A few days after climbing down from the 137-metre dome, Marcello di Finizio is spending the night with a friend on the outskirts of Rome. It’s an area full of grey, graffiti-clad buildings and isolated from the Italian capital’s charming and frenetic centre.
He remains evasive about how he managed to get atop the Basilica, but says his bold gesture partly reflects the desperation being felt in thousands of similar communities across Italy, where unemployment has reached a record high and the outlook is bleak.
“It’s a disaster in Italy right now and things are only going to get worse,” he says.
This is the third time Di Finizio has balanced on St Peter’s dome. On the last occasion in October, he stayed overnight, holding up a banner slamming multinational corporations, European politics and the former Italian prime minister, Mario Monti. He understands the risks involved. So much so, he makes a film before each protest, so in the event of tragedy people will know why he did it.
It is desperation that has propelled the 47-year-old businessman to carry out life-threatening stunts. In 2008, his beachside bar and restaurant in the northern town of Trieste, La Voce della Luna, was burnt down by arsonists. He later struggled to get compensation from his insurance firm, while efforts to rebuild the business have been curtailed by the Bolkestein directive, an EU law that means permits to run seaside venues like his must be put up for auction. The move was intended to shake up Europe’s service sector, but has instead prompted a widespread backlash.
For Di Finizio, the law also meant a previous contract drawn up with his local council, which had allowed him to reconstruct his premises, was now invalid.
The process has left him broke and without a livelihood. He has also lost his home.
“For small businesses, this is a massive problem,” he says.
“After what happened, I realized I was defenceless. The unions don’t really exist anymore so I had to defend myself. But my protests are not about my restaurant’s destruction. There’s a bigger problem than that – it’s called Europe.”
Di Finizio blames Italy’s entrance into the European single currency in 2001 for much of today's crisis. He claims the entire European project was built for “banks and multinationals” and not for the people.
“Why are we part of this? We need to get to the heart of the question – European politics are not constructed for the people, but against the people, which is why I do these strong protests.”
Di Finizio, who was born in Naples and describes himself as a simple country man, said he had to educate himself on the machinations of the EU system.
“We need to better understand what’s happening…for Italians, it is even more confusing because the information from the media is controlled. The EU talks about liberation, but the people are asking: liberation for who? It’s the finance guys who win.”
Closer to home, he says Italians are even more confused because of their own precarious coalition government, which is struggling with high employment in Italy’s longest recession since quarterly records began in 1970.
“Italians are worried because they no longer understand what’s happening. In politics, there’s no longer a right or a left. Everything sits on top of this EU pyramid. Politics no longer exist in Italy.”
Which is why he needs to make his gestures strong, otherwise "the message doesn’t spread”.
He admits there is a risk of the stunts making him look like a ‘fool’, with people growing weary and passing him off as a madman.
“At the same time, the number of people who are brave enough to do this are few,” he adds.
“Plenty of people have come up to me and shaken my hand and I have many supporters behind me.”
In response to why the scandal-hit Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, still manages to gain political ground, Di Finizio says most Italian voters go to the elections as if “voting for a footballer.”
“People don’t want to know what lies beneath.”
He hopes Beppe Grillo’s insurgent Five Star Movement will get stronger, if only for the fact it reflects a desire to change the political landscape.
Until then, he will carry on with his protests if need be, even if they leave his mother and sister clutching their Rosary beads.
“They are used to me doing these things by now,” he says.