In its near five centuries of history, however, the chandelier-lit room is unlikely to have seen anything like what is taking place within its lavishly tapestried walls on Tuesday. Fittingly, perhaps, for a hall nicknamed the Sala Oscura (the dark room), it is playing host for one day only to a landmark mafia trial exploring one of the murkiest chapters in the history of the republic.
At about 10am local time, after the massed ranks of the appeals court of Palermo had upped sticks to sit at the Quirinal palace, the 89-year-old president was understood to have been sworn in to give testimony in the so-called trattativa (negotiation) trial.
Prosecutors in the trial of 10 men – one a former interior minister, one a former Cosa Nostra “boss of bosses” and one a former senator in Silvio Berlusconi’s party – are seeking to prove allegations that, in the aftermath of deadly bombings in the early 1990s, state officials held secret talks with the mafia in an attempt to end the violence.
There is no suggestion that Napolitano, who has been called as a witness, was involved in any wrongdoing. The former communist, who is serving an unprecedented second term as president, rejected a previous request for him to testify last October, telling the court in Palermo he had “no useful knowledge” of the period in question.
But prosecutors in the trial, which began last year amid high security in a bunker-style courtroom in the Sicilian capital, believed he might nonetheless be able to help them fill in certain gaps. The presiding judge Alfredo Montalto said in September that the court had decided Napolitano’s testimony would be neither superfluous nor irrelevant.
On Tuesday, after the three-and-a-half-hour hearing, the Quirinal issued a statement saying the president had “replied to questions without citing either confidentiality restraints linked to his constitutional prerogative or objections”.
A lawyer for Salvatore “Totò” Riina, the jailed mafia boss who is among the defendants, also questioned the president.
Journalists were banned from watching the hearing either in the Sala del Bronzino or by video link, so it was unclear how exactly the session had gone.
Earlier in the week, Italy’s biggest-selling daily newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, published a front-page article questioning why the president’s testimony would not be broadcast, arguing it could harm the office’s standing.
“Why not allow citizens to follow the hearing live on the television or internet, and compare it with the newspaper reports … so they are able to form their own opinions?” asked the journalist Marzio Breda. Doing so might take the sting out of “scandal-hunting” reporters desperate for a scoop, he said. “You only have to consider,” he wrote, “that the president’s testimony has even been compared with the [Bill] Clinton-[Monica] Lewinsky case.”
The 10 men in the dock, who include Nicola Mancino, a former interior minister, and Marcello Dell’Utri, a former senator now jailed for mafia association, face a variety of charges. They deny them all.
Prosecutors allege secret talks were held in the early 90s when the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, was wreaking terror on the nation in a series of attacks, two of which killed the leading anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. Bombings – in Rome, Florence and Milan – continued throughout 1993.
A final verdict in the trial is not expected before 2016.