article

05.04.09

Basta! Berlusconi's Wife Bails

Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi has finally pushed his wife too far-but with $9.4 billion on the line and no prenup, who will have the last laugh? By Barbie Latza Nadeau. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of his women.

Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi has finally pushed his wife too far-but with $9.4 billion on the line and no prenup, who will have the last laugh? Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of his women.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is no stranger to controversy or to the courtroom. He is the de facto king of the gaffe, complimenting President Barack Obama on his suntan and telling earthquake survivors in L’Aquila to just think of their tent accommodations a weekend camping trip. He has been tried and acquitted six times on corruption charges, mostly stemming from alleged bribes, lies, and fancy bookwork while amassing a billionaire’s fortune.

Berlusconi, 72, is Italy’s second-richest person and easily its most influential—his political power bolstered by vast media and financial holdings. A recent opinion poll gave him a 75 percent approval rating. But he is about to face the biggest threat to his reputation and personal fortune: divorce court.

Click below to view a gallery of Berlusconi's babes.

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In a country where philandering is excused with a wink and a nudge, divorce is still frowned upon as a personal failure for both parties. So for 19 years, former actress Miriam Raffaella Bartolini, who goes by her stage name, Veronica Lario, has put up with her husband’s humiliating shenanigans played out on the front pages and evening newscasts. She has seen pictures of her husband with bikini-clad babes on his yachts moored off Sardinia. She has watched footage of her husband telling bosomy Venezuelan model Aida Yespica that he’d “follow her anywhere, even to a desert island.” And then there was the time he told former topless model and television starlet Mara Carfagna, “If I weren't married already, I’d marry you right away.”

But the last straw for Lario, 52, was in late April when Mr. Berlusconi attended the 18th-birthday bash of Noemi Letizia, an up and coming lingerie model in Naples who refers to Belrusconi as “papi,” or daddy. The prime minister presented the young starlet with a diamond-encrusted gold necklace for the occasion. When the news broke, the prime minister’s wife, who lives on a huge estate outside of Milan, expressed surprise given that her husband “had not attended the 18th-birthday parties of his own children, even though he was invited.” She consulted a divorce lawyer and decided this weekend that she’d had enough. “I’d like to close the curtain on my married life,” she confirmed to La Repubblica and La Stampa newspapers. “I was forced to take this step. I cannot be with a man who cavorts with minors.”

News of the divorce should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the dysfunctional duo in recent years. On several occasions, Lario has vented her marital discontent in the left-leaning press—a personal and political affront to the conservative premier, who controls much of the right-leaning press. The first op-ed spat came two years ago after her husband’s pseudo marriage proposal to Carfagna. Lario wrote, “These statements undermine my dignity and, given the age, political role, and family situation of the person who said them, cannot be written off as playful comments.” Berlusconi then faxed his apology not to his wife, but to the wire services and a slew of right-wing papers, admitting that his marriage was going through a bit of “trouble and turbulence.” He wrote of Lario, “I treasure your dignity in my heart even when a lighthearted joke, a gallant remark, or a momentary trifle comes out of my mouth.”

Carfagna, who has been romantically linked to the premier for years amid denials from both, was appointed as equal-opportunities minister after Berlusconi won a third term in 2008. More recently, Lario has publicly condemned what the press has called “Bersluconi’s ballot babes”—a bevy of dancers, TV actresses and former models he planned to nominate for European Parliamentary elections in June in an attempt to “change the face of European politics.” Lario was so incensed she published an editorial in La Repubblica calling the choices “shameless rubbish to entertain the emperor.” She went on to say that her husband’s “lack of discretion in his exercise of power offends the credibility of all women.”

Many agreed. In the end, Berlusconi pulled all but 27-year-old Barbara Matera, a former actress, from the voting list, but not before Lario had labeled the choices as “shamelessly tacky.”

“I was forced to take this step. I cannot be with a man who cavorts with minors.”

But Lario has her own bedroom secrets. She has chosen to live in Milan while her husband runs the country from Rome. Italian tabloids tell of her amorous adventures in Latin America and Asia, and she has long been rumored to be romantically involved with the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Even the prime minister seemed to acknowledge that affair in 2002, when he complimented Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s charming good looks at a press conference. “I think I will introduce him to my wife,” Berlusconi said. “He is much better looking than Cacciari.”

In a biography called Veronica’s Tendency, the Italian first lady confided that she had little in common with her husband—least of all political views. But she said she was a good wife. “I think I’m the perfect kind of wife for the kind of man Silvio is,” she said. “He can concentrate on himself and his work knowing his wife won’t create a fuss if he’s away.”

Now the real fuss is about to begin. Berlusconi’s personal fortune is valued at $9.4 billion, including his media and financial investments, not to mention the winning A.C. Milan soccer squad. The Berlusconis reportedly did not sign a prenup when they married in 1990, 10 years after they met. Their three children were born before they were married, and for nearly a decade Berlusconi supported two families rather than divorcing his first wife.

Many predict that the bulk of his wealth will likely go to Berlusconi’s first children, who now run his enterprise while he is acting as prime minister—42-year-old Marina, who heads Fininvest and Mondadori Publishing, and 40-year-old Pier Silvio, who runs the Mediaset television firm. His children with Lario are all in their 20s and have much smaller stakes in his various holdings.

What Lario will get from their 19-year union is likely to be substantial, but not without a fight. And many say that Lario should have known what she was getting into with il Cavaliere. After all, Mr. Berlusconi was married when he met Lario nearly 30 years ago at a Milanese theater—where she was performing topless in a show titled, coincidentally, The Magnificent Cuckhold.

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.