Giulio Andreotti, a Machiavellian seven-time Italian prime minister who dominated the political scene for decades, died on Monday at the age of 94.
Andreotti, a key figure in the once-dominant Christian Democratic party, died at his home in central Rome. He had suffered ill health in recent years and was hospitalised in August last year with heart trouble.
A private funeral will be held today in Andreotti's local church for the staunchly pro-Catholic politician, who had close ties with the Vatican and was accused of shadowy links to the mafia and the Holy See.
Andreotti was "a leading protagonist for over 60 years of public life", said Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
"He was the engineer of this country's reconstruction" after the second world war, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, a former minister under Andreotti, said.
His supporters said he served his country like few others, helping transform Italy from a war-devastated agricultural backwater to a leading industrial power in the space of a generation. But many Italians believed he was the quintessential back-room wheeler-dealer, overseeing a political system riddled with cronyism and corruption.
He held nearly every political post in Italy short of the presidency. His leadership of seven post-war governments was beaten only by his mentor, Alcide De Gaspari, who led eight.
A controversial figure associated with a period of political violence which rocked Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, critics accused Andreotti of Machiavellian behaviour and nicknamed him "The Untouchable".
Andreotti was blamed for refusing to negotiate for his political rival Aldo Moro's freedom, when the latter was kidnapped - and later murdered - by the Red Brigades in 1978. Andreotti was sentenced to 24 years in prison for ordering the murder of an investigative journalist in 1979 after a high-profile trial, but an appeals court cleared him in 2003 and he served no time in prison.
The accusations lingered, however, particularly after testimony provided by mafia turncoats who alleged that he had met with Cosa Nostra dons.
The journalist in question, Mino Pecorelli, had been publishing articles alleging Andreotti had ties to the mafia.
"I know when I die I will not have to answer for Pecorelli or the mafia. Other things yes. But on those two things my papers are in order," Andreotti once said.
The news of his death sparked irreverent responses on Twitter, with one tweeter saying: "He'll resurrect in three days."
Political commentators also spoke yesterday of the vast collection of documents and private letters Andreotti left behind him in a vault in Rome.
"The most feared and sought after archive" in Italy, according to Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, it holds 3,500 envelopes of tightly restricted information, some of which has never been documented.
Additional reporting by Reuters