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Eugenio Scalfari, elder statesman of Italian journalism, dies at 98

La Repubblica, the Rome-based daily he founded in 1976, became one of Italy’s leading newspapers

Eugenio Scalfari, a founder and former editor in chief of the Italian daily La Repubblica, in Milan in 1992. (AP)

Eugenio Scalfari, an elder statesman of Italian journalism who helped shape political debate and civic life in Italy for decades as a founder and longtime editor in chief of La Repubblica, one of the country’s leading newspapers, died July 14 in Rome. He was 98.

The cause was not immediately available. Mr. Scalfari’s death was reported by La Repubblica and announced by officials including Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who said in a statement that his “passing … leaves a gaping hole in our country’s public life.”

“The clarity of his prose, and depth of his analyses [and] the courage of his ideas have accompanied Italians for over 70 years,” Draghi added, describing Mr. Scalfari’s commentaries as “essential reading.”

For nearly half a century, newsstands across Italy have carried La Repubblica, the left-leaning daily that Mr. Scalfari founded with publisher Carlo Caracciolo in 1976. Headquartered in Rome, it became an upstart competitor to the Corriere della Sera, at times surpassing the more staid Milan-based daily in circulation with its splashy tabloid format and modern sensibility.

Mr. Scalfari, who had previously helped found the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso, served as editor in chief of La Repubblica for its first two decades. He continued writing a weekly Sunday column until shortly before his death, becoming known even among competitors as “the dean of our profession,” journalist Aldo Cazzullo wrote in a tribute published by the Corriere after Mr. Scalfari’s death.

La Repubblica changed Italian print media by helping popularize the tabloid format, which provided readers an alternative to the more traditional broadsheet layout.

Under Mr. Scalfari’s leadership, it also offered a new political vision, with coverage and commentary that sought to reorient the Italian political left away from communism and toward a greater embrace of liberalism as it was practiced in the West. Ezio Mauro, who succeeded Mr. Scalfari as editor of La Repubblica, described him in an interview as a “great innovator” who believed that with help from the robust exchange of ideas in the pages of a newspaper, “Italy could change.”

In addition to providing readers with expanded coverage of politics and the day’s events, Mr. Scalfari retired the antiquated, academic style of newspaper book reviews and instead offered lively discussions of culture and literature. He recruited contributors including Italo Calvino, a journalist, novelist and essayist who was one of the preeminent Italian writers of the 20th century, as well as an intimate friend from his youth.

Mr. Scalfari was born April 6, 1924, in Civitavecchia, a coastal city near Rome. He spent part of his upbringing in Sanremo, near the French border on the Ligurian Sea, where his father ran a casino, and where Mr. Scalfari met Calvino.

Mr. Scalfari grew up under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, who rose to power two years before his birth. Years later, recalling the indoctrination to which young people of his generation were subjected, he said he had been drawn into Mussolini’s grandiose promises of a revived Roman Empire.

A fascist university group expelled Mr. Scalfari from its ranks, according to an account in La Repubblica, after he published a commentary criticizing the party leadership. To humiliate him for his transgression, other members stripped the fascist insignia from his uniform. The incident marked the beginning of a political transformation that took Mr. Scalfari to the heart of the Italian life.

He wrote for magazines including Il Mondo and L’Europeo before helping found L’Espresso in 1955. He also served as editor in chief of L’Espresso from 1963 to 1968. The magazine gained wide notice in 1967, when it revealed that Gen. Giovanni De Lorenzo, Italy’s former counterintelligence chief, had plotted an unsuccessful coup three years earlier.

Mr. Scalfari later ran the L’Espresso publishing house before founding La Repubblica, which was sold to the publishing group of industrialist Carlo De Benedetti in 1989.

In his weekly columns, which were widely read across Italy, Mr. Scalfari explored topics ranging from the economy to philosophy to religion, or the absence of it. He was an atheist but cultivated an unusual and at times confounding friendship with Pope Francis.

On several occasions, reporting on their encounters, Mr. Scalfari attributed to the pope statements that the Vatican later denied the pontiff had made. Most notably, Mr. Scalfari claimed in 2018 that Francis had told him “hell does not exist,” an assertion that would be a stark departure from Catholic catechism.

The Vatican described the statement as “the fruit” of Mr. Scalfari’s “reconstruction.” Mr. Scalfari conceded that he did not take notes and that at his age — he was 93 at the time — he could make “mistakes.”

In Italy, a reporter for the New York Times wrote in a report on the contretemps, “Mr. Scalfari personifies an impressionistic style of Italian journalism, prevalent in its coverage of the Vatican, politics and much else, in which the gist is more important than the verbatim, and the spirit greater than the letter.”

According to the official Vatican News online outlet, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that Pope Francis has “painfully [learned] of his friend’s passing. He fondly preserves the memory of the meetings — and of the meaningful conversations on man’s ultimate questions — he had with him over the years.”

Mr. Scalfari was married twice, first to Simonetta De Benedetti and later to Serena Rossetti. He had two daughters from his first marriage, Enrica and Donata, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In its news coverage, La Repubblica under Mr. Scalfari established an editorial tradition that led it to become a chief antagonist of the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon who served a total of nine scandal-ridden years as prime minister between 1994 and 2011.

But even Berlusconi praised Mr. Scalfari on his death, writing on Twitter that he “could not but recognize him as a great editor and journalist, whom I always admired for his dedication and passion for his work.”

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report