Renato Curcio, March 1978. (Photo by Adriano Alecchi/Mondadori via Getty Images)

Renato and Me

David Smith recalls his association with Renato Curcio, the former leader of Italy’s ultra-left terrorist group the Red Brigades

Artillery Row

With the sharp beard and the piercing eyes, Renato Curcio always reminded me of the young Al Pacino as Frank Serpico in the 70s movie classic Serpico about a New York cop blowing the whistle on corruption. Waiting in a courtroom in Turin, looking at the crowd of prisoners led in, heavily manacled, by Carabinieri-wielding submachine guns, then packed into a huge metal cage, I wasn’t alone.

The Red Brigades knee-capped journalists and kidnapped army Generals

“He reminds more of the Godfather Pacino,” remarked my friend Vincenzo, terrorism specialist on the Turin newspaper La Stampa. Together we hustled up to the bars of the cage, eager for a word with the man himself. “Buon giorno, stronzo!” said Renato, looking at me with those deep, brown eyes, fingering his beard, for a second his face creased by a smile. “Stronzo!” he repeated, chuckling. For once I didn’t mind being called an asshole. Because Curcio and I had a morning routine, a mini-chat, and what he said made headlines. Renato Curcio, then the leader of a terrorist group that wrote the book on mayhem and murder in the first world.

March 1978, a month that surely rests in the history of modern Europe’s travails with urban terrorism. Yes, Northern Ireland had its “troubles”, such a very British euphemism. Yes, Spain had its Basques, ETA the name of the movement, capable of yet another “guerra civil” some days. Likewise, West Germany faced the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang, dedicated to kidnapping and extortion.

But Italy represented the epicentre of the battle, and that month Italy created its crucible. No euphemisms to cover up the crisis in Rome, Milan, and Turin. No. With disarming honesty, the Italians coined anni de piombo, the years of lead, when an ultra-left terrorist group called Brigate Rosse, the Red Brigades, knee-capped journalists, kidnapped army Generals, and blew up office buildings, oil depots, tourist havens like the magnificent Piazza Navona in Rome. They shot dozens of managers in the factories of Fiat cars, where they had significant support on the shop floor, inventing the word “gambizzati”, the knee capped. Years of lead indeed.

And in that month of March, in the midst of Renato Curcio’s trial in Turin, they executed a plot that re-wrote the rulebook in Europe on how modern-day terrorism could take the state by the throat and hold a country to ransom. On the morning of 16 March, four Red Brigades gunmen shot and killed the five bodyguards of one Aldo Moro, long-time prime minister then Italy’s political fixer-in-chief, as he drove to work from his home in a northern suburb of Rome, taking him hostage on the very day he was to mastermind the latest Italian government, this one an historic alliance with the powerful Communist Party on board.

Arriving at the scene within an hour of the ambush as a young correspondent for Reuters, the shock was watching Italian TV take endless pictures of those bodies, one still at the wheel of Moro’s lead car, a Fiat 130, others lying on the street, covered in bloody white sheets. Police reported almost mathematically, 91 shots fired, 45 bullets in five bodies. Asked whether the guards were armed, they told us their weapons were kept in the trunks of the cars they drove. “Merda,” said Vincenzo when I called him later that day. No translation needed.

The crisis was always destined to end in national tragedy

What followed amounted to 55 days of agony for a country that tended to wear its heart on its sleeve, or let’s put it this way, enjoy a good cry. But this was different. Now a small, violent group, self-described “Maoist and Marxist-Leninist”, wrote the narrative, and defined a dysfunctional state that went all the way to the top apparat. Day after day, the Red Brigades issued communiques from their hiding place, showing Signor Moro begging his friends in power to save him by releasing Red Brigades leaders on trial, chief among them Curcio. The fact that Moro, the political kingmaker, hinted he was ready to spill the beans on the dodgy behaviour of his colleagues in power made it even more tragic, if that were possible. The fellow probably sentenced himself to death with that warning. Certainly those colleagues did nothing to save him.

Most mornings when the court sat, Renato held forth as we scrambled to the metal bars of his cage. “Stronzo, capisc o no?” was his favourite opening line to me before issuing a volley designed to grab not just headlines, but send his followers, the kidnappers, a message of no compromise.

“Moro’s capture shows the road ahead, to a dictatorship of the proletariat!”

“The armed struggle is the only way to combat the Nazi-fascist occupation of Italy.”

“There will be an insurrection from all our forces, you will see, stronzo.”

Sometimes the insult carried a throaty threat. Point taken. I wanted to use my own expletive in response some mornings, but decided it might not be wise. Tempting as it was to dismiss him and his tired slogans, reality check: my interviewee held a nation by the throat. So much so that a superstar foreign correspondent, one R. W. “Johnny” Apple of The New York Times, buttonholed me one day, pleaded to take him up to the cage, and translate an exchange with Renato. “The world waits on this man’s words,” Apple reported.

Stronzo, cosa fai, e chi e questo stronzo?” said Renato. “What are you doing, and who is this other stronzo?” I spared the formidable Johnny Apple the detail of the endearing epithet applied to him. “Tell him the struggle goes on, here in my cage and in the country. Go on, tell the stronzo.” Apple was delighted, writing it all up as an exclusive no less.

The crisis was always destined to end in national tragedy, given the hard-line messages-cum-orders Curcio sent his followers from that cage and Aldo Moro’s decision to beg for his life, not knowing that many old chums didn’t want him back alive telling all. After 55 days, the Red Brigades shot him through the head, and then dumped his body, clearly visible in the back of a car left, oh so symbolically, on a street in Rome that housed the headquarters of his ruling Christian Democrat party at one end and the Communist HQ at the other. Moro, never a straight talker, had described the two parties as being on “converging parallels”. What a burial ground.

“You see, stronzo, who writes the story now,” Renato told me a few days later, shortly before being sentenced to yet another long stretch in prison. “We do.” Hard to suppress disgust, but – remembering what you did for a living, not to mention his capacity to order killings – you found a way.

Ten years later, I returned to Rome. I was refused permission to see him but allowed to spend a day with his fellow leader of the Brigate Rosse, one Alberto Franceschini, mastermind of the Moro operation, by then the lead actor in a drama called “gli pentiti,” the terrorists who repented of their actions and were allowed a path to re-integration, rehab into society. In Franceschini’s case, that meant leaving Regina Coeli prison every morning to work as an editor at a publishing house in Rome. “We were so, so wrong, and we must show our sorrow at our terrible actions,” he said. Amazingly, Aldo Moro’s granddaughter Maria echoed the thought. “We must forgive, even if we can’t forget,” she told me. Italy, from its crucible of the late 1970s, showed others the way, thinking out of the box long before the British in Northern Ireland or the Spanish in the Basque country.

The one who didn’t was Renato Curcio. He’s been at liberty for some years now, but he’s never repented publicly. I sent him a message via his lawyers, then an old friend of his, even at one point his Mum, saying I’d like to talk to him again. “No, stronzo,” came the reply. “Basta.”

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