MILAN, Italy -- The rehabilitation of the Italian state began in this smoggy city of the north, center of fashion and industry, just over a year ago with a minor bribery case and the fierce scrutiny of five remarkable investigating magistrates.
In Italy, unlike in the United States, prosecutions originate in the judiciary. And these magistrates today are on the minds of people all over Italy. They are being emulated by others of their kind in Rome, Palermo and Turin.
They have taken to themselves for the first time the independence of action that Italy's postwar constitution promised them. They are proving stronger than the political class to which they were always subservient, if not servile.
They are cheered as almost each day they pull in another political operative or wealthy businessman, another big fish out of the seemingly bottomless pool of corruption through bribery and kickbacks that has become known as "tangentopoli."
They operate here out of the Palace of Justice on Via Freguglia, an immense, blocky edifice built in the Fascist style that asserts the intimidating power of architecture: Here the state bares its teeth and presents the hard face of the law.
Into this cavernous box of dirty, discolored marble come the suspects -- manacled, heads down and covered by their own jackets against the intrusive cameras. Outward flow the indictments, the orders for arrest, the dreaded "avvisi di garanzia," the notifications to individuals that they are being investigated.
The judges are like the Texas Rangers. Or the Untouchables. One of them, Antonio Di Pietro, the chief prosecutor, even has his name on a T-shirt. He is the star of the team, though not its leader. The others -- Francesco Saverlo Borrelli, the procurator general; Gherardo Colombo, Piercamillo Davigo and Gerardo D'Ambrosio -- have their followers as well, if not actual groupies.
Who are these people? Where did they come from? How could a judiciary shot through with politics, loaded with political appointees for nearly half a century, throw up such men who would turn and bite off the very hands that molded them?
There are several theories about that. Dr. Robert Leonardi, the Jean Monnet Lecturer at the London School of Economics, an expert on Italy, believes men like Mr. Di Pietro, Mr. Colombo and Mr. Davigo are the spiritual heirs of investigating magistrates and policemen who took on and defeated the Red Brigades who terrorized Italy in the 1970s.
The Red Brigades, extreme leftist revolutionaries, represented the first threat to the existence of the state since the end of the war. They murdered judges and politicians, including Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat prime minister. Driven by basic self-preservation, the political class united behind the judges. They passed the necessary tough laws. Preventive detention was employed. Suspects were held incommunicado.
In the end, the guerrillas were defeated, killed or jailed. To those at the top, things returned to normal. But not everywhere.
"The defeat of the Red Brigades created a great esprit within the judiciary, at least among certain judges," says Dr. Leonardi.
The experience of the 1970s planted the seed of excellence within the soil of a political judiciary. Professionalism began to grow, Dr. Leonardi believes.
"With this experience behind them," he says, "they decided to turn their skills on the Mafia."
Progress against the Mafia has been dramatic. Over 200 Mafiosi have used a new witness program to break the law of silence. They are naming names. Hundreds have been jailed. The leader, Salvatore Riina, captured in January, is in court in Palermo.
The fight against the Mafia produced martyrs among the judiciary, always a factor that contributes to cohesion and spirit within any group. Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered last year.
To chief prosecutor Di Pietro, Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino represented the best his profession had turned out. Like him, they approached their work dispassionately and scientifically, searching out the incriminating interconnections, the routes by which illegal money found its way into Swiss bank accounts, where it was laundered, and all the networks of crime over which the Mafia operates.
The Leonardi theory is not widely accepted. Sergio Romano, a former Italian diplomat, says "The theory is a little too good, a little too linear."
His explanation as to why these men of mettle have emerged at this time is more social.
"Judges do not operate in a vacuum," he says. "They are sensitive to the atmosphere and mood about them. They wouldn't have stepped into this, upset a whole set of arrangements, if the mood had not changed in society over the past 10 years."
But the judges themselves he believes are of a different breed from many of the past. "These are the men who experienced the 1968 revolution in Europe that transformed sexual manners, family relationships, even costume.
"It was an enormous intellectual gym to the generation that came up through it. Now they have spread into society, a winning generation. You see them now occupying positions of authority."
Umberto Giovine, a political scientist turned business consultant, recognizes the growth of professionalism among the Italian judiciary, though he does believe Mr. Di Pietro is one of a kind.
"It is his skill with the computer, that and the fact he was a policeman," he says. "He has excellent interrogation skills."
Mr. Di Pietro, 42, is an expert with computers, a technician more than an intellectual of the law. Techniques learned in earlier days -- in technical schools, as a policeman -- have given him an edge. In 1987 he used his computers to uncover a scheme between government officials and driving schools whereby 70,000 licenses were sold without their recipients having to take a test. Many went to prison.
In his current work he has had computers identify patterns of corruption among politicians and their clients, with similar success.
How far will the magistrates go? This is uncertain, but they themselves have appealed to the government to find a political solution. The courts are overloaded. At the present rate they could be glutted for 10 years.
The "tangentopoli" scandal is a weight around Italy's neck. Contracts are not being let, and vital public work is not being done. International agreements are in abeyance. Investment, foreign and domestic, is held up. The economy is suffering as much as the country's reputation, both equally important to Italians.
"We cannot be ruled by judges," says a young woman working as a consultant in Milan who asked that her name not be used. "We must find a way out of this."
She does not mean she wants the magistrates to desist. On the contrary. She wants a better solution. But until it is found she is perfectly willing to see the magistrates continue to pull up the big fish.