Letter from Italy
Basta Bunga Bunga
Have Italians had enough of Silvio Berlusconi—and the culture he embodies?
by Ariel Levy June 6, 2011
These days, you would have to possess an unusually pure mind to look at that pool full of young women without picturing the pool at Berlusconi’s estate, Arcore, just outside Milan. Along with the basement disco and the upstairs bedrooms, the pool is featured almost daily in Italian newspapers as one of the sites where the Presidente reportedly hosted scores of orgies—or, as they have become known around the world, Bunga Bungas. (There is heated debate about the origin of the term. Some say Berlusconi picked it up from Muammar Qaddafi—his friend, until recently. Others cite an off-color joke set in Africa.) The Bunga Bungas are a source of humiliation for many Italians, and of humor for others, including the Presidente, as Berlusconi is called. Not long ago, he told a convention of the Movement for National Responsibility, upon hearing its theme song, “My compliments on your anthem. I will use it as one of my songs for a Bunga Bunga!”
Berlusconi has always seemed pleased with himself. In 2006, he offered some advice to Italians living below the poverty line: “Do it my way and earn more money!” (His net worth is estimated at nine billion dollars.) He has described himself as “the best in the world—all the other world leaders wish they could be as good as I am.” Lately, however, his bravado has sounded increasingly misplaced. The Italian economy is stalled, and unemployment is at 8.4 per cent. In 2009, he was lambasted for his inadequate response to earthquakes in Abruzzo, which killed more than three hundred people and left seventy thousand homeless. Last July, Gianfranco Fini, the president of the parliamentary Chamber of Deputies, who had been a crucial ally for sixteen years, broke away to form his own party. And then came Ruby.
This past fall, it was reported that the Prime Minister was under investigation for paying for sex with a teen-age belly dancer named Karima el Mahroug—better known by her stage name, Ruby Rubacuori, or Ruby Heartstealer—and that he had intervened on her behalf when she was arrested for stealing money from a roommate. Berlusconi claims that he never had sex with her and that, anyway, she told him she was twenty-four. He admits that he gave her thousands of euros at the end of her first evening at Arcore, and tens of thousands more later, but insists that these were innocent acts of generosity. He instructed the police to release her from custody, he says, because he thought that she was a niece of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and he wanted to avoid straining diplomatic relations. (Mahroug, who was born in Morocco and grew up in Sicily, is not related to Mubarak.) After the story broke, other women came forward to tell the stories of their Arcore nights. A twenty-seven-year-old prostitute named Nadia Macrì described Berlusconi lying in his bed, being serviced by women in rapid succession. “He would say, ‘Next one, please,’ and sometimes we were all together in the swimming pool, where sex took place.” Berlusconi denies Macrì’s account, and her credibility has been called into question. Macrì is the star of a new adult film called “Bunga Bunga 3D.”
Rubygate, as everyone calls the scandal, has grown progressively more lurid. Two of Berlusconi’s friends, Emilio Fede—the host of the television show “TG4,” which airs on one of the three networks Berlusconi owns—and the entertainment agent Dario (Lele) Mora, are charged with running a prostitution ring to meet the Prime Minister’s elaborate erotic expectations, with help from Nicole Minetti, a twenty-six-year-old former dental hygienist, showgirl, and, possibly, lover of Berlusconi’s. (All three have pleaded not guilty.) For months, the prosecutor’s office in Milan had been wiretapping phones used by Berlusconi and his associates, and the twenty thousand pages of documents pertaining to Rubygate have been leaking out in Italian newspapers. The picture that has emerged is of an aging emperor, surrounded by a harem of nubile women paid to ornament his dinner table, boost his ego, and dance around in their underpants. Berlusconi is Italy’s waning Hugh Hefner, alternately reviled and admired for his loyalty to his own appetites—except that he’s supposed to be running the country.
On the morning of April 6th, the opening day of Berlusconi’s trial for soliciting prostitution with a minor and for misuse of power, dozens of women gathered in front of the courthouse in Milan. They were not thanking God for Silvio’s existence. Several carried bouquets in the colors of the Italian flag and held up a large sign that read “Magistrates, don’t give in! We are with you!” Antonietta Bergamo, a housewife in her sixties, wore a hand-lettered placard that read “Dictators, prostitutes, drugs, tax evasion, Mafia, sex abuse—our Berlusconi doesn’t go without!” There were men among the protesters, too; one held up a sign with a picture of Hello Kitty, an emblem of Berlusconi’s underage paramours, above the words “I am a minor . . . Presidente Berlusconi, I am not your prop!”
