MORE than any other individual, Milan judge Antonio Di Pietro inspired the soul-searching that has changed the face of Italian politics.
His ``Clean Hands'' corruption probes unearthed an elaborate system of illegal party financing and destroyed the careers of an entire political class, including former prime ministers Bettino Craxi and Arnaldo Forlani.
Judge Di Pietro's resignation as an investigating magistrate Tuesday after months of unrelenting political opposition shocked Italians, whose gratitude and respect he had earned.
``It's a bitter day, for the country, for justice, for all honest people,'' says Antonino Caponnetto, the former magistrate who created the Palermo anti-Mafia judicial pool. ``No one should give up at this moment.''
Di Pietro's work, which has extended over two years, led Italians to vote in new politicians in last March's parliamentary elections, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who would himself come under a Clean Hands investigation on the very day he was presiding over an international forum on organized crime.
Mr. Berlusconi has been ``too busy'' to answer Di Pietro's questions in the probe that involves bribes paid by the prime minister's Fininvest company to Italy's tax inspectors (in what amounted to extortion, Fininvest says).
After the bad news for Berlusconi, which came on Nov. 22, the country's Supreme Court took the tax-inspector probe away from the Clean Hands pool and gave it to the smaller court in Brescia. The center-left opposition criticized the High Court decision as a political act in favor of Berlusconi.
In his resignation later, Di Pietro said he had always tried to work in the most objective way possible but that lately his role had become so personalized, that he felt so used by people who wanted to see some political end in his normal work as a judge, that the only solution he could see to restore faith in the country's institutions was to resign.
Di Pietro's political independence and professional excellence inspired a generation of young Italians to apply to law school, the same way young Americans in the 1970s flocked to journalism school after the triumphs of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal.
Clean Hands started in what was apparently an ordinary case of corruption in Milan. In February 1992, Di Pietro arrested Mario Chiesa, the head of a retirement home, in the act of taking a kickback.
The kickback was destined for Mr. Craxi's Socialist Party. Di Pietro, meticulously entering all the data he could get on Mr. Chiesa and his associates, managed to learn in the end that the obscure Socialist functionary had collected about $9 million in illegal party funding.
As Di Pietro continued his investigations, the entire world of Socialist and Christian Democratic power came crashing down.
The biggest blow to the political old order was the Enimont chemical company ``maxikickback'' trial, at which Di Pietro made his closing arguments Tuesday. Numerous politicians were accused of receiving millions of dollars from the company in illegal party funding.
Craxi, under questioning by Di Pietro last year, made a long preliminary defense in which he said all the political parties took kickbacks and everyone knew it. Mr. Forlani, a former Christian Democrat leader, had testified earlier in the day under obvious stress, and said he knew nothing about any kickbacks.
The Christian Democratic Party subsequently splintered into three smaller parties, none of them daring to retain the old name.
The Italian Socialist Party, which had been the No. 2 in government coalitions with the Christian Democrats for years, went into a freefall. Virtually no one admitted to being a Socialist, as the impression grew that the party was nothing more than a band of thieves. Craxi left Italy for Tunisia, where he says he is too ill to return to testify in the numerous trials against him.