Italian President Mattarella and S.G. Zampetti’s unseen revolution, Laura’s role

The greatness of the seven-year term that is about to come to an end also depends on the radical changes that the Secretary General, with the support of the President, has brought about. These include the renovation of the service quarters and the “Quirinale Contemporaneo”.

by Guido Talarico

Rome – Covid permitting, on 24 January next, our Parliament will be convened in joint session, together with the regional delegates, to elect the next President of the Republic. It is therefore time to take stock of the outgoing administration. As it is natural, most commentators have focused their analysis on an assessment of the political work carried out by Sergio Mattarella. The resulting judgement is very positive overall. Nor could it be otherwise. It has been a demanding and at times very stressful seven years (four governments and an unprecedented pandemic) that the outgoing President has governed with acumen, balance and effectiveness, demonstrating in everyday life what high political, moral and human stature the man is endowed with. However, in our opinion, Mattarella’s seven-year term will also go down in history for a ‘revolution’ that not everyone has grasped. We are referring to the administrative revolution brought about by Secretary General Ugo Zampetti. Let us therefore try to retrace some of the stages of these profound and little-known changes adopted by the outgoing secretariat.

The management of public affairs in Italy, especially when it comes to the public sector, has a bad reputation. Alexandre Dumas film’s maxim, ‘Duty is what you demand of others’ well describes the attitude of a number of privileged categories who often prove inflexible towards the public and accommodating towards themselves. One of Zampetti’s first moves was in this direction. Starting with the highest institution of the Republic to give a signal to the whole country.

The General Secretariat of the Quirinale, with the President’s approval of course, has carried out an operation that has sanctioned the end of an ancient privilege reserved for the institution’s senior executives: the elimination of the service quarters housed in the historic Palazzo San Felice, a building of a certain magnificence that stands in Via della Dataria, opposite the Quirinale and next to the Scuderie. This is how 43 lodgings became available to the Presidency of the Republic. The service quarters were an ancient custom of the Hill. This privilege was also enjoyed by Zampetti’s predecessors, Gaetano Gifuni and Donato Marra. Zampetti began the operation by setting a good example, giving up his service accommodation himself and also giving up his residence in the Castelporziano estate, which was thus assigned to a social initiative for the elderly and the disabled. But the Palazzo San Felice’s project has a broader scope. In addition to the restoration of the building by the administration, it also envisages its renovation and return to public use.

This is the start of the project, entrusted to the architect Mario Botta, for the new Library of Archaeology and History of Art’s construction. At the moment the premises have already been handed over and the work will be completed in 2024, when the library, until now housed in Palazzo Venezia, will be able to come back to life. It is an operation of principle, because it puts an end to an inappropriate system of subsidized rents, but it is above all an operation of great cultural value, so much that the Quirinale has managed it together with the competent department, that of Franceschini.

In addition to the ethical aspects, the positive cultural aspects of this operation are many. At Palazzo Venezia the library, one of the most important in the country, was suffering. It was poorly exposed and therefore difficult to access, and in some ways even endangered part of its heritage. In Palazzo San Felice, however, it will find a location of great architectural value that will reward the quality and usability of its contents. We are talking about 400,000 volumes, including incunabula, sixteenth and seventeenth-century editions, 3,500 periodicals, 20,700 engravings, drawings and photographs, 2,000 theatre posters, 66,000 microfiches, 400 CD-ROMs, 1,600 manuscripts and over 100,000 papers from archival collections. In short, a treasure. A true symbol of the extraordinary national cultural heritage’s nature. It is also worth noting that architect Botta donated his work.

If President Mattarella has marked his seven-year term, playing the role of the irreproachable constitutional arbiter, the noble father who embodies the spirit of the founders and who responds to every crisis, be it political or health-related, by always finding the best solution for the country and the institutions, defending the interests of all, Zampetti marks his own General Secretariat at the Quirinale in the vein that is dearest to him and that characterises his entire career: serving the State in the best possible way, remaining faithful to the institutions before being loyal to the people and, above all, bringing home real results always in the public interest. That added value, concrete and measurable, which always makes the difference.

These seven years at the Quirinale represent the culmination of an unparalleled career as a civil servant. Back in 1999, Mr. Zampetti was appointed Secretary General of the Chamber of Deputies. In that role he worked with five presidents from as many parties: Luciano Violante, Pier Ferdinando Casini, Fausto Bertinotti, Gianfranco Fini and Laura Boldrini. He worked with all of them with his usual spirit of service and effectiveness, modernising the Chamber of Deputies from its physical structure to its regulations. A journey that, of its kind, has made history.

He arrived to the Quirinale when he was already retired, which is why he refused any form of additional remuneration that had been provided for the Secretary General in the past. He was totally in tune with President Mattarella, to whom he was bound by thirty years of professional and human esteem. And it is precisely this afflatus, this continuous support of the President, that enables him to carry out his ‘revolution’. Zampetti’s actions are reminiscent of an adage by George Eliot, the male pseudonym of the refined Victorian writer Mary Evans Cross: “The reward for fulfilling one duty is the ability to fulfil another”.

