By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Giulio Andreotti, who served as Italian prime minister seven times and whose name was synonymous with political survival and cunning in the land that gave the world Machiavelli, died on Monday at the age of 94.
Andreotti, who for more than half a century was known as "Mr Italy" because of the many offices he held, died at home, family sources said. He had suffered from respiratory problems for years and had been in hospital several times.
A leading member of the defunct Christian Democrat party which dominated Italian politics for almost fifty years after World War Two, Andreotti was a lawmaker in every Italian parliament since 1945. He was made a senator for life in 1991.
He was a complex figure who embodied the contradictions and intrigues of Italy's often shady politics.
His enemies called him Beelzebub but he was deeply religious and took communion from popes. He was accused and acquitted both of being a member of the mafia and of ordering the murder of a muck-raking journalist.
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.
At the end of a sensational trial and two appeals, Andreotti was cleared in 2004 of charges that he had been a member of the mafia and had protected the mob in the corridors of power.
However, Italy's highest court said he had ties until 1980 with mafia gangsters, which were covered by the statute of limitations.
The most shocking allegation was that he once exchanged a kiss of respect with "boss of bosses" Salvatore "Toto" Riina, then Italy's most wanted man and now in jail.
Andreotti denounced the accusations, based on testimony from mafia turncoats, and in the end, the courts believed him.
He embodied Italy's so-called first republic, dominated by the Christian Democrats and a bewildering string of "revolving door" governments.
Their eternal political rivalry with the Communist Party, the largest in the West at that time, was sharpened by the Cold War and American fears of a communist takeover, which also fuelled violent political conflict between right and left.
The so-called years of lead in the 1970s culminated in the far-left Red Brigades kidnap and murder of Christian Democrat president Aldo Moro when Andreotti was prime minister in 1978.
But the party was swept away by a huge bribery scandal in 1992, together with much of the old order, although corruption is now said to be worse than ever and Italy is in a renewed period of political instability which has worsened a deep economic recession.
A fervent Catholic who went to Mass every morning, Italians called him the "the eternal Giulio" because of his political longevity and his mastery of intrigue.
He was the subject of more than 20 parliamentary investigations on suspicion of under-the-counter dealings, ranging from corruption to links with shady financiers.
On every occasion he was cleared and the investigations did not dent his power with voters in Rome, his constituency.
"Apart from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything," he once said in one of his famous, cutting quips.
"Faith helps me a lot," Andreotti told Reuters during one of trials in 2002.
"The justice that counts is that which will be carried out in the next world. I will not have a place of honor in the next world because I too have been a moderate sinner in my life, but I certainly have not committed sins of mafia or sins of murder."
A bespectacled, stooping figure with protruding ears, he was meat and drink for two generations of editorial cartoonists.
He said his appetite for work was helped by insomnia but detractors said it stemmed from a lust for power.
"Power wears out those who don't have it," he once said in a famous retort.
As a life senator Andreotti attended parliament regularly until recently when his health failed.
Andreotti, who was married with four children, got his first taste of power in May 1947 when he was named cabinet secretary.
His introduction to politics came when he went to the Vatican library and asked for an obscure book on the military power of the Vatican in the 19th century.
"Have you nothing better to do?" grumbled the librarian, who turned out to be De Gasperi, the future Christian Democrat leader and prime minister. Andreotti became De Gasperi's personal assistant and never looked back.
He helped write Italy's new constitution after World War Two and assumed his first cabinet post, as interior minister, in 1954.
Before his health failed, he worked though most of the night, slept only a few hours and spent the rest of the time before dawn reading files and writing books.
(Editing by Barry Moody and Sonya Hepinstall)