Giangiacomo Feltrinelli: From Silver Spoons To Lead Bullets

How did a successful publisher end up blown to pieces under a lonely power line? The tragic story of Italy's multimillionaire guerilla fighter.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Giangiacomo Feltrinelli with Fidel Castro. Source: Corriere della Sera.

Italy’s multimillionaire guerilla fighter

Feltrinelli. You may recognize the name if you are a bibliophile or have spent time perusing the shelves at Milan’s Stazione Centrale while waiting for your connection to Florence or Rome. Italians know Feltrinelli as one of the country’s leading publishers and booksellers, on the level of a Barnes and Noble or Waterstones. The company bears the name of its founder, a man born into incredible wealth who always identified more with the working class, and sought to make literature accessible to anyone.

During his lifetime, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was both hailed as a visionary and assailed as a fanatic. After his death he was called an autistic Garibaldi for his bungled revolutionary efforts, yet celebrated for the literary empire he left behind. Regardless of what you think of him, his brief 45 years on Earth were fascinating and provide insight into how the turmoil of the Years of Lead spread throughout Italian society, enveloping even its leading cultural figures.

Few would have predicted in 1926 that Giangiacomo, nicknamed ‘Il Giangi’, would meet his end blown apart by dynamite under a lonely transmission tower outside the dull Milan suburb of Segrate. His father was Carlo Feltrinelli, who got his start in the lumber business but soon expanded his holdings to banks, construction, and Italy’s first electric utility, Edison. Giannalisa Gianzana was his mother, an influential woman who had a strong affinity for the Italian monarchy. While his early childhood was largely idyllic, spent at the family’s estate in Gargnano on the shores of Lago di Garda, tragedy struck in 1935 when Carlo was charged with corrupt business dealings.

Unwilling to face further public humiliation and imprisonment, he swallowed poison and died the next day. This turn of events shook the family to its core, yet Giannalisa recovered quickly and succeeded in having Giangiacomo declared the marquis of Gargnano by Benito Mussolini at the young age of 12. The family’s future seemed to brighten further when Corriere della Sera editor Luigi Barzini Jr. asked for Giannalisa’s hand in marriage in 1940.

Yet the whirlwind of political upheavals and war in Europe could not be evaded, even by one of Milan’s prominent dynasties. Mussolini’s regime ‘assumed ownership’ of the Feltrinelli estate and Giangiacomo’s new stepfather was forced into house arrest for several years for not being aligned with Il Duce’s vision for Italy. Despite these circumstances, Giangiacomo showed himself to be a budding young squadrista. As journalist Indro Montanelli recalled it, “In the 1940s he was a fascist. He was so fascist that in 1943, after the Armistice of Cassibile, he wanted to denounce both me and his stepfather Luigi Barzini for certain things we had said against the regime.”

His admiration for Mussolini and his philosophies was so profound that his bedroom was plastered with propaganda posters and news clippings of the military triumphs of the Axis Powers. But like many Italians who first sympathized with the fascists and then had a change of heart as the Allies advanced up the peninsula, Giangiacomo moved left as time went on. At the age of 18 he joined the Gruppo di combattimento Legnano, a partisan unit of the Italian Resistance, and participated in the liberation of Bologna. Besides causing a significant rift with his conservative mother, this marked the beginning of his long and fractious relationship with the Communist Party. 

It is important to note that Giangiacomo had always shown sympathy for the maids, gardeners, and other household staff that his family employed. Growing up with a rebellious streak that was further compounded by his family’s strict molding, Giangiacomo made an effort to befriend the servants whose experience was a world apart from his unimaginable affluence. As a teenager he even ran away from home, only agreeing to return if he was permitted to move into the servant’s quarters. As he spoke with and worked alongside the laborers, he recalled “being exposed to another world that was not the gilded one in which I lived. I learned about the conditions, the uncomfortable life of the poor, the struggles to maintain a family, the meager pay, and the constant threat of unemployment that hung over their heads. I understood that there were two different and clearly distinct social classes.” 

With the war fading into the rear view mirror, Giangiacomo began to think about his future. He enrolled in the Politecnico di Roma, taking classes during the day and participating in Communist political activities at night. It did not hurt that in 1947, at the age of 21, Giangiacomo inherited 75 percent of his father’s estate. All that money burning a hole in his pocket pushed him to find new ways to support the advancement of his new ideology. He began to furiously collect documents and monographs on the history of the worker’s movement and Marxism, filling his apartment until the point he decided to open l’Associazione Biblioteca Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. It was 1951 and more than two million Italians were members of the Partito Comunista Italiano, part of a high tide of red allegiance that was lapping at other shores throughout Europe. Giangiacomo had absorbed a measure of business acumen after being around his mother and uncles growing up, and sensed that the time was right for a new venture. After a few stops and starts, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore was born in Milan in 1954. 

