No one accuses Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of being a reluctant host.
In fact, as he greets the world leaders jetting in to Italy today for a three-day summit, the billionaire head of government’s problem is just the opposite: Eyebrows are raised at home and abroad at Berlusconi’s willingness to welcome guests who tend to be young, photogenic women.
There was the teenage girl whose photo allegedly captivated the 72-year-old Berlusconi enough for him to invite her to his Sardinian villa for a private New Year’s Eve bash. Then too the bevy of beauties at another of his parties, caught on camera holding his hands and sitting in his lap -- prompting a magazine to dub them “Berlusconi’s harem.”
And there was the paid escort who claims to have been one of many call girls sent to Berlusconi’s Rome residence, and who said she slept with the prime minister on Barack Obama’s election night.
For weeks, the scandals have been a source of amusement to some Italians, disgust to others. But this week, as Berlusconi prepares to host the Group of 8 summit, there is a hint of queasiness over the image of Italy he projects.
“The shame of Italy is before the world,” an elderly man told former senator Tana de Zulueta, one of Berlusconi’s harshest critics, as hundreds of reporters began converging on this sun-baked nation.
The G-8 summit usually offers the host leader a chance to shine in the global spotlight, ushering his peers about in a series of photo opportunities against beautiful settings. This year’s backdrop is L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, which was devastated in April by an earthquake that killed more than 300 people.
But the summit is also taking place amid aftershocks of another kind: the stubborn bad news from the worst global economic downturn in 60 years. It’s a backdrop that would seem to require the leaders to be seen rolling up their sleeves. Instead they arrive with the distraction of Berlusconi’s seemingly unrepentant personal behavior.
“This has concentrated people’s attention on Berlusconi’s private life rather than whether the G-8’s dealing with Africa, whether they’re going to deal with financial regulations, whether they’ll come out with a statement on Iran,” says James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University of Rome.
Berlusconi has suggested that his love life is a preoccupation of the foreign news media. But De Zulueta is among those who detect a mounting feeling among the Italian public that Berlusconi finally may have gone too far. That is something of a change for a man whose well-publicized antics and often outrageous statements have almost never cost him politically.
“He’s running out of credit,” De Zulueta said. “There is a point at which the spell breaks.”
Berlusconi certainly seemed vulnerable enough last week during his visit to the site of a deadly train crash in Tuscany. Some members of the crowd peppered him with jeers of “Pedophile!” and “Whoremonger!”
History may record the precise moment of Berlusconi’s “spell-breaking” as having come in April, when he attended the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia, a blond part-time model whose face was were soon all over the papers.
Berlusconi said she was the daughter of an old friend. But her former boyfriend and her aunt (her parents have remained curiously silent) contradicted that account, saying that the prime minister had met Letizia only several months before, allegedly after he saw her modeling portfolio and arranged a meeting.
It has since emerged that Letizia was present at the New Year’s Eve bash -- at the vacation home of the man she called “Papi” (Daddy) -- when she was 17. Veronica Lario, Berlusconi’s wife, has announced her intention to file for divorce, alleging that her husband “frequented minors.”
The tawdry revelations came as a shock even to some of those Italians who had ignored Berlusconi’s peccadilloes or indulged them as signs of admirable Latin virility.
Last month, another scandal erupted when a woman named Patrizia D’Addario alleged that she had twice been to Berlusconi’s luxurious palazzo in Rome for dinner parties composed almost entirely of beautiful women who were paid to be there by Giampaolo Tarantini, a businessman friend of the premier’s. On one of those nights in November, D’Addario says, she and Berlusconi slept together.
Tarantini is now under investigation on suspicion of drug-related activity and of abetting prostitution.
Berlusconi himself has not been accused of any crime. He has dismissed D’Addario’s story as lies and hinted at a plot to destroy his reputation.
“I have never paid a woman” for sex, Berlusconi told Chi magazine. “I’ve never understood what the satisfaction is without the pleasure of making a conquest,” he said. “There is nothing in my private life I need to apologize for.”
Not all his compatriots see it that way. His support appears to be ebbing among devout Roman Catholics, who have been key supporters of his center-right coalition government. Last month, the well-read Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana took an unusually sharp line with Berlusconi, describing him in an editorial as “indefensible.”
“The limit of decency has been reached,” the journal said. “In other nations, if politicians fall short of the rules (even minimal ones) or exhibit questionable behavior, they are forced to resign. Why is it so different in Italy?”
Most analysts agree that Berlusconi is in no imminent danger of being ousted. But things could change if, as many expect, the effects of the economic worldwide slowdown begin to be felt more strongly in Italy, which has weathered the storm better than many other nations.
And Berlusconi’s camp is bracing for more shocks in the form of embarrassing photographs taken at his Sardinian estate that have been the subject of a bidding war between various publications. Rumors are rife that the photos will appear in print this week -- for maximum effect on the G-8 summit.