The Enigma of Berlinguer: Communist, Aristocrat, Landowner, with a Devout Catholic Wife

If the Italian Communists win a share of power in next week’s election, the man to watch is the party’s 54-year-old secretary-general, Enrico Berlinguer (pronounced Bare-ling-GWARE).

The prospect of Communist leadership is sending Shockwaves through other Western countries. But there may be some misgivings in Marxist capitals as well, for Berlinguer is no ordinary Communist.

He is still called “Don Enrico” in his native Sardinia, where his family is descended from Spanish aristocrats. His grandfather, a lawyer, was a republican during the Italian monarchy; his father, also a lawyer, was a Socialist when Fascism ruled.

The poker-faced Berlinguer is an atheist married to a Catholic, Donna Letizia. He has allowed his four children to be baptized, given first communion, and confirmed—a tolerance which some regard as a political ploy. Nonetheless, Berlinguer professes respect for Catholicism and has sought accommodation with the Vatican. “Italy has built her own brand of Communism,” he has said, “a brand that is not subservient to Moscow.” He accepts the idea of dissenting political parties and promises that his government would relinquish power if defeated in an election.

Such views are hardly those of the caricature, bomb-throwing Communist, and indeed Berlinguer has never been one. He did spend 100 days in jail for inciting a riot in Sardinia during World War II, but it is the spoken word rather than the Molotov cocktail that has been his weapon.

His long, well-reasoned speeches, once thought pedantic and dull, have now been livened up to the point where his platform manner approaches the charismatic. He is especially effective on TV and has been called “the sexiest politician in Italy.”

As a teenager, Berlinguer steeped himself in the orthodoxies of Marx and Lenin, later dropped out of college and joined the Communists in 1943. In a rare interview, he recalled himself as a rebel. “I protested everything,” he said. “Religion, the state, the clichés people used, social customs.”

Berlinguer came under the wing of party leader Palmiro Togliatti, rose through the ranks and won a seat in parliament in 1968. He was thoughtful, articulate, reserved and, above all, careful. He stayed out of intraparty battles.

His patience during long meetings was so legendary that comrades nicknamed him “culo di ferro” (“iron bottom”). Berlinguer’s reward in 1972 was the party’s leadership. His nationalistic approach to Communism is underscored by a portrait in his sparsely furnished office—it is not Marx or Lenin, but Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist party and, like himself, a Sardinian.

Power has diluted neither Berlinguer’s sense of privacy nor his intellectuality. He spends much of his free time in his 5,000-volume library. He speaks fluent French, reads English and understands a little Russian.

As the election approaches, Berlinguer’s day is frenetic. He wakes at 6, shaves with a British razor, drinks a cup of caffe-latte and is driven to party headquarters before 8. After lunch he tries to nap, then usually works until 10. His devotion to his family would do credit to the most proper bourgeois.

Even Berlinguer’s indulgences are minor: a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, red wine with meals, lemon in his tea. With his brother, Giovanni, 51, a physician and fellow Communist, Berlinguer inherited a 275-acre island near Sardinia. Though it is suitable only for sheep-grazing, ownership of the island has brought charges that the brothers are “capitalists.” When Berlinguer goes on vacation, he retreats to a fisherman’s cottage on Sardinia, where he likes to sail, fish, listen to classical music and take long walks.

There is one place, however, that he never visits: the local church. “I know Giovanni better,” says the old parish priest. “He has been back to see us. Enrico, never.”

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