Berlusconi has fended off twenty-four lawsuits since he first took office, in 1994, and he did not come to the hearing that day. Neither did Karima el Mahroug, who has refused to serve as plaintiff in the case. (“She hasn’t suffered financial damage from visiting Arcore,” her lawyer, Paola Boccardi, told me. “But she’s had damage to her image from the media. Fifty-year-old men stop her on the street and say, ‘Let’s have Bunga Bunga together.’ ”) In Ruby’s place was Valeria Ajovalasit, the president of an Italian women’s organization called Arcidonna. She had come with her lawyers to file suit “on behalf of all women,” whose dignity, she said, had been damaged by the Prime Minister’s behavior.
On both sides of the courtroom were cages, used to contain defendants in Mafia trials. On the front wall was a mosaic depicting Truth, Justice, and Law as women. As it happened, Berlusconi’s adjudicators that day were all women, too: the three judges and the chief prosecutor, Ilda Boccassini, a redhead who wore red earrings, red cat-eye glasses, and a giant red bracelet, along with her black robe. It took the judges only seven minutes to adjourn the trial until May 31st, to allow time to review the legitimacy of Arcidonna’s motion to serve as plaintiff.
“Ilda the Red,” as Boccassini is often called in the press (for her supposedly leftward leanings as well as for her coiffure), has argued against Berlusconi in many trials, and that morning Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, had run an extremely unflattering photograph of her on the front page. There was a huge blowup of it in a white tent across the street from the courthouse, where a crowd of Berlusconi’s followers were conducting their own protest, against the women of the court, whom they accused of harboring political grudges. “For seventeen years, Berlusconi has been attacked by the magistrates—this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Marco Bestetti, a twenty-three-year-old law student, said. He’d come with several other young supporters of the People of Freedom (P.D.L.), Berlusconi’s political party. “Boccassini has a personal hatred for him,” Bestetti concluded. A mechanic named Massimo had a different explanation for the gathering. “We’re here because they’re giving us lasagna and cake,” he said, but added that he was opposed to activist judges: “The Presidente’snot necessarily a sane man, but we have to discuss matters democratically.”
Other Berlusconi enthusiasts in the tent were there not to protect democracy but to defend their vision of the male prerogative. An affable seventy-six-year-old named Michele Lecce, crisply dressed in a light-blue sweater under a navy blazer, explained, “If a woman comes with no clothes on, with her tits showing, you can’t say he has committed violence.” Lecce, a retired union leader, said he considers Berlusconi “a brilliant man,” adding, wistfully, “If only I had the money he has, I’d be on the top surrounded by beautiful girls. Maybe I’d drop, but it’d be a beautiful way to go!” He smiled sweetly and yelled across the street at the demonstrators, “You guys are all gay! We have the men who fuck!” Then he turned to me and said, “I see you are a girl—I want to kiss you!” He pinched my cheek and concluded happily, “This is nature.”
The sense that Berlusconi is just a natural man, one who happens to be exceptionally good at being male, has been an enormous part of his success. Throughout his career—as a singer on cruise ships, as a real-estate developer, as a media magnate, and, finally, as a politician—he has convinced Italians that he is someone they can both relate to and aspire to be like. Many men still feel that he is being attacked for being irresistible to women (which they would like to be) and plainly human, susceptible to sin (just like them). “He’s on the same wavelength as people,” one of Berlusconi’s friends told me. “He laughs when they laugh.”
Berlusconi has been far from contrite. A week before the opening of the Rubygate trial, he travelled to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily where tens of thousands of North African refugees have come ashore in the past few months. He told the crowd assembled there, “Did you hear the latest poll? They asked women between twenty and thirty years old if they want to make love to Berlusconi. Thirty-three per cent said yes! Sixty-seven per cent said ‘Again?’ ”
The more pertinent number concerning Berlusconi and women is his approval rating among female Italians, which has fallen to twenty-seven per cent—down from forty-eight per cent just a year ago. “But they pardon,” Fedele Confalonieri, an old friend of the Prime Minister’s and the chairman of Mediaset, one of his companies, said on a recent morning, in his elegant office in Milan. “They forgive him about that, because, how can we say? He’s natural.” Confalonieri is a bald man with rheumy blue eyes, a dignified manner, and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and opera. (He is the president of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala.)
Confalonieri asserted that Berlusconi has the utmost respect for women, and that he has been tremendously popular with them ever since the two men became friends, as sixteen-year-olds, in Milan. They were in a band together, and at one point Confalonieri kicked Berlusconi out, “because of women,” he said, meaning that Berlusconi always got the girls. “He was very handsome. Now he’s a little—how can you say?—dilapidated. Like a building.” Confalonieri laughed. “He was a very good sort of crooner: Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, this kind, and also French songs, Yves Montand. He liked to go and dance with the girls.” Confalonieri was with Berlusconi when, in 1980, he met Veronica Lario, who became his second wife. (At the time, he was still married to Carla Dall’Oglio, with whom he had two children.) Confalonieri remembers it as “a very beautiful story.” Lario, an actress, was performing in a play at a theatre that Berlusconi owned. “She played ‘Le Cocu Magnifique,’ by a Belgian writer. I remember there was a scene where she—” Confalonieri mimed opening his shirt. “And she had very beautiful ones,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “Very beautiful tits. And he fell in love.”
Berlusconi has always believed that “politics is like courting women: you have to confuse the girls.” This technique—coercive charm, seduction through sleight of hand—is one of his hallmarks. In Lampedusa, he told the locals that he would clear out the immigrants within sixty hours, which he didn’t, and that he had bought a house there, which he hadn’t. “Now I am one of you!” he said, and the crowd cheered. This kind of casual dishonesty is what Giuliano Ferrara, Berlusconi’s friend and a former cabinet member, was referring to when he told me, “His lies are like the lies of a baby: he gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and says ‘I’ve never eaten a cookie in my life!’ ” Until recently, many Italians forgave Berlusconi’s loose relationship with the truth. In a country that has long been burdened by an almost perverse bureaucracy, there is little contempt for the Artful Dodger; Italians evade paying taxes on a quarter of the economy.
Perhaps the most famous example of Berlusconian rule-bending—and the one with the most popular results—was his takeover of Italian TV. Television was introduced to Italy, in 1954, through a single channel, RAI, administered by the ruling Christian Democratic Party; the highlight of its programming was the Pope’s Sunday-morning Mass, which is still on the air. For decades, the government controlled television: in the seventies, political parties were allotted news coverage in exact proportion to their votes in parliament. Then, in 1976, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that private broadcasting could be allowed on a local level. Berlusconi, who had made a fortune building suburban housing developments, began buying up local stations and broadcasting the same content on all of them. In order to comply with the letter of the court’s ruling, he staggered the broadcasts by a few seconds on each network.
Technically, these were local broadcasts; effectively, as Berlusconi made clear to advertisers, he had a national market, which he glutted with American programs like “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” and “Falcon Crest”—stories of sex and money that promoted values at odds with those of the ruling political class, both the rigidly Catholic Christian Democrats and the anti-materialist Communists. On RAI, the state-controlled network, “you couldn’t advertise pet food, because it was somehow considered immoral in a world where children were starving,” Giulio Malgara, an Italian advertising mogul, told the journalist Alexander Stille for his book “The Sack of Rome.” “Italy had a culture of austerity,” he said. “ ‘Rich’ was a dirty word; they didn’t want to create incentives for consumption.” Berlusconi, however, believed that appetites existed to be stoked and sated, and he imported both American entertainment and the advertising environment that supported it. “I’m in favor of everything American before even knowing what it is,” he once told the Times.
But even the most permissive American audience might be unsettled by the vision of female sexuality that Berlusconi has communicated through his television monopoly over the years. On “Colpo Grosso,” a game show that aired in the late eighties and early nineties, contestants had to strip if they got an answer wrong, and the inevitable conclusion was a showcase of topless women, blushing and trying to cover themselves with their hands. (The show also featured the Cin Cin girls, notoriously unskilled dancers in skimpy costumes and high heels, singing tunelessly, their faces blank.) “Buona Domenica,” which is on the air now, features young women in tight dresses being prodded into a clear shower stall to get soaked in front of a live audience. On one episode, the host explains to a guest, “I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for all Italian men—you get the shower.” On most episodes of “Libero,” a woman is trapped under a Perspex table, like a caged animal. If your only information about female people came from Berlusconi’s channels, you would likely conclude that they exist specifically to be sexually humiliated in public. On “Scherzi a Parte,” a woman in her underpants hangs from a meat hook alongside hundreds of hams as a man in a butcher’s costume stamps a sell-by date on her behind.
And yet when Berlusconi won his first election, in 1994, the majority of his votes came from women. He was the richest man in Italy, and he presented himself as the hero who could rescue the country from political chaos. (Il Cavaliere, “the Knight,” is one of his nicknames.) In the years before he was elected, the Italian judiciary had undertaken a vast campaign against corruption. In what became known as the Clean Hands trials, five thousand Italians from across the ideological spectrum were charged, and a third of the deputies in parliament were indicted for accepting bribes. The Socialist and the Christian Democratic Parties were effectively wiped out, and for a time it seemed that the judiciary would be the most powerful force in the country.
When Berlusconi entered politics, Confalonieri said, the judges saw him as a kind of usurper: “They felt that Berlusconi made a coup d’état using his television channels as weapons, as tanks.” Berlusconi used his outsider status to advantage with voters, who had come to associate government with treachery. “Let’s use a marketing word: Berlusconi perceived there was a sort of hole in Italian politics,” Confalonieri said. “He understood that in ’93 there was, in the political field, only the bitter drink—there was no soft drink.” Berlusconi presented himself as the bubbly soda that would wash away the unpleasant taste left by the trials. “Don’t forget he comes from show business. He knows how to charm. This is why so many women like him.”
Berlusconi, in office, seemed determined to offer literal proof of the American feminist mantra “The personal is political.” He gave political posts to several women who had started as showgirls on his programs; some were suspected of being his lovers. Most notoriously, in March, 2010, he secured a position on the powerful Council of Lombardy for Nicole Minetti, a former dancer on the show “Colorado Café,” who is now charged with providing him with prostitutes. Gabriella Carlucci, a hostess on several Berlusconi shows, became a deputy in parliament and is now the mayor of Margherita di Savoia, a town in Puglia. His Equal Opportunities Minister, Mara Carfagna, had previously been a topless television model; in one famous photograph, she is caught, naked, in a fishing net.
In 2007, before Berlusconi brought Carfagna into the government, he told her, in public, “If I weren’t already married, I would marry you immediately.” Shortly afterward, the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica published a letter from Veronica Lario, in which she complained that, “given his age, his political and social role, the family context”—she and Berlusconi have three children—the comment was unacceptable. “This kind of behavior has damaged my dignity as a woman, which should be an example to our children,” Lario wrote. Berlusconi responded with a public apology: “Your dignity has nothing to do with it. I cherish it as a precious good in my heart, even when I make irresponsible quips or chivalrous remarks.” He signed off, “Big kiss, Silvio.”
In April, 2009, Berlusconi announced his nominations for the European Parliament. They included a lingerie model, the female star of the Italian version of the reality show “Big Brother,” a soap-opera star, and a former Miss Italy contestant. (Berlusconi explained that he wanted “fresh faces,” and not the “smelly, badly dressed” politicians of the left.) Lario released a statement saying, “All this is to sustain the enjoyment of the Emperor. What has emerged is shameful trash, all in the name of power.” Not long afterward, Berlusconi was photographed at the eighteenth-birthday party of an underwear model named Noemi Letizia. Lario initiated divorce proceedings in May, 2009, saying that her husband was “unwell” and that she could not condone a man who “consorts with minors.”
Confalonieri said, “In this case, you have to differentiate the reaction of a pissed-off wife—and she has reason to be pissed off!—but what she says is not true, if you look at the Berlusconian period concerning women.” He continued, “They—La Repubblica and so on—pretend that Berlusconi’s television is against women. Television is not against women! Look at Canale 5,” one of the networks controlled by Mediaset. “You start in the morning, the first program has an anchorwoman,” Confalonieri said. “ ‘Striscia la Notizia,’ there is a woman.” In fact, there are usually two women on “Striscia la Notizia,” a popular program whose name translates as “The News Slithers.” The women—called veline, which means “slips of paper”—spend the program posed on top of a counter, while male anchors sit behind it discussing current events. Sometimes the veline crawl around on the floor wearing G-strings.
Confalonieri dismissed the Rubygate trial as a “farce” and compared “the red woman,” Boccassini, to Kenneth Starr. “You say that Berlusconi had sex with a minor, had prostitution, pushed this girl—but if you look at her I don’t think that you think of her as a saint,” he said. “And you give birth to something that’s a scandal throughout the world. What should be clear is a person who is seventy-four, who is one year older than me, can’t do what he is suspected of doing.” Confalonieri had opposed Berlusconi’s running for Prime Minister in the first place, because when “you enter into politics you have to imagine that immediately the prosecutors take action. It was what happened.” He expects that Berlusconi will remain “persecuted” until the day he retires.
Confalonieri sighed and concluded, “Either Berlusconi is a gangster, is Al Capone, and this country—which gave birth to Leonardo, to Verdi—is so stupid that they vote for Al Capone, or there is something rotten in the state of the Italian judiciary.” But then Italy also gave birth to Mussolini, Amaretto, and the Mafia. Nobody’s perfect.
Ninety-five per cent of Italian men have never operated a washing machine. Until 1981, a “crime of honor”—killing your wife for being unfaithful or your sister for having premarital sex—could be treated as a lesser offense than other murders; as late as 2007, a man in Palermo was sentenced to just two days in jail for murdering his wife after their children testified that she had been disrespectful to him. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks seventy-fourth in women’s rights, between the Dominican Republic and Gambia. Women constitute a smaller percentage of the workforce in Italy than in any other country in the European Union, apart from Malta, and those who work make barely half as much as their male counterparts. Emma Bonino, a Radical Party leader, told me, “When I was Minister of European Affairs, in 2007, I had to prepare a report on the status of women in Italy. The data came in, and I remember that I rejected it twice, saying to my staff, ‘That’s impossible: it cannot be so bad.’ ”
There is growing dissatisfaction with the status of women in Italy. In 2009, in response to rising sexual-assault statistics, Berlusconi said, “We don’t have enough soldiers to stop rape because our women are so beautiful.” Several months later, fifteen thousand people signed a petition to the wives of G8 leaders, asking them to urge their husbands to show support for Italian women by boycotting a summit with Berlusconi.
That same year, the center-left politician Rosy Bindi appeared on the TV show “Porta a Porta,” to support a high-court ruling against a new law that would have made the Prime Minister (among other officials) exempt from prosecution while in office. Berlusconi called in and told Bindi, “You are increasingly more beautiful than you are intelligent.” Bindi, a stocky, gray-haired sixty-year-old who wears thick glasses and sensible shoes, shot back, “Presidente, I am not one of the women at your disposal.”
Bindi’s statement caused a sensation. “I couldn’t have forecast such a vulgar attack,” Bindi told me. “I hadn’t prepared a response, but evidently I’d had that response inside me for a long time.” She received tens of thousands of letters of support. Bumper stickers and T-shirts started to appear with the popular comic-book character Mafalda screaming, “Non sono una donna a sua disposizione!” “I don’t want to say that Italian men have suddenly become militant feminists,” Bindi said, “but they reject this domination of women, because they see—both men and women see—a metaphor in Berlusconi’s abuse of power, these constant attempts to manipulate everything, to subjugate everyone.” Berlusconi is currently charged with bribing a lawyer to perjure himself, and with evading taxes at Mediaset. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Last week, regulators fined five Italian networks hundreds of thousands of euros for giving the Prime Minister lopsided coverage before local elections. Berlusconi and his representatives have sued many journalists, in Italy and elsewhere, who wrote about him critically.
Bindi, who was the Minister of Family in a previous administration, told me, “Of all Berlusconi’s behavioral flaws, his behavior with women—with prostitutes, with minors—is what the Italian people have the most trouble forgiving, because Italians are very tied to the idea of family and the traditional concept of womanhood.” In December, not long after the Rubygate scandal broke, Berlusconi survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence by only three votes. Three of the deputies who voted against him were women in the late stages of pregnancy: one arrived in an ambulance, and another was rolled into the chamber in a wheelchair. Mara Carfagna, the Equal Opportunities Minister, threatened to leave his party. “I created her,” he fumed, “and this is how she repays me.”
On February 13th, a million people, most of them female, demonstrated in cities across the country. Many of them carried signs that read “Se Non Ora, Quando?” (“If Not Now, When?”), the name of the organization that planned the protests. A hundred thousand people attended a rally in Naples, the heart of southern-Italian conservatism and a bastion of mammismo, or mother worship. The event in Rome was giddy and charged; as hundreds of thousands of people filled the vast Piazza del Popolo, disgust gave way to determined optimism. “We needed the Ruby case, because suddenly I’ve seen many people, many women, who’ve decided they can no longer be silent,” the right-wing deputy Giulia Bongiorno, who defected from Berlusconi’s P.D.L. last July, told the cheering crowd. “Do you know the only area in which I see women protagonists, in which women play a central role?” Bongiorno yelled. “Jokes. We’ve had enough of being the butt of jokes!”
Protesters danced and conducted a group scream, and eight popular young actresses performed excerpts from e-mails that came to the Se Non Ora Quando? Web site. “We’re not happy to be a second-rate country or an ugly television soap opera,” Susanna Camusso, the first female leader of the country’s largest labor union, said, to applause. “We want a country in which it’s possible for women to live in dignity!” Camusso put a finer point on it when I spoke with her later: “If you make the dental hygienist of the Prime Minister a regional councillor in Lombardy, you are creating a culture problem.”
Cristina and Francesca Comencini, the sisters who formed Se Non Ora Quando?, were astonished by the success of the demonstration. “We organized this in twenty-five days,” Francesca said, when I visited her apartment in Rome, a place filled with sunlight and cigarette smoke. Francesca, who is forty-nine, has reddish hair and freckles, and was glamorous even in sweatpants. “We did everything without knowing very well how,” she said. “We created the blog in one night, and in the morning we opened it and we had two thousand answers.” The protest was arranged entirely by e-mail, and the sisters didn’t know how to turn on their auto reply. “So we’re sitting here, the two of us answered personally five hundred people.”
The Comencinis are adept storytellers and marketers of ideas: Francesca has directed fourteen films, and Cristina is a novelist, a director, and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. Their ability to make an idea seem exciting—traditionally one of Berlusconi’s great strengths—helped make the demonstrations a success. They enlisted celebrities; in a short video that Francesca made to announce the rallies on YouTube, the movie star Angela Finocchiaro implored the country’s “dear men” to “tell the world that you don’t want to live in a bad fifties movie.” They invited a diverse group of speakers, including a nun and a Moroccan immigrant, and they chose music that was hip enough for teen-agers but nostalgic enough for their mothers—“everything from Aretha Franklin to Florence and the Machine, everything giving a feeling of what we are,” Francesca said. And, crucially, they crafted a message that would appeal to people of varying political persuasions, billing the rallies as an unobjectionable “call for women’s dignity.”
“They are very scared by us, because Berlusconi is a very good communicator, and he recognizes very, very well that this organization was different,” Francesca said.
“Even the rally was very friendly, cool,” Cristina, who is fifty-five, said. “There was energy like a rock concert and—”
“We were attractive!” Francesca burst in. “Berlusconi has always said, ‘I am more attractive than the left,’ and in a way he was right! Because they are sad. We tried to be more attractive. And in fact we are—more modern, more happy.”
The Comencini sisters are proud that “we never pronounced his name” during the speeches, but of course Berlusconi was everywhere that day: pictured on posters above the word Basta!, cursed by housewives and Catholics who had voted for him because he promised to promote the family. Flavia Perina, a right-wing deputy who abandoned the P.D.L. in December, told me, “In the beginning, Berlusconi brought an idea of a liberal revolution for the masses—he would open up a freer economy, simplify the bureaucracies, bring greater well-being for families. But all these promises, in time, have not been fulfilled.”
Perina was on the organizing committee for the February 13th rally in Milan, “the capital of Berlusconismo.” Like many right-wing women, she had felt no kinship with the previous wave of Italian feminism, in the seventies, which was intertwined with the Communist Party. The feminists of the time mobilized around several core issues: the right to divorce, which was achieved in 1971; the right to abortion, which was legalized in 1978; and the end of “honor killing.” For Perina, their emphasis on “the absolute value of emancipation through work” was alienating. “There is a sentence by Camille Paglia: ‘My Italian grandmothers had more power in their families for the role that they exercised than young women have today in the new generation,’ ” Perina said. “We were convinced that was the direction in which we’d find the solution to the role of women: in the family, not in the workforce.” She laughed. “In the seventies, we thought this. Now, no. We all realized that this traditional family model could function only in an imaginary world, like Middle-earth.”
For one thing, a culture in which motherhood is a prerequisite for women who seek a measure of power or respect is not a culture that understands women as fully human. You can have an intense case of mammismo and still fail to grasp why sexual assault, or gender discrimination in the workplace, or the relentless depiction of women as bimbos on television is a problem. Silvio Berlusconi worshipped his mother. What’s more, women who become mothers in a society where child care and housekeeping are still considered women’s work find that they have time to do little else. (The average Italian woman does twenty-one hours of housework a week, while the average man does four.) Consequently, fewer Italian women are having children—“They are doing their own private rebellion,” Bonino said. In the next four decades, Italy’s population is expected to shrink by as much as twenty per cent; the Liguria region has the highest ratio of old people to young people in Europe. “The social services in my country are nonexistent in terms of children, old people, sick people,” Bonino said. “All this, they say, rests on the family. But that is not the family. It is the women in the family.”
Francesca Comencini, a mother of three, said, “I don’t know what the situation is in America, but here women are doing everything. This problem, which is really the problem of modern times, is not solved anywhere.”
“Well, Scandinavia,” Cristina said. “But it’s cold.”
Before Americans had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, there was distaste for the partners Bill Clinton had chosen for his philandering. If it was bad that he couldn’t control himself, it was even worse if he couldn’t control himself around Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers. One of Berlusconi’s most articulate defenders, his former cabinet member Giuliano Ferrara, recently gave a talk in a Milanese auditorium—which he decorated for the occasion with giant undergarments—suggesting that a similar kind of snobbery is fuelling the ire against the Prime Minister. “The real scandal is that Mr. Berlusconi—who is a rich man, an old man, who probably has a sex compulsion—doesn’t like to play cards with other rich people. He likes the company of young women, and he likes to play with them,” Ferrara said. “His transparent daily behavior, his jokes, everything is dedicated to this way of living: he’s new money.” Berlusconi had the sculptor Pietro Cascella build him a massive pink marble mausoleum on the grounds of Arcore. At his beach house in Sardinia, he installed a remote-controlled volcano.
