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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 April 2006, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Italy prepares for new parliament
By David Willey
BBC Rome correspondent

Prime Minister-elect Romano Prodi
Prime Minister-elect Romano Prodi has only a slim two-seat majority
After a hotly-contested election, nearly 1,000 newly-elected Senators and Deputies of the Italian Parliament have taken their seats in the two Roman Palaces - the centre of political life in the Italian capital.

After two days of balloting they have elected two former trade union leaders as speakers of their respective houses.

They are now preparing to elect a new Italian head of state, who will hold office for the next seven years, to replace President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi who is stepping down in May.

The Italian republic was set up exactly 60 years ago when the country voted to send its monarchy into exile after the fall of Fascism at the end of World War II.

The new MPs come, for the first time, not only from the great cities of Piedmont and Lombardy and Tuscany, from Naples and Bari, and from the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia, but also from Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Settle overseas

In the Senate where Prime Minister-elect Romano Prodi has only a slim two-seat majority, the support of these new overseas Senators could prove decisive when it comes to a confidence vote.

Italian overseas communities - totalling some four million electors - are represented for the first time in this parliament.

This is a reminder that although the country has in the past few years begun to attract hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, until very recently Italy was itself a country of migration.

More than 25 million Italians left their native shores to settle overseas between the unification of Italy in 1861 and World War II.

It was one of the biggest sustained migrations in European history.

Too uncomfortable

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, sits in a splendid and historic Renaissance building, the Madama Palace, which used to belong to the Medici family from Florence.

The Popes used it as their police headquarters and then briefly for their postal administration before they were forced to retreat into the Vatican when in 1870 the Papal States were incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy.

The Chamber of Deputies occupies the 400-year-old Montecitorio Palace which was also commissioned, like most monumental buildings in the centre of Rome, by a papal family.

Two renowned 17th Century architects, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana, worked on the designs for the building, later used to house the papal law courts.

After the unification of Italy in the 19th Century, the former internal courtyard was roofed over and converted into a semi-circular assembly room.

Political future

But Italy's first national parliament proved too uncomfortable a place for MPs - too hot in summer and so cold in winter that the Speaker allowed members to debate with their hats and coats on.

So the original palace was rebuilt during the early 1900s leaving only the facade intact.

A much larger liberty-style debating chamber was added on to the building.

A long gallery with a high ceiling was created next to the main chamber where deputies could stroll and talk.

MPs call it the "Transatlantico" because of its resemblance to the public rooms of the great Italian passenger liners which used to cross the Atlantic.

It will be in these historic buildings that Italy's political future will be thrashed out during coming days and weeks as the new president of Italy is chosen, and Prime Minister-elect Romano Prodi appoints members of his new centre-left coalition.

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