rolandi and a photo of Pietro Valpreda overshadowed the article. The bold capitalised headline read:  ‘VALPREDA DONE FOR’.

The morning papers that day, formally less sensational, took a clear line, albeit with some circumlocution. They accepted Valpreda’s guilt unreservedly. Corriere della Sera proclaimed: ‘Anarchist Valpreda arrested for collusion in the Milan massacre’. La Stampa opted for: ‘Anarchist arrested for colluding in massacre. Inquiry into suicide at police headquarters in Milan’. Il Giorno went for ‘Charged with massacre’. L’Unità chose: ‘Arrest made for massacre’. Avanti!: ‘Arrested for collusion in massacre’. Il Resto del Carlino declared: ‘An anarchist arrested for massacre’. Il Messaggero went for: ‘Criminals arrested’. Il Tempo: ‘Murderer arrested: anarchist Pietro Valpreda’. Paese Sera opted for: ‘Man identified by cab-driver reported for colluding in the massacre’. Il Popolo: ‘Anarchist arrested over Milan massacre’. Il Mattino plumped for: ‘Terrorist who carried out massacre arrested’. Roma: ‘Arrested: the monster is an anarcho-communist dancer from Canzonissima’.

Television was not far behind. Reporter Bruno Vespa, speaking live from the police headquarters in Rome during the evening show of 16 December, stated: ‘Pietro Valpreda is a culprit, one of those responsible for the massacre in Milan and the attacks in Rome. There had to be no question about that.’

Cornelio Rolandi, taxi driver (State witness against Valpreda

So it looked as if the file could be closed. The police had tracked down those responsible in record time. The sole basis for these accusations was the taxi-driver Cornelio Rolandi’s statement — and it was barely credible.

At 4.00 pm. on 12 December, Rolandi was in his Fiat 600 in the Piazza Beccaria when a customer asked him to take him to the junction at the Via Santa Tecla. When they arrived the fare asked Rolandi to wait while he got out, carrying a black bag. He returned after a few minutes and they drove to the Via Albricci where Rolandi dropped him.

Anyone familiar with Milan city centre will find this strange. The taxi rank in the Piazza Beccaria is 135 metres from the entrance to the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura. It is 117 metres from the Via Santa Tecla to the bank.

In order to spare himself a journey of 135 metres, Valpreda allegedly made a return trip 234 metres, with the added risk of possible recognition by the random taxi driver he asked to make the trip.

This is how Rolandi remembered that afternoon: ‘the guy with the bag boarded my taxi in the Piazza Beccaria; he was clutching a black bag in his hand. I looked at him in the rear-view mirror and spotted right away he had the long sideburns in fashion these days. He asked me to drive him to the Via Albricci via the Via Santa Tecla. The trip was quite a short one, but in the Via Albricci there are lots of airline offices. I thought he might be a passenger off on a flight. I stopped in the Via Santa Tecla, as requested by the fare. I said that the Via Albricci was not far away and that he could walk it, but he told me to wait as he was pressed for time. Off he went with the bag. He returned after a short time, but without the black bag.  I drove him to the Via Albricci where he paid the 600 lire fare and left.’ (Franco Damerini, ‘Intervisto a Milano con il teste-chiave’ in Corriere dell’Informazione, 17 December).

Apart from the fact that under the fare structures of the time the cost of that short journey, complete with tip, ought to have been no more than half of the 600 lire mentioned by Rolandi, there is evidence that throws doubt on this reconstruction of events. It comes from Liliano Paolucci, director of the Milan school principals’ associations. Paolucci caught taxi 3444 (Rolandi’s taxi) with his daughter Patrizia on the morning of 15 December and observed that the taxi driver was obviously a novice, continually taking the wrong turn. Once his daughter had been dropped off at her school, Rolandi confided in Paolucci who taped his recollections of the conversation on Sunday 21 December in order to have a definite record of this strange encounter:

