I mentioned Alida Valli’s career being ruined by scandal in my review of Senso earlier. Well, it also involved (more closely) the composer Piero Piccioni, who was her lover at the time, so it’s probably worth reprinting in some detail an article from Time about it all. It’s also interesting to note that it all plays very much like the plotlines of several late 60s / early 70s crime films (youths get lured into salacious activities by corrupt rich people with tragic results). Anyway, here it is:
Monday, Mar. 22, 1954
Before Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, Premier Mario Scelba spoke solemnly of affairs of state-taxes and governmental reform, his government’s support of EDC, the dangers of Communism and neo-Fascism. But the immediate threat to his new regime involved none of these, nor did it lie within the walls of the chamber. It came from a courtroom a few blocks away, where, as Scelba urged the Deputies to confirm his Cabinet, there unfolded an unsavory story of corruption in high places, of playgirls and midnight orgies and expensive decadence revolving around the figure of a marchese-come-lately named Ugo Montagna.
Scelba won his vote of confidence as expected, 300 to 283, and for the first time in three months, Italy had a govern ment able to command a narrow majority in parliament. But it might not be for long. The case of Montagna had rocked Italy, and it could well bring down the government. For the case displayed, for all to see, the decadence that infects too much of Italy’s moneyed classes, the irresponsibility of privilege that embitters even men of good will.
The Body on the Sand. The story be gan last April, when the body of plump, pretty Wilma Montesi, 21, was found on the seashore sands of Ostia, near Rome, clad only in a blouse and a pair of silk panties embroidered with teddy bears (TIME, Feb. 15). Police declared that Wilma had died by accidental drowning. Months later, brash young neo-Fascist Editor Silvano Muto printed a sensational charge in his monthly magazine Attua-lita. Wilma had not gone to Ostia, he said, but to a swank hunting lodge in nearby Capocotto, where wild orgies were conducted by a Roman nobleman who ran a narcotics ring. Wilma, said Attualita, apparently passed out from too much opium and was thrown on the beach by her companion and left to drown.
The public prosecutor promptly haled Muto into court under an old Fascist law against spreading “false and adulterated news to perturb the public order.” Challenged to prove his story, Muto accepted, declared that the ringleader was the Marchese Ugo Montagna di San Bartolomeo, one of Rome society’s brightest luminaries. The hunting lodge was run by the St. Hubert Club, whose membership list included the Pope’s personal physician, high Vatican lay officials, and Piero Piccioni, jazz-pianist son of Scelba’s Foreign Minister. Wilma was allegedly seen in a car like young Piccioni’s black Alfa Romeo just before her death. His chief informants, said Muto, were two girls who had participated in the dope parties.
Enter La Caglio. One of the girls was pretty, well-groomed Anna Maria Moneta Caglio. She took the stand to back up Muto’s charges, but her words painted a picture of favoritism and official corruption with ramifications reaching far beyond the death of Wilma Montesi.
Anna Maria Caglio is an aristocrat, the kind of girl whom Via Véneto doormen automatically salute. Daughter of a well-to-do Milan attorney, she was educated in prim Swiss schools, went to Rome when she was 20, hoping to break into the theater or the movies. She had little success, but she became a part of the highest-living, fastest-traveling Roman set. The most dashing of them all was the Marchese Ugo Montagna. Soon Anna Maria was his acknowledged mistress, accepting an $800-a-month allowance and living with him openly. But last summer Ugo threw her over. La Caglio began to go to church, then retired to a Florence convent. Later, urged by her conscience and her confessor, she decided to tell all.
First Suspicion. In a cool, well-modulated voice, she explained that two days before Wilma’s death, Ugo ordered her to go back to Milan. “When I asked him why, he said that he had a hunting date in Capocotto with Piero Piccioni.” Three days later she returned to Rome, and she and Ugo drove down to the hunting lodge. There the gamekeeper’s wife remarked that she had seen Wilma’s body and was surprised that it was not swollen or battered. Anna Maria Caglio felt a sudden suspicion. She thought back to a time three months earlier when she had followed Ugo and another woman in a car. From the news pictures she was now sure that the woman had been Wilma Montesi.
