The son of a carabiniere (a member of an ancient Italian military corps with police functions), at the age of 24 he left Marches for Milan, where he changed a few jobs and later joined the Resistenza and became a well known Partisan.
In 1945, the CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale - the political entity of Partisans) named him to the leadership of Agip, the national oil company created by Fascism, with instructions to close it as soon as possible.
Mattei, instead, worked hard to restructure the company and to make it become one of the most important economical groups of the nation.
In 1949 Mattei gave an astonishing public announcement: the soil of Northern Italy "was" rich of oil and methane, Italy would have solved all its energy needs by its own resources. Helped by Italian press, he then encouraged the idea that the nation (still suffering from the consequences of the lost war), would soon become rich. Agip's financial value immediately grew at Stock Exchange markets, and the company (owned by the State, but operating as a private company) became at once solid and important.
The reality, indeed, was a little more "dry" than proclaimed: in the territory of Cortemaggiore, in the Valley of Po, just a certain amount of methane had been found, with a really small quantity of oil.
Agip however obtained an exclusive concession on the oil prospecting in the national territory, and on the economical profits of what would eventually be found. Political views were divided: the leftists supporting him, and the conservatives (together with the industrialists), opposing him.
At this time Mattei widely used the inofficial financial resources of Agip for extensive bribery, especially of politicians and journalists. He used to say of MSI, the post-fascist party: "I use them like I would use a taxi: I sit in, I pay for the trip, I get down". Agip got the control of hundreds of companies in all economical fields. Obviously a great attention he paid for press, and Agip soon owned several newspapers and two agencies.
In 1953 a law created the ENI, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, in which Agip was merged. Mattei was initially its president, then also the administrator and the general director. In practice, Eni was Mattei and Mattei was Eni.
His attention turned to the international market of the precious liquid. He invented (or at least, used to tell very often) the story of the little cat: "a little cat arrives where a few big dogs are eating in a pot. The dogs beat him and send him away. We [Italians] are like that little cat, in that pot there is oil for everybody, but someone does not want to let us get close to it."
This sort of fable made Mattei extremely popular in the poor Italy of the times, and he gained a wide support that necessarily had to be translated into a political support. To break the oligopoly of the oil majors, Mattei started subscribing contracts with all the poorest countries of the Middle East and with socialist countries too. In 1957, already the competitor of giants like Esso or Shell, he secretly financed the Algerian independentist forces against colonialist France. He treated[?] with Tunisia and Morocco, to which he offered a 50% condition, well far from what usually offered by the majors. To Iran and Egypt he additionally offered that the risk involved in prospecting was entirely on Eni: if there was no petrol, they would not have lost one cent.
In 1960, after the agreement with Soviet Union and while treating with China, Mattei publicly declared that the American monopoly was over. The reaction was initially mild, and he (Eni) was invited to take part in the partition of the prospecting in the Sahara, but he conditioned his (its) acceptation to the independence of Algeria. No agreements would have been subscribed until that moment. As a direct consequence, Mattei became a favorite target of OAS, which started sending him quite explicit messages.
In 1962 his plane was sabotaged, and this act was discovered by chance by his pilot.
Rumours suggested him that CIA too would have not received as bad news his eventual elimination. Not trusting the Sifar (Italian secret service), even if full of his loyals, Mattei constituted a sort of personal security patrol made of people of certain faith (former partisans, Eni's staff - most of which certainly communists) and felt protected by them.
In October his plane took off from Sicily and crashed a few hours after in the surroundings of a small village in Lombardy, during a storm.
The inquiries officially declared that it was an accident.
Enrico Mattei is a much-discussed figure. Some describe him as a sort of paladin, with nationalistic emphasis, while others underline his inclination for power, his icy calculations.
The doubts about his eventual murder, however, are sensibly more concrete than the hypothesis of a technical accident.
Some facts are certain and deserve a mention: