VATICAN CITY, MAY 3, 2005 ( Italian President Carlo Ciampi became the first head of state to be received in audience by Benedict XVI.

The president, who arrived today at the Vatican accompanied by his wife, Franca, had a private, 20-minute conversation with the Holy Father in the papal library.

Among the members of the Italian delegation, introduced to the Pope after the private meeting, was Gianfranco Fini, vice president and foreign minister.

"It was a very cordial meeting which allowed for an exchange of ideas on the bilateral relations between Italy and the Holy See," said Joaquín Navarro Valls, director of the Vatican press office, in a statement. "In the course of the meeting, several topics regarding the European situation were discussed."

At the end of the visit to the Pope, Ciampi was received by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

Before entering the Pope's private study, Benedict XVI referred to the friendship that united Ciampi and Pope John Paul II, which he described as "a sign for the world."

The Italian president mentioned that he was prime minister when, in 1993, he first visited that study to meet John Paul II.

President Ciampi gave Benedict XVI the gift of a chalice, for Mass, from the time of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). "So it returns home, to the Vatican," explained Ciampi. The Quirinal Palace, the presidential residence, was one of the properties expropriated from the Vatican during the unification of Italy.

Benedict XVI returned the gesture giving President Ciampi a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and his wife a rosary, which she kissed.

Before taking their leave from the Pontiff, Franca Ciampi, dressed in black and wearing a black mantilla as required by Vatican protocol, commented: "It is lovely here, really lovely."

In the final press statement, Navarro Valls reported that "the Holy Father Benedict XVI, readily accepting the courteous invitation of President Ciampi, will make an official visit to the Quirinal" on June 24.

John Paul II had planned to visit Ciampi at the Quirinal on April 29, the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of Italy. Instead, Ciampi that day visited John Paul II's tomb in the Vatican Grottoes.