By Gavin Jones and Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian president, prime minister and central bank governor Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who played a key role in guiding the country into the European single currency, has died, the government said on Friday.
He was 95 and had been ill for some time.
One of Italy's most respected figures on the international stage, Ciampi helped steer the country through the dark days of corruption scandals in the 1990s and persuaded skeptical EU allies that the economy was fit to join the euro.
"One of our fathers has left us. If Italy is (still) a great country then we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ciampi," former prime minister Enrico Letta wrote on Twitter.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, wrote: "Today, we have lost a great Italian and a great European." Pope Francis praised Ciampi's "gentlemanly discretion and great sense of duty".
While tributes flowed in from across Europe, the head of the anti-EU Northern League party struck a discordant note, denouncing Ciampi for the crucial role he had played in making sure Italy was part of the euro from its birth in 1999.
"Politically speaking, Ciampi is one of the traitors of Italy," Matteo Salvini told Sky Italia TV.
"He carries on his conscience the disaster that has befallen 50 million Italians," said Salvini, who regularly rails against the euro, arguing that a loss of monetary independence has brought years of economic misery to Italy.
Ciampi spent most of his working life at the Bank of Italy, which he joined in 1946 after the Second World War when he fought with the Italian partisans against Mussolini. During his 14 years as its head, the Bank was freed from political control, winning leeway to set interest rates and exchange rate policy.
He often said he expected to retire when he left the central bank but in 1993, with Italy mired in the corruption scandals of ?"Tangentopoli" (Bribesville), Ciampi was persuaded to become prime minister to stave off crisis.
He launched himself with gusto into Italy's myriad financial and economic problems and his lack of political ties gave his government a ?"can-do" image contrasting with the tortuous deal-making that characterized many previous administrations.
Always a non-partisan figure, Ciampi took no part in the 1994 election which launched Silvio Berlusconi's political career, But he returned two years later when Berlusconi was defeated by Romano Prodi at the head of a center-left alliance.
When Prodi took office in 1996, he called on Ciampi to lend credibility to his campaign to get Italy included into the first wave of euro zone members.
With doubts about Italy's financial fitness stacked up as high as its mountain of debt, the calm, confident Ciampi was sent on a charm offensive among its partners, especially to Germany. It paid off.
Ciampi, who spoke German having studied in Leipzig in his youth, enjoyed warm relations with the then Bundesbank President Hans Tietmeyer and Finance Minister Theo Waigel.
Thanks to drastic tax hikes, including a one-off "euro tax", and plunging interest rates, Ciampi slashed Italy's fiscal deficit from 6.7 percent in 1996 to 2.7 percent in 1997 to secure Italy's entry into the currency club.
His team of talented economists at the Treasury known as the "Ciampi Boys" included the current European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.
The Prodi government was brought down by its communist allies the following year but Ciampi's retirement was delayed yet again when parliament overwhelmingly elected him president of the republic in 1999, for a seven-year term.
Three years in the Italian army from 1941-44 and the horrors of World War Two made Ciampi a fervent Europhile who believed that monetary union must be only a first step in a process of broader political integration.
In recent years he had expressed frustration at what he saw as a lack of vision behind the euro's travails, as well as at Italy's economic woes which have seen the public debt rise far above the levels he presided over back in the 1990s.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)