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.

It’s not really true–many schools and hospitals you go to put the British versions to shame. But that is the narrative: Italians feel betrayed by everyone around them. Bad luck at the hands of the state is as much a part of conversation as Sunday’s soccer. Berlusconi deliberately portrays himself as a man who ignores vast elements of that state (including its justice system) and is admired for doing so. He casts himself as a victim, repeatedly talking about his suffering and his “crossing of the desert.” Berlusconi is the little guy, expert at exploiting this sense of vittimismo. People love him because they think he’s the archetypal downtrodden Italian. He’s an underdog who has come out on top. He’s been threatened and blackmailed and hounded, but he’s a winner. For many Italians he is the mirror image of themselves, or what they wish they were.

Moreover, the fact that Berlusconi suffers from conflicts of interest actually makes him, in the eyes of millions, a popular choice as premier. He is so rich, they say, that he couldn’t ever be corrupted. He’s more honest about whose interests he’s looking after: his own, just like every other politician and voter. It’s cynicism on the cusp of respectability, pretending to be idealistic clarity. And only in Italy is democracy seen as so stagnant and disrespectable, where nothing gets decided or done, that a strong-man leader (bordering on the postdemocratic) suddenly appears not threatening but rather useful.

It’s a fantastic subject, and quite a few people have approached it from various angles: My own book about life under Berlusconi was a first-person diary that fumed disbelief and fury more than analysis (I was an angry young man). Paul Ginsborg’s Silvio Berlusconi was a brief attempt to talk about theories surrounding postdemocratic politics. David Lane, The Economist‘s correspondent in Rome, published an impeccable investigation called Berlusconi’s Shadow, but it was more biography than anthropology. Alexander Stille takes the best of all those approaches and fuses them into a convincing whole. But for a daft subtitle, The Sack of Rome is an excellent book. It has everything: momentum and suspense, factual presentation and leveled analysis. The only problem is that, due to the lead character, it’s not exactly a pleasure to read: It’s the kind of book you read bolt upright with straight arms and a permanent grimace.

Stille’s great strength is his position as both an insider and an outsider. His father was an editor of the daily Corriere della Sera, and Stille knows Italy as well as, if not better than, many natives. But he comes to his subject with the moral clarity of someone untouched by Italian compromise and corruption. That position allows him to be intimate and informed, while simultaneously critical and, often, scathing. He describes what life was like in Italy when he first went there, long before Berlusconi burst onto the political scene: “Old grey men with their hats and suspenders and handlebar moustaches represented the last remnants of an era when city squares filled with people who wanted to talk about politics. For these old men, born long before the age of television, getting out of the house and talking politics was a form of entertainment and sociability.”

The narrative traces the descent from the idealism and intelligence of a print-based culture into a “world in which personality, celebrity, money and media control are the driving forces.” When Stille met Berlusconi he found him to be “psychologically one of the strangest people I had ever met. I had never before interviewed anyone who told so many obvious untruths with such enthusiastic conviction.” That is the kernel of the difference between the verbal and visual worlds: For Berlusconi everything is about appearance. What is actually true is irrelevant; it’s what is perceived to be true that counts. Truth becomes whatever you can get away with saying. In that sense Berlusconi is very much a product of his culture: I know of no other country where illusionism, rhetoric and distraction so frequently substitute the search for simple, old-fashioned facts.

The facts of Berlusconi’s career are by now well established. He made his money thanks to the influx of billions of lire that were paid in cash into Swiss bank accounts in the 1970s (8 billion in 1977 alone). Those investors remain anonymous, and Berlusconi has steadfastly refused to shed light on the mysterious transactions. There is a suspicion, repeated by Stille, that Berlusconi’s businesses were simply giant washing machines for Mafia money. Such suspicions are only exacerbated by the overlap of Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s political party) and Cosa Nostra: “Forza Italia,” Stille says with characteristic sarcasm, “has a curious habit of picking representatives who share Dell’Utri’s unlucky record of embarrassing encounters with organized crime figures.”

Although Stille calls Berlusconi a “robber baron,” the book is much more than a character assassination. Stille manages to portray Berlusconi as a complex, contradictory character. The author is sufficiently evenhanded to quote discrepant opinions: One interviewee says that “Berlusconi is one of the coldest people I’ve ever met. He does nothing that is not strictly calculated. These friendships are based on blackmail. The people in his inner circle are the ones who know where all the skeletons in the closet are hidden.” Another says something rather different: “I have spent time with Berlusconi’s secretary, Marinella, and I have no doubt that if she knew a bullet were heading toward Berlusconi she would put herself in front of it. Not many people can count on that kind of loyalty.” Perhaps the key to understanding Berlusconi is his obsession with folly. He loves to project an image of himself as an impulsive genius, subject to sudden inspiration. His favorite book is Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly.

Facts and figures pepper the pages of The Sack of Rome and remind the reader of what the reality is: An obsession with legality leads, paradoxically, to lawlessness. “Italy,” says Stille, “leads Europe…in having some 90,000 laws in force (compared with 7,325 in France and 5,587 in Germany).” Transparency International, a company that measures corruption throughout the world, now ranks Italy below African countries like Namibia and Botswana. Bribes bleed about 6.3 billion euros ($8 billion) a year from the Italian economy. The number of illegal buildings rocketed by 41 percent from 2001 to 2003. Such shady financing is possible because there are only 240 large corporations listed on the Italian stock exchange. The rest are privately held and, usually, family-owned. There’s a focus on profit, not probity. Little surprise, then, that foreign investors withdrew $17 billion from Italy during Berlusconi’s first government.

Nor do any of these facts ever get reported inside Italy. Reporters Without Borders, an organization monitoring freedom of the press throughout the world, rates Italy fifty-third in the world, behind Uruguay, Albania and Madagascar. In the European elections of 1999, Berlusconi offered the country some 803 political advertisements. That led to a conundrum his opponents still haven’t solved: “Since public TV in Italy does not broadcast political ads,” Stille writes, “the center-left was in the impossible position of either giving money to its opponent or doing without television advertising.” This in a country in which the average adult watches 235 minutes of television each day. (In 2001 only 6.4 percent of Italians used newspapers as their principal means of information; 77.4 percent used television.)

Stille’s conclusion sounds a warning to America about the dangers of this kind of cozy relationship between news organizations, high finance and central government. He compares Berlusconi to the New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine and New York City’s Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The point about Italian illusionism is relevant in America, where, says Stille, “for years, conservatives…have accused the left of ‘moral relativism,’ of denying the existence of a universal moral code, the ‘eternal verities’ of traditional society. But it is in fact the new right who are genuine postmodernists and don’t believe in any stable truth. ‘It’s all just opinion,’ as Richard Viguerie put it.”

There’s only one problem with Stille’s studious work: timing. It’s published just as Berlusconi has been shunted off the political stage and comes in the wake of dozens of other studies in both English and Italian. There will doubtless be another chapter or two in the Berlusconi fable: He’s not the kind of man to wander off with quiet dignity. The Sack of Rome comes too late to offer a running commentary on a politician at his peak, and yet too soon to give the reader a sense of the last act and the Berlusconi legacy.