Ferrara is a mountain of a man who chain-smokes Camel cigarettes and drinks espresso like water. When I met him at his office, at Il Foglio, the conservative newspaper he edits, he sat at a desk behind a heap of books that seemed on the verge of collapsing on three dachshunds who lay at his feet. “In your country, the neo-puritans are on the right,” Ferrara said. “In our country, they are on the left.” Their agenda, he says, is to purge Italy of a certain crucial aspect of its Italianness. “They hate l’Italia alle vongole,” he said: the rustic, messy, slippery Italy, akin to the classic pasta with clam sauce, which Berlusconi represents, in all his wily hedonism.
Ferrara admits that Berlusconi made “a grotesque mistake” with Ruby, “when he called the police because one of his favorite girlfriends was arrested.” He explained, “A real power man has forty people in his chain of command. Berlusconi’s not a professional politician, so he called himself. He thinks like a sultan: you are a member of my harem, so I protect you. This is the classic call that a Milanese industrialist would make.” But, Ferrara said, “to change this to an accusation that he runs a prostitution ring is monstrous.” He suggested that the prosecutors were being as crafty as their target. “It’s tricks against tricks,” he said. “It’s a war of tricks.”
Berlusconi’s supporters emphasize that the Prime Minister is somehow something other than a “politician” (one of the most hurtful insults in Italian politics). The corrupt officials who were ousted in the Clean Hands trials presented themselves as upstanding, chaste, and refined. Berlusconi, at least, has not remade himself as well behaved. “He comes from the business world,” Deborah Bergamini, Berlusconi’s former personal assistant, told me. “His mechanisms are not those of a consummate politician.”
Bergamini got her job with Berlusconi a decade ago, at the age of thirty-one, after she spent an hour interviewing him for Bloomberg TV in London. “I was really disappointed with my country,” she said. “I thought that there were no chances for people who really wanted to test themselves in something great.” If you came from a family without connections, as she did, the future looked circumscribed. But, when she met Berlusconi, “what I found really, really amazing was that such an important man with so much power decided to give to a young person he had seen only once one of the most delicate things to do.” Bergamini, who has gone on to become a respected parliamentarian, defended Berlusconi for awarding jobs to former showgirls, saying that “one of the few good results” of the Clean Hands purge was that Italians began to accept that competent leadership could come from outside the political establishment. “Otherwise, it will be always the same people playing the same games!” Bergamini said. “Stuck there for forty years.”
Bergamini thinks that Rubygate will blow over. “I don’t think that this issue is that important to Italians,” she said. “On a moral level, Italians are extremely tolerant.” Forgiveness, of course, is crucial in a Catholic culture. And, whether or not Berlusconi repents, it isn’t just his defenders who think a sex scandal is not enough to bring him down. Emma Bonino told me, “What I try to say to my friends on the left, who will never listen to me, is we will never beat Berlusconi on morality—let alone in a trial.”
But it is not just because of feminism or puritanism that Italians are repulsed by Berlusconi’s behavior. His scandals play on the national anxiety about being perceived as not quite European, not quite a legitimate First World country. Confalonieri, quoting Kipling’s exhortation to “take up the white man’s burden,” said, “This is very often the attitude toward Italy of the kind of people who treat our country perfunctorily and with this superiority complex.” Even people who are proud of the unaffected sensuousness of l’Italia alle vongole want to be taken seriously. The February 13th rally was advertised as a protest not for women’s equality but for women’s dignity. What may be most upsetting to Italians is that Berlusconi has made them look ridiculous—not just by turning his personal life into a circus but by turning their government into a dispensary of favors to graduates of his Bunga Bunga academy. Regardless of Bergamini’s success, there is a difference between hiring an inexperienced person as an assistant and naming a showgirl to lead a government department. (The comedian Sabina Guzzanti, whose father was at one point a member of Berlusconi’s party, said, “One cannot appoint someone to be Minister of Equal Opportunity simply because she is sucking your dick.”)
Marco Ventura, Berlusconi’s Coördinator for Foreign Press, defended his boss by explaining that the Presidente has a passion for beauty—what the best-selling author Beppe Severgnini calls “Italians’ signature quality.” Ventura told me that if Berlusconi came into his office, a small space with black leather couches and white acoustic ceiling tiles, “he would say, ‘Move the flowers! Change the furniture!’ ”
Ventura believes that the protests on February 13th were an effort by the left to bash the Prime Minister under the pretext of feminism. “Our impression is that it was mostly political,” he said. His deputy, Nancy Kaspareck, agreed that the demonstrations were “top-down. It started with the opposition parties—which are all run by men.” (In fact, the president of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, is Rosy Bindi.) “It’s like the best-intentioned liberal whites having a march for the downtrodden blacks,” Kaspareck, who grew up in New York City and is African-American, continued. “It’s using women because you’ve got a beef with Berlusconi—whether it’s using their bodies for an inappropriate ad or using them for a protest, you’re still using women.”
