article

06.06.09

Italy's Skinny-Dip Scandal

Topless women, the former Czech leader’s privates—paparazzi shots of nude pool parties at the prime minister’s villa are either a smear campaign, or just another day in his scandalous life.

Topless women, the former Czech leader’s privates— paparazzi shots of nude pool parties at Prime Minister Berlusconi's seaside villa are either a smear campaign, or just another day in his scandalous life.

Silvio Berlusconi knows how to throw a party. Rumors have swirled for decades that gluttonous bashes at his Sardinian villa rivaled the best ancient Roman orgies. Topless girls, live music, and free-flowing Champagne were just the beginning. And some of the festivities were snapped by a local photographer who has made a career of staking out Berlucsconi’s seaside getaway.

These parties, and these photos, have become the focus of a smear campaign against the prime minister, who has been under fire recently for his flashy personal life. Last month, his wife of 19 years filed for divorce after he attended the 18th-birthday party of Noemi Letizia, a young lingerie model with whom has been accused of having an affair. Now an investigation is under way in Rome into whether he inappropriately used government airplanes to ferry guests to and from his 150-acre estate known as Villa Certosa in Sardinia.

Berlusconi maintains these attacks are the work of political opponents ahead of elections for the European Parliament this weekend, for which Berlusconi’s party has fielded a slate of bosomy female candidates. And he is fighting back by exerting control over his media empire. Berlusconi went to court last week to block publication of some 700 paparazzi photos by Sardinian photographer Antonello Zappadu, many of which were taken at a New Year’s Eve party that Letizia attended. He also persuaded prosecutors to investigate allegations that Zappadu had invaded his privacy.

Berlusconi explained that there was nothing improper about the photos. “Do you take a shower in a jacket and tie?"

Zappadu, who offered the collection to Italian newspapers for $2.1 million, says that because all of the photos were taken from outside Berlusconi's grounds, he did nothing wrong. While the photos did not run in Italy, several were picked up by Spanish daily El Pais, which put them online and in Friday’s paper under the headline, “The photos Berlusconi doesn’t want the Italians to see.” Many of the shots show topless girls in thong bikinis consorting with VIPs, some in compromising positions. Others show Berlusconi using an Italian air force helicopter to transport private guests to his villa.

One photo shows an obviously aroused nude man who is identified as Mirek Topolanek, former prime minister of the Czech Republic. “It is me in the photo,” he told journalists, then claimed that the photo had been “altered” but did not specify in what way.

Berlusconi filed a lawsuit against Zappadu and El Pais and told a local radio commentator that it was “an aggressive intrusion into my private life.” Only two of the five pictures published by El Pais show Berlusconi—in one, surveying his property, in the other talking to his guests, clothed in both. But another shot from the villa shows a woman in a red jacket who is rumored to be Letizia. Berlusconi says the photos don’t frighten him, and he explained that there was nothing improper. “Do you take a shower in a jacket and tie?" Berlusconi said on a radio program. "These are people bathing in a jacuzzi inside a private house meant for guests."

The scandal comes just as Italians are set to vote for European Parliament members, and official polling is illegal in Italy for two weeks before elections. But unofficial polls still put Berlusconi’s ruling coalition far ahead of the opposition, which has not managed to capitalize on the controversy. What may be more troubling for Berlusconi are the continuing allegations that he had a romantic encounter with Letizia. He has vowed that he was just a "family friend" and promised to resign if proven wrong. Letizia has also denied a romantic relationship, but Zappadu's sequestered photos may prove otherwise.

Xtra Insight: View Our Gallery of Berlusconi’s Beauties.

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