A week after this photograph was published in the Corriere d’Informazione, Umberto Eco wrote, “Remember this image, it will become exemplary of our century.” Such a sentiment was inevitable in Italy in 1977, after a decade of political turmoil later known as The Years of Lead — a Manichean violent struggle between neo-fascists and radical left to control the political future of the Italian Republic.
Conflicts of 1977 began in February with a student occupation of the University of Rome to protest education reforms; a fortnight later, a demonstration devolved into a four-hour long guerrilla battle with the police in the streets of Rome. Political parties and trade unions were drawn into this turmoil, which soon spread to other great Italian university towns. In Bologna, a student-run radio station was closed by the carabineri, which shot and killed a student. Another student was killed during a demonstration in Rome in May; it was unclear who shot him, but armed policemen in plainclothes were observed during the demonstration, leading to riots.
The photo above was taken by Paolo Pedrizzetti in Milan during those riots: the young man in a ski mask and bell-bottom jeans was a member of a far-left organization which pulled out their pistols and began to shoot at the police, killing policeman Antonio Custra on May 14th 1977. This was a fitting photo of The Years of Lead, which also began in Milan with killing of another policeman in November 1969.
The fact that Custra left behind a pregnant wife galvanized the press. The man in Pedrizzetti’s photo was identified as 18-year old student Giuseppe Memeo; this was the first time he had held a gun, and he was not the killer. (Two years later, Memeo shot and killed two, including a secret service agent). The killer was not identified until the other photographer (who was seen in Pedrizzetti’s photo) came forward twelve years later, having hidden his negatives for fear of reprisals.
That was 1977 — the year that came to be known as the time of the “P38”, referring to the Walther P38 pistol. There were 42 assassinations and 2,128 acts of political violence. For Italy, the worst was still to come, but the tide was turning for the protesters. The next year, the prime minister was kidnapped and executed by militant communists — a senseless act of violence which resulted in a loss of popular support. More lenient sentences in exchange for collaboration or “dissociation” followed: the pentiti program enabled the state to hunt down most of the militants. By mid-1980s, Italy was en route to overtake UK in nominal GDP to become the world’s fifth largest economy.