Former Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who was head of state during the Bribesville corruption affair that overturned Italy's old political order in the 1990s, has died, officials said on Sunday. He was 93.

Scalfaro, a former interior minister and speaker of the lower house of parliament, was appointed president in 1992 as the bribery and political funding scandal swept aside a party system that had run Italy since World War Two.

A conservative and deeply religious man who attended mass every morning, Scalfaro was one of the founding fathers of the Italian republic in 1946 and became well known in parliament for frequent references to his conversations with the Virgin Mary.

Politicians from the two main parties and public figures including the pope paid tribute to the former president's integrity in protecting the constitution which he had helped shape as a young lawyer after the war.

Mario Monti said he spoke to Scalfaro just after becoming prime minister last year. I expressed to him personally my feelings of gratitude to him for the example he gave of public service, he said in a statement.

However, there was no public comment from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career began during Scalfaro's 1992-1999 term and who always had tense relations with him.

Although the head of state holds no executive power, his role in Italy's often turbulent political life can be extremely important as a guarantor of stability and in overseeing the timing of elections and the transition between governments.

Last year's transition between Berlusconi's scandal-plagued government and Monti's technocrat administration, overseen by current President Giorgio Napolitano, underlined the importance of the position.

MISTRUST

Scalfaro's own period in office began as the Bribesville scandal was creating a corrosive mistrust in the political system that overshadowed Italy's preparations to join the embryonic single European currency.

As president of the republic, he faced some of the most difficult periods of our history firmly and steadfastly, Napolitano said in a statement.

Both Scalfaro's own conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Socialists were shown to have been involved in a vast web of bribery and illegal funding which reached deep into virtually all levels of public life.

His appointment came days after the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, an event which profoundly shocked Italy and heightened popular disgust with a political class that had failed to protect its own public servants.

Despite his widely hailed sense of rectitude, Scalfaro faced accusations in 1993 that he had been implicated as interior minister in a murky scandal over the alleged theft of millions of dollars in funds for covert secret service operations.

He denied the accusations and in a special televised address he denounced what he called an attempt at a slow destruction of the state, suggesting that the affair had been created to undermine confidence in Italy's institutions.

(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)