It’s been many times that this blog has predicted the imminent political demise of Silvio Berlusconi, but with the Italian leader now openly cavorting with a 17-year-old girl and throwing bizarre teen slumber parties in Sardinia, has the most powerful man in Italy finally overstepped the mark?
This week I’ve been watching old episodes of I, Claudius on DVD, an old miniseries the BBC produced about the Roman Empire (specifically the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the first four emperors of Rome). It’s a fantastic series, and it’s been interesting to see how differently the British portray the Romans from the Americans (I never knew the Romans were so effete!). I have to say that watching this tale of decadent, power-mad Italian emperors has seened a bit familiar as I concurrently watched “Noemigate” unfold in Italy this week.
Really this is just the climax of a long unfolding scandal. After months of increasingly criticizing her husband in public for his philandering and his choice to put forward bikini-clad bimbos as Italian Senators, Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, finally decided she had had enough this month and publicly demanded a divorce from the eccentric prime minister. At first Italians weren’t paying all that much attention to the affair, as it was typical of the high drama involved in the prime minister’s personal life. But when Ms. Lazio revealed what the final straw had been, everything changed. She was finally leaving the 72-year-old Berlusconi, she said, because he has been unabashedly and publicly carrying on a relationship with a 17-year-old girl.
Incredibly, Berlusconi doesn’t deny it – though he insists the relationship has not been sexual. The young model at the centre of this storm, Noemi Letizia, has hardly been low-profile either. Giving an interview to the newspaper Corriere del Mezzogiorno, she giggled, “I often sing with Papi Silvio at the piano, or we do karaoke”. As the FT’s Tony Barber noted earlier this week, it’s hard to know who to feel more sorry for in this sad spectacle - Lario, Noemi’s ex-fiancé Gino Flaminio who was dumped once the prime minister came-a-calling, or the entire 60 million Italian people.
The official line from the prime minister’s office is this: Berlusconi knows Noemi’s father Benedetto Letizia, a functionary for the city of Naples, and he started a friendship with the young girl after meeting her through him. But the story the cast-away Flaminio told newspaper La Repubblica on Sunday – and the far more likely scenario - is that the prime minister first called Ms. Letizia last fall after seeing her picture in a modelling catalogue. Then, given that Berlusconi is the most powerful man in Italy – controlling both the government and the media – the parents kept silent about (and possibly even encouraged) the budding relationship between the two, and Noemi wasted no time in dumping Flaminio. Both Flaminio and Noemi's aunt have said Berlusconi and Mr. Letizia never knew each other before he decided to call their home to arrange a "meeting" with Noemi.
Berlusconi then invited Noemi and a schoolmate to a party at his private villa in Sardinia where other teenage girls were present. But finally, when Berlusconi showed up at the Noemi's 18th birthday party earlier this year, his wife decided she would end their marriage, which at 19 years began even before Noemi was born (and that was already Berlusconi’s second marriage!).
Now this is hardly the first time Berlusconi has embarrassed his country with his behaviour. His past sins include humping a random stranger in the street, manhandling the presidents of Russia and America at the G20, and his notorious pinching of every female bottom within a ten foot radius. And each time it happens, Berlusconi’s adversaries inside and outside Italy are driven to exasperation by the fact that his approval ratings only seem to go up. Even after a British corporate lawyer was convicted last month of accepting a $600,000 bribe from Berlusconi and then covering up the crime to protect the prime minister and his Fininvest holding company (Berlusconi himself cannot be tried because he passed a law last year that gives him immunity from prosecution), the Italians still support him. And yet in any other Western European country Berlusconi would have been driven from power long ago for any of these discretions.
Even the Catholic church is too intimidated to criticize the most powerful man in Italy. The Italian Bishops Conference this week refused to comment on the matter, and when asked the bishops would only say that each person’s conduct was a matter “of individual conscience.” Oh really? That’s a new one coming from the Catholic Church!
Of course in the end the problem isn’t just about Berlusconi’s sex life, or his unbridled arrogance. It’s the fact that nobody seems to be paying any attention to Italy’s deep structural problems. The country’s economy is in a shambles. Reconstruction after an earthquake in central Italy left 70,000 people homeless has yet to begin in earnest.
The leader one Italian opposition party recently compared Berlusconi to Nero, fiddling while Rome burned. Yet Italians have convinced themselves that Berlusconi, though he may be increasingly losing his grip on reality, is the only man who can hold the country together. The situation bears more than a little resemblance to the BBC miniseries that’s been occupying my evenings this week.