‘To the best of my recollection, this is the story told to me by the taxi-driver. It was about 4.00 pm. on 12 December. I was in the Piazza Beccaria when I saw a man of around forty years of age entering the Piazza Beccaria from the Galleria del Corso. He came up to me in flawless Italian with no regional accent and: “Banca dell’Agricoltura in the Piazza Fontana.” I replied: ‘But the Banca dell’Agricoltura is only a few steps away — 50 metres away, signore. You’d be better off walking it.“ He said nothing, opened the door and stepped into the taxi. I had a good view of him. He was carrying a briefcase, a fat briefcase that appeared very weighty. Off we drove to the Banca dell’Agricoltura, within five or six minutes. He got out of the taxi, walked briskly into the Bank and came out equally briskly within 40 or 50 seconds, a minute at most. He got back into the taxi and he said: “At this point Paolucci interrupted asked him why the man would be coming from the Galleria del Corso. Rolandi’s response was priceless: “Don’t you know that the Galleria del Corso is a notorious hangout?’ A claim he repeated three times.

Even more mysteriously, though, Rolandi was later to deny that he had ferried Paolucci and that he had spoken with him. Even more strangely, the police and the magistrates never confronted Rolandi with Paolucci to compare their differing versions of events.  That was not the only oddity, as Paolucci himself pointed out to the reporter Enzo Magri who interviewed him for the weekly L’Europeo of 9 March 1972:

‘At 9.15 am on the Monday, I, a citizen, reported a serious matter. […]  I gave chapter and verse in my report. Yet how did the police react? They did not jump on it, never rushed round to see me and never even contacted me by phone. Bear in mind that Cornelio Rolandi had yet to approach the carabinieri in the Via Moscova, where he would report at 1.35 am that day. So this Rolandi could have been a nutcase, but equally he could have been telling the truth. And they say the truth has to be sought out before anybody gets the chance to eradicate it […] I, however — the only person with any knowledge of a disconcerting truth — was called by the telephonist at police headquarters half an hour after my call and told: “I am the police officer who took your call. Are you aware perhaps that you didn’t ask the taxi driver how the man whom he dropped off outside the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura was dressed?”’

Rachele Torri (Valpreda's Great Aunt)

These were not the only contradictions Paolucci mentioned. There was another witness too — a very important one. This witness insisted that Valpreda was in bed sick on 12 December. Who was it?  Valpreda’s great aunt Rachele Torri who lived in the Via Vincenzo Orsini in Milan.

This was how the great aunt remembered that afternoon: ‘Pietro was in bed with a fever. He was about to fetch the overcoat that he would need the following morning if he were to keep his appointment with Judge Amati.  Well, I went instead. It must have been 7.00 – 7.30 pm and I remember that as I was boarding the E bus in the Piazza Giovanni dalle Bandere a lady opened a copy of La Notte and I caught sight of some headline about deaths. I asked her if there had been an accident and she replied that there had been bombings. I got off in the Piazza del Duomo and cut through the Via Dogana to catch the No 13 tram to Pietro’s parents’ place in the Piazza Corvetto. I stopped at the newsagent’s and bought a copy of La Notte. When I arrived at my niece’s flat I told her that Pietro had arrived, ill, which was why I had come to fetch his overcoat.  Pietro’s sister, Nena, urged me to get him to eat something and gave me the overcoat and some shoes. I then went straight home and told Pietro his sister had asked him to eat something. Then I gave him the newspaper.’ (Interview with Rachele Torri in Rivista A— Rivista Anarchica of February 1971).

The next day, 13 December, Valpreda met with his lawyer Mariani and went with him to a meeting with Judge Amati. The judge was not available so they left him a note saying Valpreda would call again on Monday the 15th. He then made his way to the home of his grandparents, Olimpia Torri Lovati and Paolo Lovati in the Viale Molise, where he remained until the morning of 15 December.

His sister, Maddalena and girlfriend, 33-year-old Elena Segre, a translator who lived in an apartment block in the Viale Lucania where Valpreda’s parents lived, called to see him. Segre dropped by to see Valpreda at around 6.00 pm. on Sunday the 14th.

In an interview with Giampaolo Pansa in La Stampa on 18 February 1970, Segre stated: ‘Pietro was here at his grandparents’ place. I rang the bell and they let me in. He was on the settee pushed against the wall over to the left, wearing blue pyjamas and he got up to meet me…’ Pansa interrupted to remind her that her evidence had already been taken by Ernesto Cudillo, the examining magistrate, and by Vittorio Occorsio, the public prosecutor and that therefore if she told lies they could arrest her.