From the beginning, the publishing house was proudly antifascist and advocated for freedom of thought, while remaining a prominent platform for Marxism. Feltrinelli’s first two titles were Lord Russell’s The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes and An Autobiography by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This international outlook would remain an essential part of Giangiacomo’s vision for his company, as he jetted around the world looking for promising manuscripts. It was through his energetic pursuit of the latest cultural outputs that he chanced upon Boris Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago. The Russian Pasternak had drawn the ire of Nikita Khrushchev for his supposedly critical views of the Soviet Union, which resulted in a blanket ban on the publishing of his work. One of Feltrinelli’s contacts in Moscow knew Pasternak was desperate and approached him about having Doctor Zhivago published in Italy. The author was terrified of the possible repercussions but agreed to go ahead, resulting in a major coup for the publishing house. Feltrinelli would be the first publisher in the world to release Doctor Zhivago in 1957, ahead of the United States and France, and would make a killing off the film rights in the early 1960s. Other successes would follow in 1958 with The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and the Italian edition of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1962. 

Despite his business successes, Giangiacomo had many headaches to deal with. Since the Soviets were putting heavy pressure on the Italian communists to keep Doctor Zhivago from being published, Il Giangi had to fend off accusations of betrayal from his comrades. His role had always been limited within the Communist Party due to his elite roots, which frustrated him when he sought to play a larger role in militant operations. Beyond this infighting, Giangiacomo was horrified at the brutal Soviet reaction to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. When a student-led protest toppled the government, the Politburo sent in troops and tanks and massacred thousands of civilians. Like many other Communists in Western Europe, Giangiacomo felt that the spirit of the Communist revolution had been betrayed, and decided that guerilla warfare was the only way forward. 

After the Piazza Fontana bombing in December 1969, Giangiacomo went underground. He knew he was being surveilled by the police, and he wanted time to plan his next move. It came months later when Giangiacomo established Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana or GAP, an underground paramilitary organization with strong Marxist tendencies. Giangiacomo was completely convinced that far-right groups like Ordine Nuovo were planning to seize control of the government in Italy and crush any opposition in their way. While the likelihood of this occurring was low, it is true that both sides of the political spectrum were engaged in an existential struggle that resulted in horrific collateral damage. Upwards of 400 Italians were killed and thousands more seriously injured in the twenty-year turmoil that left deep scars on the national psyche.   

Between 1970 and 1972, Giangiacomo was rumored to be working with left-wing organizations in Sardegna, hoping to launch a movement that would turn the island into a Mediterranean Cuba. Giangiacomo had boundless admiration for Fidel Castro and had visited him on several occasions, even going as far as publishing his early writings. Their discussions about the 26th of July Movement and the accomplishments of Che Guevara did much to propel Giangiacomo towards his destiny. Under the nom de guerre of Osvaldo, Giangiacomo moved about Italy in an outfitted Volkswagen Transporter, fulfilling his dream of being a freedom fighter. On March 15, 1972, while attempting to set explosives on an electrical pylon that supplied power to a large portion of Milan, Giangiacomo miscalculated and blew himself up. Investigators could only identify him from photos he had in his pocket and the bones of his fingers, as his hands were completely mangled.  

The radical left-wing publication Potere Operaio del Lunedì marked his passing twelve days after his death with the following words: “We know that this comrade is not a victim, nor is he a terrorist. He is a revolutionary who has fallen in this first phase of the war of liberation from exploitation. He was killed because he was a GAP militant.” The reactions across the publishing world and news media were of complete shock — how could a multimillionaire, even one with guerilla aspirations, do something so foolhardy? Thousands attended his funeral in Milan, and he was buried under red flags and raised fists at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

The questions still linger even after almost half a century. Was Feltrinelli killed by the CIA? Did Mossad get involved in some way? Perhaps his body had been planted by the Italian police? Few were convinced that Feltrinelli had killed himself in an amateurish attempt to plant explosives, but the left-wing Red Brigades conducted its own inquiry in the months that followed and seemed satisfied with this explanation. 

Looking back, there are some who continue to label Feltrinelli as an undisciplined, pseudo-revolutionary who simply did what he did for media attention. Indro Montanelli bore no ill-will towards his peer but said, “I take issue with those who have made Feltrinelli into a mythological figure. In reality, he was a poor man. A simpleton consumed by exhibitionism.” This may have been true, but he also left behind a lasting legacy. With more than 120 locations in 58 cities, Gruppo Feltrinelli now boasts a workforce of 2,000 Italians and prints millions of books each year. Giangiacomo could have had a much richer life had he veered away from fruitless violence, but his intellectual endowment continues to reap rewards for generations of his countrymen.

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