It’s difficult to think of a country that looks so different from inside or outside as Italy. For anyone who doesn’t live there, Italy has always seemed an Edenic garden of culture and style. The sighs of centuries of grand tourists resound through history as they swoon in front of the splendors of the “beautiful country” with its “sweet life.” But for anyone who actually lives in Italy, the country can be infuriating and depressing. The daily confrontation with dishonesty becomes numbing. There’s frequently an inability to use language for meaning rather than its wonderful rhetorical sound. After a while the Arcadia begins to look a little soiled.
It’s not grumpy foreigners who make such criticisms but Italians themselves. They use the term all’italiana to imply something botched, done on the cheap. If you say something has been done all’italiana it means performed with a bit of cunning, possibly creating tidy profits for an inner circle. Italians refer to their country as a casino, literally a brothel. It’s a place where everyone has a story of being ripped off, of having been conned by some trickster’s daring and seduction.
That discrepancy between native and foreign impressions of Italy means that almost all non-Italians have been astonished by the rise and endurance of Silvio Berlusconi. We foreigners just don’t get it. It’s impossible that a country so full of culture and refinement could twice elect as prime minister a man who is at best very vulgar, at worst a lying criminal. Berlusconi is a man who made millions of dollars in real estate deals in the 1970s with heavy backing from mystery investors. He used political friendships to create a near-monopoly of private TV stations to rival the three public ones. His window dressing was to own a football team, AC Milan, which won trophy after trophy. He has won two general elections (in 1994 and 2001) and this year lost by less than one-tenth of 1 percent to Romano Prodi.
Berlusconi enjoys political loyalty from millions of Italians even though much of his career is terrifyingly close to the underworld. He employed a Sicilian criminal, Vittorio Mangano, as protector at his huge villa at Arcore, and one of his closest consiglieri, Marcello Dell’Utri, has recently been convicted of associazione mafiosa. He is appealing the conviction and may well be cleared, but he has admitted to a series of bizarre coincidences that raise eyebrows almost to the hairline. In the 2001 election, Berlusconi won 100 percent of the Sicilian seats.
There’s so much smoke surrounding Berlusconi that many are convinced there must be much fire. The surprise discoveries about him–that he was a member of an occasionally murderous masonic lodge, that he bought his villa from a grieving young girl through callous deceit and worthless shares–certainly don’t enhance his reputation. He has been found guilty on many occasions, but the statute of limitations usually means that by the time a particular crime has come to the Supreme Court it has passed its “crime-by” date and he has been absolved.
The fact that a man with such suspicions hanging over him has twice been prime minister is truly amazing. The demanding question isn’t How bad is Berlusconi? (the answer, at least to me, seems obvious) but What does his electoral strength say about the Italian electorate? That question leads you toward what the writer Carlo Levi called the elusive “artichoke” of Italy: You keep peeling away the rough leaves but never quite arrive at the heart of the thing. I have a friend in Parma who repeatedly says that anyone who votes for Berlusconi is either ignorant or in bad faith: Either Berlusconi’s supporters are unaware of his history or they know about it and don’t care. It’s a very negative view, but hard to dispute. And yet very frequently I find myself at dinner with people I assume are appalled by the Berlusconi phenomenon only to find them passionately trying to explain it. After another glass of wine they’re defending Berlusconi vigorously. They compare him to Thatcher and Reagan. Like that uncompromising couple from the 1980s, Berlusconi sees the state as the problem, not the solution. That chimes with voters: If there’s one thing that really riles Italians, it’s their public services and public servants–bureaucratic, they say, inefficient, lazy, cheating, probably making money somewhere on the side.