If Italian Communists felt they lost a charismatic leader in Enrico Berlinguer, the confirmaion of that came with the election of Alessandro Natta as his successor.
In pledging to follow Mr. Berlinguer's policies, Mr. Natta characterized his rule as one of continuation rather than innovation.
Natta first worked as a high school literature teacher before switching to politics. He moved through party ranks to take a post on the party directorate and Central Committee. His seniority and familiarity with the party workings made him a natural choice as Berlinguer's successor, together with his friendship with the late leader.
Born into a meat-packing family whom he describes as ''neither well-off nor intellectual,'' Natta came into contact with communism as a student in the prewar years of Italian fascism.
''Taking a political stance then had something exhilarating about it. . . . There were great horizons, great hopes, great myths,'' he says. As an artillery officer in World War II, he was imprisoned by the Germans when the Nazi-Italian alliance broke down in 1943.
Fond of quoting Latin classics, Natta has been the party's education expert. He followed Berlinguer in taking the party away from Stalinist Soviet communism to the more liberal and independent European communism of the 1970s.
He has shown sensitivity to the conflicts between communism and Roman Catholicism in Italian society.
His wife, like Berlinguer's widow, is a practicing Catholic, and although Natta's writings and speeches indicate he follows Berlinguer's centrist communism, his party biographers say he has always shown tolerance and the will to understand any form of dissent.
He is firm, however, in his call for party unity and his quest to follow any road that will lead not just to government posts for his party but also to a restructuring of Italy's political and economic institutions.