For half a century, Giulio Andreotti has been an Italian icon: seven times prime minister, senator-for-life, pillar of politics, the God-fearing friend of Popes, the shrewd embodiment of a can-do country that sprang from the shards of war to become one of the world's richest democracies.
On Thursday, a court in Sicily rewrote history, accusing Andreotti, 76, of having been the Mafia's political guarantor in Rome for decades.
After an investigation of almost two years, prosecutors say they will prove that Andreotti was not "a man of the government, but a boss of the Cosa Nostra."
Brushing aside Andreotti's protestations of innocence, Judge Agostino Gristina in Palermo indicted him Thursday on charges that he consorted with organized crime. Gristina ordered him to stand trial in the Sicilian capital in September.
Testimony from Mafia turncoats, and more recently from former members of his own political party, portrays Andreotti as the mob's man in Rome, a debonair figure who hobnobbed as easily with Mafia bosses as he did with fellow prime ministers.
Andreotti is said to have exchanged a ritual kiss of respect with one boss at a secret meeting, to have sent wedding presents to others. One mobster, since murdered, is said to have called him Uncle Giulio.
The spare, stooped Andreotti, who voluntarily waived his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, steadfastly denies any links with the Mafia, claiming that he is victim of a vendetta.
"In government, and as a person, I have always taken a very hard line against the Mafia and proposed the severest and most effective laws against it," he said when accusations were brought against him in 1993.
Prosecutors say Andreotti and gang bosses developed a comfortable system of mutual aid: The Mafia guaranteed electoral support in Sicily for Andreotti's Christian Democrats. In exchange, prosecutors say Andreotti promised to use his influence to "adjust" appeals court rulings involving Mafia leaders.
In Sicily, meanwhile, Christian Democratic politicians directed government contracts to companies connected to organized crime. The firms paid kickbacks to the party.
According to the indictment, Andreotti's Mafia links were maintained in Sicily by go-betweens: one was Salvo Lima, a Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament; another was Ignazio Salvo, a tax collector. Both were slain by Mafia assassins in 1992.
Prosecutors say their deaths were revenge against Andreotti for failing to deliver on a promise to soften sentences handed down after a huge trial in Palermo of several hundred Mafia members.
Last week, jailed Mafia boss of bosses Salvatore Riina and three dozen other Mafia figures went on trial in Sicily for the 1992 murder of Giovanni Falcone, who spearheaded the Palermo proceedings. Riina is also accused with 47 others of complicity in 48 murders in Sicily between 1981 and 1991.
The Andreotti charges came amid renewed Mafia violence in Sicily after a long period of uneasy quiet. There was a Mafia murder last week in Corleone, Riina's hometown. On Wednesday, two men were slain by suspected Mafia gunmen in Palermo.
Andreotti is accused by a number of Mafia turncoats of having met Riina secretly in Sicily and exchanging a ritual kiss with him. The former prime minister icily rejects the accusation, saying he never met Riina--or any other Mafia boss.
Defense lawyers submitted 1980s orders from Andreotti to security forces demanding great efforts to arrest Riina. He was finally caught in Palermo in 1993, the year after Andreotti left power.
Sicilian magistrates in Palermo asked to proceed with inquiries against Andreotti in March, 1993, after hearing testimony from Mafia renegades such as Balduccio Di Maggio. The testimony of such turncoats, or pentiti as they are known in Italian, has been instrumental in winning long sentences against Mafia bosses they once served.
Early pentiti testimony against Andreotti was recently and dramatically reinforced when two former Sicilian members of Parliament, suspected of close links with the Mafia, agreed to testify. One, Gioacchino Pennino, a former member of Palermo's city council, detailed alleged links between Christian Democrats and Mafia families in Sicily. He is said to have chronicled Andreotti's ties with brothers Ignazio and Nino Salvo, both now dead.
Then, on the basis of Pennino's testimony, came the arrest last month of Vincenzo Inzerillo, a former senator, believed to have been a full Mafia member. Subsequently, police arrested Calogero Mannino, a Christian Democrat and a former government minister.
One accusation against Andreotti is that he attended two Mafia summits in Sicily, a charge he denies.