Giorgio Napolitano, modern Italy’s longest-serving president, who orchestrated the transfer of power from a scandal-scarred Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to a little-known economist in a 2011 debt crisis and turned his nation back from the brink of collapse, died on Friday in Rome. He was 98.
His death, in a clinic, was announced by Italy’s current president, Sergio Mattarella, who said in a statement that Mr. Napolitano’s “life mirrors a large part of the history in the second half of the 1900s, with its dramas, its complexity, its goals and hopes.”
After a half-century in public life, Mr. Napolitano was caught up in a strange paradox. A former high-ranking leader of Italy’s Communist Party, he was instrumental in saving Europe’s third-largest capitalist economy from ruin. And he did it without executive power, using only the authority of an institutional head of state and guarantor of the Constitution.
On the merry-go-round of Italian politics, where leaders and governments revolved with mind-boggling rapidity, Mr. Napolitano never reached for the golden ring of the prime minister’s office and never acquired the polish of premiers like Giulio Andreotti, Amintore Fanfani or Mr. Berlusconi, the flamboyant billionaire media magnate and womanizer who was convicted of tax fraud after his resignation. Mr. Berlusconi died at 86 in June.
Indeed, to ordinary Italians and to an international cognoscenti, Mr. Napolitano was quite the opposite of such men: a down-to-earth, straight-talking intellectual who had served 38 years in Parliament, written a dozen books, helped ease Italian communism into a social democratic movement, supported closer ties to the European Union and America, and was president of the republic for nearly nine years, from 2006 to 2015.
Under Italy’s postwar Constitution, the president is elected by Parliament for a seven-year term. While second terms are not barred by law, no president had ever been re-elected until Mr. Napolitano was, in 2013.
While he had few day-to-day powers, he had authority in a crisis to dissolve Parliament, call elections and choose a prime minister to form a new government — processes unfamiliar to many outsiders but routine to Italians, who have seen more than 60 governments come and go since World War II.
The crisis in 2011 had been building for months, even years. By autumn, Italy’s public debt had shot up to $2.6 trillion, among the highest in Europe, and borrowing rates — the price demanded by investors to lend money to Italy — had soared to more than 7 percent. That was the highest level since the adoption of the euro a decade earlier, and close to levels that had forced other eurozone countries to seek bailouts.
Fiscal disaster loomed for Italians, with the prospect of rising taxes and inflation as well as cuts in jobs, wages and pensions. Economists also feared that a collapse in Italy would spread panic across Europe and around the world. Mr. Berlusconi’s fourth government since 1994 proposed austerity measures, but his political power, eroded by years of sexual and financial scandals, began to unravel.
Anticipating the worst, Mr. Napolitano had for months been laying the groundwork for a transition — consulting with Italian political and financial leaders, European governments, American officials and the Bank of Italy, assaying possible candidates and preparing a fresh economic agenda and a viable alternative to the Berlusconi government. While the crisis gathered steam slowly, the end came quickly.
Mr. Berlusconi’s austerity budget failed in Parliament, was modified for deeper cuts and, after weeks of stalemate, was adopted on terms sought by the European Union. Defections from the prime minister’s coalition doomed his tenure. With the debt crisis closing in and Mr. Berlusconi’s once mighty political capital spent, it became clear that his government could not survive a vote of confidence.
On Nov. 12, 2011, Mr. Berlusconi tendered his resignation to Mr. Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace, the presidential seat in Rome. Outside, crowds cheered and popped Champagne corks, an impromptu orchestra and choir struck up the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah,” and mopeds and cars sped through the center of Rome, honking horns and waving Italian flags in celebration.
Mr. Berlusconi’s replacement was waiting in the wings. The next day, Mr. Napolitano nominated a new prime minister, Mario Monti, an economist, president of the respected Bocconi University in Milan and former member of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body. He already had a proposed slate of experts for his cabinet and plans for economic reforms.
“Now is the time to show maximum responsibility,” Mr. Napolitano said in his announcement. “It is not the time to pay off old scores, nor for sterile partisan recriminations. It is time to re-establish a climate of calmness and mutual respect.”
Parliament quickly approved — and Mr. Napolitano swore in — Mr. Monti’s new government, composed mostly of academics, bankers and top-level civil servants, all experts in their fields. Mr. Napolitano also arranged to have Mr. Monti, a man from academe, appointed a senator for life.
“That was an act of genius,” Corrado Augias, an Italian writer and commentator, told The New York Times. “He took a professor and redressed him as a politician.”
The change of prime ministers hardly solved Italy’s financial problems. But in the coming months Mr. Monti’s government raised taxes, reformed pensions, cut expenses and began to restore market confidence in Italy’s eventual capacity to pay its debts.
Mr. Napolitano’s maneuvers were hailed as crucial to the future of Italy’s fiscal stability. President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France all called him to express support for his leadership. Italians came to regard him as an embodiment of civic virtue. His approval ratings rose to above 80 percent. Italian Wired magazine named him its “Man of the Year.”
Giorgio Napolitano was born in Naples on June 29, 1925, to Giovanni and Carolina (Bobbio) Napolitano. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a descendant of Piedmont nobility. He grew up hating Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and became a resistance fighter while studying at the University of Naples. In 1945, he joined the Italian Communist Party (P.C.I.), and two years later he received his law degree.
After working for land reforms in depressed Southern Italy, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s legislature, in 1953 as a Communist representative from Naples. In 1956, his party supported the Soviet repression of Hungary’s uprising; Mr. Napolitano later said he regretted that stance and became a moderate in party affairs.
He is survived by his wife, Clio Maria Bittoni, whom he married in 1959; their sons, Giovanni and Giulio; and two grandchildren.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Napolitano was a member of the Italian Communist Party’s Central Committee, directing economic policies, international relations and cultural affairs. He and the party veered away from Soviet Communism, finally broke with Moscow and advocated a socialist interdependence of European countries.
He made the first of several visits to the United States in 1978, to lecture and to meet journalists and officials. The former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger called him his “favorite Communist.”
As Soviet Communism crumbled, Mr. Napolitano was Italy’s delegate to the European Parliament from 1989 to 1992. When the Italian Communist Party lapsed in 1991, he joined its successor, the Democratic Party of the Left, and became speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.
By 1996, when he left Parliament, he was widely regarded as the body’s anchor of stability. He was given the post of interior minister, the first politician with Communist roots in that law-and-order post. A decade later, at 81, he reluctantly accepted the Italian presidency. After selecting Mr. Monti to succeed Mr. Berlusconi, he picked two more prime ministers, Enrico Letta in 2013 and Matteo Renzi in 2014, before retiring in 2015.
Mr. Napolitano’s books, most of them about politics and government, included a memoir, “From P.C.I. to European Socialism” (2005), and “One and Indivisible: Thoughts on 150 Years of Our Italy” (2011).
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.
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