ROME — For many Italians, the annual mid-August vacation exodus known as ferragosto could not have come soon enough. It has been a sweltering, stressful summer.
Flocking to the beaches, they leave behind the usual Italian cacophony of politics and intrigue, from warnings of creeping fascism to accusations by jailed mafia godfather, Toto Riina, that a high profile anti-mafia prosecutor was blown to bits in 1992 by agents of the state.
Italians have long grown accustomed to the din in a country deeply divided politically. Harder to shrug off is a recession that has them feeling more worried and depressed, according to a poll last month. They’re so preoccupied that 33 percent say they’re having sex less often.
That apparently isn’t the case with Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. For the past year, his alleged sexual exploits have been the stuff of widespread media coverage, café chatter and, most recently, tape-recorded pillow talk. The recordings were made by Patrizia D’Addario, an escort who says she was paid 1,000 euros by a friend of Berlusconi’s to sleep with the prime minister. The friend, Gianpaolo Tarantini, is being investigated on suspicion of corruption and abetting prostitution.
The recordings were posted last month on the website of the Italian magazine, L’espresso. One conversation is between Tarantini and D’Addario last October, before they head to Berlusconi’s official Roman residence, Palazzo Grazioli. Tarantini stresses the prime minister doesn’t use a condom. D’Addario protests but seems to relent.
She claims other taped conversations took place a month later after a night of sex with Berlusconi at his home. One exchange goes like this:
D’Addario: A young man would have come in a second … Do you know how long I haven’t had sex like I had with you tonight? Many months … Is it normal?
Man said to be Berlusconi: If I may say so, you have to have sex on your own … You have to touch yourself with a certain frequency.
Berlusconi has not denied that D’Addario attended a party at his home, but has insisted he has never in his life paid for sex. His only comment after the tapes were released was to tell an audience: “I am not a saint; you’ve all understood that.”
The recordings cap a series of sexually-tinged controversies, beginning with accusations he appointed women to political posts who were more experienced in seduction than politics.
In the spring, his wife, Victoria Lario, sent an email to a news agency suggesting her husband uses his political party as a harem. Days later she asked for a divorce — they’ve been married 19 years — when it emerged Berlusconi had attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old aspiring actress who calls him “daddy.”
For a country synonymous with style and culture, where inelegance is treated as a public crime, it’s a wonder that a man who revels in playing the fool can be elected Italian prime minister — not once, but three times.
Chalking it up to a macho society — one writer calls Italy “the country feminism forgot” — is simplistic. It doesn’t explain the multiple corruption scandals Berlusconi has survived and the non-sexist gaffes he gets away with — from comparing himself to Jesus Christ to describing U.S. President Barack Obama as “handsome and tanned.”
In the club of developed democracies, the 72-year-old prime minister is a phenomenon. Conflict of interest laws alone would prevent his coming to power in most democracies. But in Italy, he flourishes.
Italy’s deeply corrupt post-war political culture made him one of the country’s wealthiest citizens. A media mogul with a near monopoly on television, he has long been accused of fashioning the country in his image by influencing political coverage and feeding Italians an endless extravaganza of kitsch and flesh.
The relationship, however, is symbiotic. The late Italian singer and actor, Giorgio Gaber, perhaps said it best: “It’s not the Berlusconi in him that I fear, it’s the Berlusconi in me.”
Says Franco Ferrarotti, a dean of Italian sociology: “This man somehow represents the secret dreams of most people.” By no means does Berlusconi get a free ride. Italy has been sharply divided between left- and right-wing political parties since the end of World War II. Many Italians would love to see Berlusconi in jail.
His only majority government victory in 2008 was propelled by farcical infighting of the left-wing coalition he unseated. For Italians in search of stability — they have had 62 governments since 1945 — Berlusconi was the only alternative.
His right-wing People of Freedom coalition quickly abolished property taxes on primary residences. With an estimated 80 percent of Italians owning their own home, the move was wildly popular.
But his appeal runs deeper. He seems the walking embodiment of an Italian proverb that speaks volumes about the national character: Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno. It describes laws — and the ways to avoid them — coming to life at exactly the same time. Income tax evasion alone amounts to $300 billion, according to one estimate.
“The national sport is to violate the law. If you obey the law diligently, you have to be careful not to be seen as a fool,” Ferrarotti says.
It’s still not clear how a man who began as a crooner on a cruise ship came to own a construction and media empire worth an estimated $7.6 billion. Suspicions of mafia money laundering linger.
Once in power, he passed laws that helped him avoid a series of corruption trials. Many Italians took them in stride. Who wouldn’t play the system to protect their interests?
They even express relief. They expect politicians to stuff their pockets. But with Berlusconi, a common refrain goes something like this: “He’s so rich he doesn’t have to steal.” (Because he already has, his critics add.)
A chunk of his wealth is from sales — he controls 60 percent of the television advertising market. But the product he sells best is himself. He introduced a politics of personality to a country run by a technocratic cabal for decades.
His personal fastidiousness is almost a parody of image-based politics: Heels to look taller, impeccable double-breasted suits, a permanent tan, a facelift and a hair transplant. And why not, Italians say. Looking good — la bella figura — is a national obsession.
Before his hair transplant, one of his magazines retouched a photo to cover his bald spot. More serious are the examples of critical journalists and satirists banned from the public RAI network, which he controls as prime minister, and the main private channels, which he owns. When the D’Addario sex tapes became public, neither the RAI network nor the Berlusconi-owned private channels mentioned them in their newscasts.
Italians spend an average of four hours a day watching TV, dominated by soap operas and showgirls.
“In the Berlusconian world, there is no difference between reality and what is sold as reality,” says Paolo Guzzanti, a former senator and MP with Berlusconi’s party. “Berlusconi’s criteria is always the same: Packaged little asses and packaged little minds.”
Berlusconi also transformed Italy’s tedious political discourse. The owner of the storied AC Milan soccer team, he uses the banter of soccer fans as a model, says Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador and a leading political analyst.
The sexual bragging, the repartee, the childish hijinks (he once made the cuckold horn sign with his fingers behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister) — all reflect the language and behavior in sports bars, Romano adds. And fans in this soccer-crazed country get it.
“Berlusconi has always behaved improperly — quote, unquote,” Romano says from Milan, the city where Berlusconi made his fortune. “He seems to delight in doing it. He seems to think his faux pas are part of his charm, part of his capacity to seduce.”
“We’ve always felt that it wasn’t the proper thing to do,” he says, referring to political observers. “But when we look at the polls we realize that Berlusconi doesn’t lose because of it. And sometimes, he gains.” Says Ferrarotti, who has written extensively on the prime minister: “You can’t use the traditional concept of populism to describe Berlusconi because he thinks of himself as the incarnation of the people. Therefore, he feels he can do whatever he wants.”
Some accuse Berlusconi of megalomania. He has, after all, compared himself to Napoleon. But with his latest sex-charged peccadillos, some observers believe he may have gone too far.
The Catholic church isn’t pleased — he’s heading for his second divorce. There’s talk of Berlusconi seeking a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI and — perhaps as penance — of making a pilgrimage to the grave of revered Italian saint Padre Pio.
A poll published late last month in the Roman daily La Repubblica found 49 percent of those surveyed expressing “confidence” in the prime minister, a drop from 62 percent last October. A growing number of Italians wonder who is minding the recession while the prime minister sorts out his personal life.
Italians describe their country as a bel casino — a beautiful mess. But with the example Berlusconi sets, some might argue the literal translation is more appropriate — a beautiful brothel.