After the Palazzo San Felice operation, Zampetti is now charging ahead with a second cultural project of epoch-making importance: “Quirinale Contemporaneo”. Let’s face it, the work of the General Secretariat is studded with dozens of small and large-scale recoveries, restorations, securing, and reopenings: from the entrance gate of Porta Dataria to the wall and the entrance gate of Porta Panetteria, to the restoration and reopening of Porta Quirinale, as well as the restoration and upgrading of the systems in four prestigious halls (of the Seasons, of the Caskets, of Bronzino and of the Representation). Just as a sign of great attention to social issues was the inclusion of a new lift in the pathway for the elderly and disabled. In short, a great deal has been done to restore the splendour, safety and efficiency of the Quirinale Complex.

However, after the restoration of Palazzo San Felice, Quirinale Contemporaneo is the other milestone in the “revolutionary” management that has been carried out on the Hill. As we were saying, this is a memorable event, one of those pages that will remain in the art history books and perhaps even in the history of the country. I have written about it many times, because ever since its first edition I have been impressed. The reasons are these. Before the advent of the Mattarella-Zampetti duo, the doors of the Quirinale had remained closed to both modern and contemporary art. An absurd choice. It was as if the Presidency of the Republic implicitly validated the widespread feeling in certain circles, and prevalent at international level, that the Italy of art was only classical. A few years ago, I went to visit Professor Louis Godard, Advisor to the President of the Republic for the preservation of the artistic heritage of the presidential endowment. I went as the editor of Inside Art and founder of the Talent Prize, putting myself at the disposal of his offices to try to give space to contemporary art and especially to emerging talents. I was told that the Quirinale did not deal with contemporary art. Sic et simpliciter. I left with a heavy heart.

Quirinale Contemporaneo, a brainchild of Zampetti and shared with President Mattarella, has now been held three times. The curator is Cristina Mazzantini who, despite the natural initial complications and the pandemic, has kept a steady hand by bringing the best of Italian contemporary art and design to the Hill. An enormous job. If you happen to visit Quirinale Contemporaneo, and I recommend it, you will understand even without being an expert the quality and breadth of the work done. There is the best of the best, and as if that were not enough, many of the works on display have been donated to the Presidency of the Republic. To give just one example, the donations include a work by Rudolf Stingel from Merano, a true international star, whose value is at least three million euros.

Modern and contemporary art have been accepted at the Hill. At last the doors of the palace are open to them too. But that’s not all: with donations from the best of Italian design production, from lamps to sofas, from chairs to lighting, Mazzantini rearranges and re-models the entire Palazzo, restoring it to its former glory and creating real value for the property. In short, the main lever used by Zampetti to mark his era was culture combined with good management. An example that we hope will set a trend.

Examining Mattarella’s seven-year term from a broader angle, however, cannot fail to emphasise another figure who has been fundamental in building the success of an entire mandate. I am referring to Laura Mattarella, the “first daughter”, as the Americans would say. Laura is a refined woman, endowed with a natural elegance that has immediately put her in the limelight in managing her role alongside the President. But she is also an administrative lawyer, a wife and the mother of three young and beautiful teenagers.

Lawyer, wife and mother. Three roles that she adores but which she has set aside out of a sense of duty, to satisfy her father’s request but certainly out of a deep respect for the institution that her father represents. Only superficial glances can fail to understand what it means to leave one’s life to devote oneself to a mission that is not one’s own after all. Laura Mattarella played her part to perfection. Interacting with other first ladies is an affair of state. To do it well is to render an important service to one’s country. Laura did it with sobriety, with discretion, with great professionalism.

One of the first times I met her was during a state visit to Cameroon. At the dinner offered in Yaoundé by President Paul Biya to the Italian delegation there were about 600 guests. The presidential table was high up and overlooked the room where the guests were sitting. I was down there, not very close, but I could see them well. A long, tiring lunch. It was on that occasion that perhaps for the first time I understood the value of that discreet and elegant woman who knew how to combine composure and resilience and add them to an excellent conversational ability. These are qualities that have marked her seven-year term, which has ended, and this too is a success, without a single blemish.

The greatness of Sergio Mattarella’s presidency is undoubtedly the result of his stature as a constitutionalist, politician and man, and can also be measured by the difficulty of the tests he had to overcome. But, as I have repeated, it also stems from his ability to choose his team. Laura’s perfection, Zampetti’s competence, vast experience and republican ethics, his belief in culture as the best tool to characterise his mandate, are all elements that make up the scaffolding of a memorable presidency.

The last time I visited Quirinale Contemporaneo I had the opportunity to climb the Torrino, the highest point of the complex and of the city, the most beautiful view in Rome. Looking in the direction of the Trevi Fountain, on one of the buildings closest to the Quirinale I saw a white sheet in full view with the words ‘Sergio rimani’ (Sergio, please stay) written on it. The people are calling, but Sergio has already said that it’s not right to stay and that he’s leaving. And, of course, we have to believe him. Let’s hope that parliament can keep in mind Pietro Calamandrei’s suggestion when he said that “the Constitution must be presbyopic, see better from afar” and let’s hope that whoever takes the hill will start from Mattarella’s legacy.


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