But instead, the 80-year-old Mattarella unexpectedly agreed to stay in place on Saturday and prevent a power vacuum, with Italy’s fractious parties unable to pick an alternative figure capable of winning a majority in parliament.
“I had other plans, but if needed, I am at your disposition,” parliamentarians quoted the snowy-haired Mattarella as telling them after they went cap-in-hand to his official Quirinale residence to ask him to remain in office.
A former constitutional judge and one-time centrist lawmaker, Mattarella was initially elected president in 2015, becoming the first head of state from the island of Sicily.
Little known to many Italians, Mattarella had a reputation for being introverted and austere, but he quickly won over his compatriots with his quiet, unassuming manner and calm handling of repeated political crises and the COVID-19 health emergency.
On the eve of the parliamentary ballot to find his successor, polls showed that most Italians wanted him to stay.
Mattarella appeared destined for a life as a law professor, but plunged into politics after his brother Piersanti, the-then governor of Sicily, was shot by the Mafia in 1980. A photograph showed Mattarella holding him shortly before he died.
Joining the Christian Democrat party that his father had helped found, Mattarella was elected to parliament in 1983 and served, among other things, as education minister, defence minister and deputy prime minister over the next two decades.
In his inaugural speech as president in 2015, he promised to fight corruption and to help reform Italy’s flailing economy, saying he saw himself as an impartial political “referee”.
His refereeing skills have regularly been called on.
He has overseen the creation of four governments in seven years, including his surprise move last year to call on the former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to put together a government of national unity.
The mild-mannered Sicilian was never afraid to stand up for his pro-European ideals, threatening to sink a proposed government in 2018 after the coalition partners put forward a eurosceptic for the post of economy minister.
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement threatened to impeach Mattarella, but the president stood firm and the parties involved finally backed down.
In many ways he has been a highly traditional president, sticking to the old playbook of delivering speeches, laying wreaths and saluting the national flag.
Slightly hunched, he is never seen without a tie and jacket and won plaudits during the COVID crisis, refusing to queue jump when vaccines were released. Instead, he was photographed at a vaccination clinic, waiting in line with everyone else.
A widower since 2012, Mattarella has two sons and a daughter, who regularly stands by his side at major functions.
He has previously said he thought presidents should only serve a single, seven-year term and it was not immediately clear if he planned to serve a full second mandate.
His predecessor Giorgio Napolitano, the only other person to have ever been elected twice, resigned after just two years of his second mandate.
It remains to be seen whether Mattarella plans to abandon his new Rome flat, or pay the rent in the hope that he might still move there before too many months pass.