Call girls, sex tapes, nude pool parties: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets away with plenty. But Barbie Latza Nadeau reports now he may have finally pushed Italians too far.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is not having much fun this summer. At least not compared to years past, when his Sardinian villa writhed with half-nude starlets, high-priced escorts, and famous politicos. No politician dares set foot in the now-infamous Villa Certosa this year. And the women are off the guest list after many of them sold their tales, tapes, and photos depicting the prime minister’s sexual exploits. The party, at least for the time being, is definitely over.
Close friend Paolo Guzzanti, who resigned from Berlusconi’s party last spring, called him “a real pig” with a “whoring attitude of contempt toward women.”
This summer the 72-year-old media mogul is only spending a handful of days in Sardinia. There will be no lavish galas like the one Cherie Blair once described as "the best night of my life," during which Berlusconi orchestrated a fireworks display spelling out "Viva Tony" for her husband. Instead, Berlusconi kicked off his short holiday at the villa by hosting a subdued buffet to celebrate the 43rd birthday of his daughter Marina from his first marriage. He’s also overseeing some home improvements, raising the fences around the house to beef up security and, more to the point, block the paparazzi.
After he leaves Sardinia this weekend, Berlusconi will visit Abruzzo to oversee the post-earthquake construction, and then spend a few days in Arcore outside Milan under the care of Austrian health guru Gertraud Mitterrutzner von Guggenberg, whose specialties include colon cleansing and high-fiber detox treatments to “restore natural harmony” in the body. Berlusconi’s aides say he hopes to kick-start his metabolism and shed the extra pounds he put on up during cortisone treatments for neck pain. But it’s more likely his real goal is to purify his reputation.
So far, it doesn’t appear to be working. The embattled prime minister has survived countless scandals; he was even once handed an indictment on corruption charges as he led a United Nations meeting on organized crime in Naples. But he cannot seem to rise above the string of sex scandals that has dogged him in recent months. His troubles started last May when Veronica Lario, his second wife of 19 years, cried divorce after he attended the 18th birthday party of a young lingerie model. That set off a cascade of lurid revelations about his private life that finally managed to anger and embarrass Italians, who generally scoff at their leaders’ libidos.
Berlusconi’s Latin Lover persona has been tarnished by allegations that he frequented minors and that he paid for sex while his government pushed for stronger laws against prostitution. “People have become less admiring of Berlusconi, because the hypocrisy has gone too far,” says Arnold Cassola, a member of the opposition in parliament. “It may be trendy for an Italian politician to flaunt his Mediterranean macho image, but that image becomes hard to stomach when the prime minister launches a campaign to eradicate street prostitution, with possible jail sentences for clients, while sleeping with paid escorts.”
Each of the half-dozen times Berlusconi has faced scandals in recent years, mostly for corruption, bribery and creative bookkeeping, allies have come to his rescue. But this time no one seems interested in bailing him out. Former ally and close friend Paolo Guzzanti, who resigned from Berlusconi’s party last spring, called him “a real pig” with a “whoring attitude of contempt toward women.” Guzzanti also said that Berlusconi had a lot to do with keeping Italian women unequal in the minds of many Italians through his sexist television programming and the way he promoted women in his Mediaset television company. “He corrupted Italian femininity,” said Guzzanti. “He opened unthinkable careers to pretty girls who have learned only how important it is to give it to the right person at the right time.”
Berlusconi’s daughter Barbara from his second marriage was equally hard on him in an interview with the Italian edition of Vanity Fair. She said she was “shocked” when he attended the birthday party of the young underwear model and scolded her father for not behaving better. “I don’t believe that a politician can allow himself the distinction between public and private life,” she told the magazine. “Politicians are required to safeguard the values of the government and its people, possibly even elevate them.”
That is definitely not the case with Berlusconi, and there is no sign of the scandals letting up any time soon. One of the prime minister’s conquests, Patrizia D’Addario, is now writing a tell-all autobiography called La Mia Vita. She has already released to the press taped conversations in which Berlusconi told her to “wait on Putin’s bed” while he showered and later advised her to masturbate to stimulate her libido. D'Addario says she spent a night with Berlusconi in Rome in exchange for what she had hoped would be a building permit but turned out only to be a cash payment. Last month she staged a super-cynical “I Love Silvio” party at a Parisian nightclub and compared herself to Joan of Arc, saying that she is sacrificing her reputation for the truth. She has promised that her book will reveal even more salacious details straight from the prime minister’s bedroom.
Berlusconi recently told his supporters that "As you've known, I'm no saint." But he has denied any wrongdoing, saying he has never paid for sex because there is “no pleasure without conquest.” Still, for the first time in his three terms as prime minister, his official approval rating has fallen below 50 percent. And, while his coalition still won European elections, his own party did not fare as well as he had predicted, signaling to many that the scandals are starting to take their toll.
Ironically, for a man who owns a good chunk of Italian media, he blames his difficulties on a biased press. He charges that competitor Rupert Murdoch is responsible for the British papers' unwavering interest in the sex stories, and that a political agenda at the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica explains why, each week since May, the newspaper has printed the same 10 questions they say will clear up any misunderstanding about the sex allegations. Berlusconi has refused to answer them, saying he has “no skeletons in his closet”.
In his view it’s the media, not him, that is misbehaving. “The only thing that appears off course to me is a certain type of journalism,” he said. “They can continue to say that I hate women and I am against women, but if there is something I adore, it’s women and I believe that is widely known.” At least no one disagrees with that.
Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.