You could hear the gravelly, nighttime voice of the prime minister in audiotaped conversations posted on the website of the news magazine L’Espresso. Not many of Italy’s newspapers had the courage to publish the transcripts, as explicit as a webpage for “chlamydia /symptoms” and just about as sexy. Apart from one RAI channel, Italian TV, both public and private, was as silent as the grave. But the tapes, secretly recorded by 42-year-old “escort” Patrizia D’Addario before, during and after her night with 72-year-old Silvio Berlusconi at his Roman residence, left nothing to the imagination. There was Patrizia saying “no way” when she hears that Berlusconi does not use condoms. There were comments about il lettone di Putin, “Putin’s big bed,” a glamorous-sounding romping ring that was promptly disavowed by the Russian prime minister. There was Berlusconi offering Patrizia professional advice: “If I may…you need to touch yourself on a regular basis.” And so forth.
You didn’t have to be a puritan to think this pirated pillow talk revealed at least a grave lack of judgment on the part of the Italian premier, if not actually the “illness” that his wife, Veronica, mentioned when she announced in May that she wanted a divorce. Both Patrizia and other young women courted by Berlusconi have said he offered them seats in the European Parliament. Yet the prime minister has refused all calls to answer questions in Parliament about his nightlife, and denounced the media coverage as “trash.” Toughing it out seems to be his strategy. Why, then, did he suddenly take a 90-degree turn last week and seem to acknowledge that the “trash” was true? “I’m no saint,” he said, adding that Italians liked him that way. True enough: San Silvio is one nickname nobody ever called him.
He’s been addressed as Papi, “Daddy” as in Sugar Daddy, the pet name used by the scores of young women, some of them underage, invited to parties at his Roman residence and to his Sardinian pleasure palace, where he housed them in special, purpose-built bungalows. He’s been called il Caimano, a nasty, hungry, aggressive alligator native to the Cayman Islands, the very sort of Caribbean fiscal paradise where Berlusconi’s excess wealth was alleged to be packed away. But the nickname that just might stick to him for posterity comes courtesy of the tough old Resistance fighter and crack journalist Giorgio Bocca, who dubbed him Piccolo Cesare: Little Caesar, the gangster who will forever have the squat legs and saturnine demeanor of Edward G. Robinson.
Of course we know he’s no saint, so who was Berlusconi addressing when he declared he was not? In part, he was speaking to all those Italian men who themselves are no saints when it comes to honoring their marriage vows, the ones enjoying the long twilight of machismo. But he was also sending a covert message of humility to the supreme judge of Italian morals, the Vatican. Like any other fallible Italian male, Berlusconi hopes the Church will pardon him his sins as prime minister, just as the Catholic clergy has traditionally rapped the knuckles of men who fell prey to the sin of Lust and then pardoned them (meanwhile comforting their women and urging them to look the other way). Humans, above all men, are going to sin; otherwise what are priests for?
Rather astonishingly, Berlusconi has until now enjoyed good relations with the Catholic hierarchy. In one of those bargains with the devil that the Church of Rome has made before (see its highly opportunistic relations with Mussolini), the hierarchy tacitly backed Berlusconi in the 2008 elections. Despite one divorce and even as a second one was brewing, Berlusconi has made a point of flaunting “family values.” The Church knows the Berlusconi government can be counted on to back the Vatican line on stem cells, in vitro fertilization, birth control and prophylactics (yep, we know Silvio toes the line there!), abortion, gay rights and mandatory life support for the terminally ill. Those might seem mere technical concerns when you consider Avarice, Lust and other deadly sins already flourishing on Italian soil. But under Benedict XVI, obedience to the Church line on such biological issues has become a primary test of faith.
The first formal hint that relations with the Vatican were strained came during Obama’s July visit to Italy for the G8 summit, when Berlusconi asked for a papal audience just after Obama and Michelle saw Pope Benedict, and was rebuffed, according to press reports here. More recently, Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, issued its first comments on the sex scandal, saying that Berlusconi’s refusal to answer questions about the matter had left the country in a state of “desolation” and that declaring himself “no saint” was inadequate. The paper also printed several of what were reported to be hundreds of letters castigating Berlusconi’s behavior–and Church officials for not making their voices heard. “What trash, how repellent, what poverty of spirit,” wrote Father Angelo Gornati, from Lombardy. “Not only does he not deny this squalid behavior, he flaunts it as performance, talent, valor.”
It often comes as a surprise to outsiders what a powerful role the Vatican plays in Italian politics. Nonbelieving Italians like to say that Italy is il cortile del Vaticano, the Vatican’s backyard: a country where the Church automatically expects obedience (although there is also a strong anti-clerical tradition here). The threatened loss of Catholic consensus sent some tremors through the majority coalition. If what some Italian papers reported is true, Berlusconi’s trusted political adviser and Vatican insider Gianni Letta was so discouraged by the daily revelations of Berlusconi’s antics that he barely spoke to him for many weeks. Yet even during those weeks, it seems, Letta spent days negotiating with the cardinals, trying to repair the breach between the Church and the right. One thing he apparently promised the Vatican was a legislative fast track for a bill that would effectively make it impossible to write a useful “living will” and would rule out “do not resuscitate” clauses.
The prime minister himself, meanwhile, let it be known that he intended to make a pilgrimage to the hometown of the stigmata-bearing Padre Pio, a genuine twentieth-century Catholic saint known for performing miracles.
If the Church does finally condemn Berlusconi for moral turpitude, however, it will be missing far better reasons to repudiate him. To cite just one: although the facts are still not clear and the full truth may never be known, Berlusconi’s name has recently emerged in connection with reported murky “negotiations” between Cosa Nostra and Italian government officials in 1992-93, when two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were murdered in spectacular bomb attacks in Sicily and three “show bombings” killed eleven people in Milan, Florence and Rome. Those bombs went off at a crucial moment in postwar Italian history, when the corruption scandal known as Tangentopoli, or “Bribesville,” had discredited and was destroying the two leading governing parties, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, which had been caught taking bribes from virtually every major company in Italy. With the political establishment in disarray, some intelligence officials are supposed to have stepped into the power vacuum and, in connivance with the Mafia, may have had a role in Borsellino’s murder, according to police interrogations of at least one Mafia informer. And according to a witness with insider knowledge of Cosa Nostra (the son of a former mayor of Palermo convicted of Mafia activities), Berlusconi’s name appears on a document drawn up by a Mafia capo during the secret negotiations. One of the things the boss requests is that Berlusconi turn over one of his three TV networks to Cosa Nostra–a bold demand that was never met.
If that document proves to be genuine, it would suggest that Berlusconi was a plausible Mafia interlocutor during that murderous season. It’s a scenario so chilling that it has never been told, except in a novel. That book, Nelle Mani Giuste, by criminal court judge and seasoned noirista Giancarlo De Cataldo, was based on months the author spent reviewing court records and parliamentary commission investigations. It posed the question: who ruled Italy in 1992-94, when the political establishment, apart from the former Communist Party, was in tatters? In De Cataldo’s version, it was a sinister axis of Freemasons, Cosa Nostra and spooks left over from cold war days (when the CIA backed a clandestine network to keep the Italian Communists out of power). And Silvio Berlusconi was the man who met the famous criterion of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “everything must change in order for everything to remain the same.” In De Cataldo’s novel, as in real life, businessman Berlusconi became a politician almost overnight and in 1994, swept to victory and kept “the Communists” at bay. In real life, one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, has been convicted of “mediation” between Cosa Nostra and “significant economic and financial actors.” Little Caesar? There are worse things than being an aging Don Giovanni.