Segre replied: ‘Listen, the guy was there on the Sunday! What can I do about it if I saw him there? He greeted me. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time. He sat on the sofa bed as did he and I was sitting on my right, facing his two grandparents. We chatted […]’

So Valpreda had an alibi for the days from 12 to 15 December — alibis that showed he could not have been in the Piazza Fontana and contradicted his incredible taxi trip.

Croce Nera Anarchica (Anarchist Black Cross) posters

Croce Nera Anarchica (Anarchist Black Cross) posters

By that time it was hard to argue Valpreda was guilty. But the police and magistrates had certainly not acknowledged defeat. And so, a little over a month later in early February 1970, they brought out a few Roman witnesses to testify that Valpreda had been in Rome on 13 and 14 December. If Valpreda’s relations were telling lies about those two dates, then they had lied about 12 December too and so the taxi driver Rolandi’s testimony would stand.

Who were these witnesses? Ermanna Ughetto, stage name Ermanna River, Enrico Natali, Gianni Sampieri, Armando Gaggegi and his wife and Benito Bianchi — all avant-garde theatre folk who appeared regularly at the Ambra-Jovinelli theatre in Rome.

But when Valpreda was brought face to face with these witnesses on 6 March, there were clearly two conflicting versions of events. The Roman witnesses claimed to have met in Rome Valpreda on 13 or 14 December. Valpreda argued that the meeting they referred to had taken place about ten days earlier — shortly after Valpreda had been released from the Regina Coeli prison on 25 November.

Valpreda and Gargamelli (1970 - during their trial for the 19 November 1969 affray)

In fact, Valpreda had been arrested on 19 November following a fracas with fascists in the Trastevere district.  But there was another detail. During a medical inspection prior to his entering prison, Valpreda had bruising around his left eye, bruising that had cleared up by the time he was arrested on 15 December. Some of the witnesses remembered the bruising when they claimed they had met Valpreda after the Piazza Fontana massacre. This was another contradiction that does not appear to have raised doubts in the minds of Cudillo and Occorsio, who indicted Valpreda’s relatives for perjury.  Inexplicably, though, no action was taken against Segre who made the same claims.

To add to the charge sheet, on 7 February Benyamin Safari from Milan police headquarters stated that the bag containing the unexploded bomb in the Banca Commerciale Italiana contained a piece of stained glass similar to that used by Valpreda in the manufacture of his liberty lamps. An unforgivable oversight by the anarchist bomber.

According to the police, the discovery of this incredible evidence dated back to 2.00 pm. on 14 December 1969, but nobody spotted the coloured glass until February. Valpreda’s defence counsel, Guido Calvi, was easily able to cast doubt on this “heaven-sent” discovery.

Valpreda's parents with Guido Calvi (right), Valpreda's barrister

As the judges saw it, Valpreda arrived in Milan in his Fiat 500 on 12 December. At 4.00 pm. he took a taxi to plant his bomb in the Piazza Fontana. On the morning of 13 December he accompanied his lawyer Mariani to see Judge Amati. He failed to find him and left a note to say that he would return on 15 December. Then he left for Rome in his beaten-up Fiat 500.

That evening he bumped into the dancer Ughetto and went to dinner with her. On Sunday 14 December he was back in the bar near the Ambra-Jovinelli theatre where he was seen by others who would be able to give the lie to his alibi. He was still in Rome as of 9.00 pm. By 8.00 am the following day he was back in Milan with his lawyer.

Technically, using a different car perhaps, this was feasible. But it defies belief that Valpreda would have put together a false alibi that could so readily be rebutted by so many people. Just as it defies understanding why Valpreda’s relatives and his girlfriend Segre, with whom he had not spoken at the moment of his arrest, were able to confirm what Valpreda had said. Cudillo and Occorsio had a different version of the truth — Valpreda was guilty. Not only was he a liar, but his parents were also lying. Especially when Rolandi was telling the truth and was in for the 50 million lire reward from the Interior ministry. Cudillo and Occorsio made sure this truth was written into the record in an interrogation ‘for future use’; perhaps they foresaw Rolandi’s death on 16 July 1971.

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