Her suspicion grew. When she mentioned Wilma’s death, “Ugo became simply furious and told me I knew too much, and I had better go away.” Later, young Piccioni telephoned Ugo during dinner. “Montagna told me he had to go to the chief of police to hush up the affair, since they were trying to link Piero Piccioni with the death of Wilma Montesi. Ugo drove me to the police headquarters [where Tommaso Pavone, chief of the national police, had his office], and a few minutes later Piccioni arrived. They finally went inside and stayed more than an hour.” On their return, said La Caglio, Piccioni “seemed ruffled,” but Montagna told him, “Now everything’s fixed up.”
In her six hours on the stand, La Caglio told of once going to Piccioni’s house with Montagna, who left several packages. “Montagna said it was money.” She also declared that Montagna had procured an apartment for Chief of Police Pavone.
Twice after their breakup, she suspected Ugo of plotting to kill her. Worried, she went to Rome’s district attorney, Dr. Angelo Sigurani. She told him all she knew. She told him that she suspected Ugo Montagna of running a narcotics ring, of his frequent trips to visit the commanders of such ports as Genoa and Naples. Said La Caglio: “Sigurani listened very carefully, patted me on the shoulder and advised me to keep out of these things, and the sooner the better.” Two weeks ago Dr. Sigurani tried to get the case dropped because investigation showed “the complete absence of a basis for any new charges.” La Caglio wrote anxiously to the Pope, warning him that there were people around him that might do him harm. Then somehow the carabinièri, who are separate from the police and sometimes their rivals, got wind of Anna Maria’s worries. On the order of the then Acting Premier, Amintore Fanfani, Anna Maria returned to Rome, told her story to the carabinièri, and they began an investigation of Ugo Montagna.
Enter the Carabinièri. Up to then, the charges had been the word of Anna Maria Caglio, a woman scorned, against that of the wealthy Marchese Montagna. But now the court demanded the carabinièri report. It was a bombshell.
Ugo Montagna, it reported, was the son of poor Sicilian parents, spent the ’30s shuttling between Rome and Sicily and being charged with various offenses ranging from passing bad checks to printing cards identifying himself falsely as a lawyer or accountant. He always got off without a day in jail. By 1940 he had settled in Rome with the means and habits of a multimillionaire. During Mussolini days he had a house “where he frequently invited women of doubtful morality, with the apparent aim of satisfying the libidinous desires of many high-ranking personalities.” With the German occupation, his guests were Nazi officials. Without embarrassment he switched to British and U.S. officers after the liberation. He was also, said the report, a black-marketeer, a spy for the Nazis and “a notorious agent” for OVRA (Fascist Italy’s Gestapo).
For all his wealth, he paid taxes on a declared income of only about $1,000 a year, little more than he was said to have given La Caglio each month. One of Montagna’s partners in business, said the report, was the son of Giuseppe Spataro, vice president of the Christian Democratic Party. The report also confirmed that Piccioni’s son was a close friend of Montagna, as were the Vatican physician and other lay Vatican and government officials.
Such was the man who moved in Rome’s most select circles, who addressed the national chief of police Tommaso Pavone with the intimate “tu.” Many of those who originally doubted La Caglio’s story changed their minds. The Communists promptly trumpeted the fact that Scelba and Montagna had both been witnesses at the wedding of Spataro’s son two years ago, pointed out that Scelba himself had appointed Pavone chief of police.
Symbol of Sickness. Almost forgotten were Editor Muto and Wilma Montesi. The picture that all fixed on with fascinated horror was of Ugo Montagna and his connections, a symbol of all that was sick about postwar Italy.
The Montesi affair was Premier Scelba’s problem, and he faced up to it. The day after his confirmation he summoned Police Chief Pavone for a long night session, told him grimly that the government of Italy, and not the Communists, was going to break the Montesi case wide open. It did not matter who was hurt. Next morn ing Pavone resigned. Foreign Minister Pic cioni sent his resignation to Scelba, and it seemed likely that Scelba would accept it. Scelba appointed Minister Without Portfolio Raffaele de Caro, a Liberal, to make a full investigation, ordered Montagna’s passport lifted, and an investi gation of Montagna’s income-tax returns. Montagna, silent up till then, threatened to start talking. “I may cause the end of the world,” he pouted.
More revelations and embarrassments were almost certain to come. But before it ended, the scandal might turn out to be a boon and a tonic for sorely beset Italy. As they went about their beats this week, the carabinièri were applauded in the streets by Italians who appreciated that they had walked where other police feared to tread. “I promise to do all in my power,” vowed Premier Scelba, “to clear away this shady, suspicious atmosphere that is hanging over us.” Nothing could better help democracy in Italy pass from sickness into health.