I asked if I could meet with Berlusconi. Ventura thought for a moment and replied, “Would you consider having plastic surgery first?” It wasn’t so that I could look like a velina, he explained; he would feel better about arranging the meeting if I had my face messed up, because then there would be a better chance of the Presidente keeping his hands to himself.
The day before the Rubygate trial began, there was a debate in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian parliament, about whether the Milan court had the authority to try the case, when, as Berlusconi’s lawyers argue, he was acting as the head of state to avert a diplomatic incident with Egypt. The chamber meets in a cavernous room with velvet curtains and a musty scent. Under a stained-glass ceiling, Berlusconi’s former ally Gianfranco Fini, the president of the chamber, sat on a dais facing the deputies, who are seated from right to left according to their position on the political spectrum. Antonio di Pietro—who was a prominent prosecutor in the Clean Hands trials and is now a deputy from the anti-Berlusconi Italy of Values Party—rose to address the room. “The world burns with real problems,” he said. “There’s an ongoing war in which we are participating. . . . Today, Italians need to know that in parliament . . . we are trying to establish if Ruby Rubacuori is Mubarak’s niece!”
There was light applause from his side of the chamber, and grumbling from across the room, where Berlusconi’s center-right coalition sits. But many of the deputies seemed hardly to be paying attention. (This is not unusual. A few weeks ago, a photographer in the press balcony caught a deputy browsing an escort agency’s Web site on his iPad during a debate.) Because Berlusconi’s coalition has the majority in parliament, the vote was all but ceremonial. Antonio Leone, a member of the P.D.L., said, “We have to vote, and even the opposition is going to vote, but the outcome is obvious.” The P.D.L. won, which meant that the Supreme Court would rule on whether the lower court had jurisdiction. In the meantime, the Ruby trial would proceed.
It’s difficult to imagine how prosecutors will prove that Berlusconi and Mahroug had sex when both say that they didn’t, but the court may be able to convict members of Berlusconi’s inner circle for abetting prostitution. There is little question that Berlusconi gave considerable amounts of money to Nicole Minetti, Lele Mora, and Emilio Fede, the people accused of procuring women for him. Prosecutors have records of Berlusconi’s accountant wiring money to them. But Berlusconi has given many of his friends staggering cash gifts; Fedele Confalonieri has received millions, in addition to his salary and bonuses. And there is no question at all that many of the women who attend Berlusconi’s parties are barely legal and barely dressed, and leave with gifts of jewelry or even cars. (Berlusconi prefers to give away subcompacts, mostly Smart Cars and Mini Coopers.) But it’s anyone’s guess how many of these young women flirted with Berlusconi, and how many of them actually slept with him—and, if they did so, whether it was because they were prostitutes, or because they were young women who wanted the bragging rights, and the access to a fabulous world of private planes and sunbathing in Sardinia, that come with bedding the Prime Minister of Italy. To some extent, what is on trial in Rubygate is not just Berlusconi’s abuse of power but also his decisions about the people with whom he surrounds himself.
One afternoon, Nicole Minetti and her lawyer, Daria Pesce, an aggressive woman in her sixties with hair bleached the color of bananas, were discussing what makes Berlusconi attractive to women. “He’s a fascinating man,” Minetti said.
“Very smart,” Pesce said, nodding.
“Very charming,” Minetti added. “There aren’t many men like that.”
“And powerful!” Pesce said.
Minetti was sitting at a table in Pesce’s office, in Milan, with her roommate, Luca Pedrini, an aspiring publicist. (Minetti is his first client.) She was on her way to the gym, wearing spandex leggings and a tight white T-shirt. On the table, near Pesce’s cigarettes, was a black Hermès Birkin bag that Minetti was given by a financier who was her boyfriend before the scandal broke. The two have now separated. “We’re in between, because all this has been really a big stress,” Minetti said, brushing a strand of silky hair off her face. “You can imagine how hard it is for a man to hear about all this.” Minetti has been so besieged that she fantasizes about leaving the country; she loves New York City, which she visited for the first time last Christmas. “I loved the sales in December!” she said. “I went to Barneys, I went to Bergdorf, and Saks. I bought three Juicy Couture sweat suits.”
Minetti first met Silvio Berlusconi two years ago, when she was studying at the San Raffaele Hospital, in Milan, where the Prime Minister was having dermatological treatments. “I told him that I’d always wanted to do politics when I was younger, and he said, ‘That’s great, because we don’t have many women in politics, obviously.’ ” They exchanged phone numbers, and he told her, “I’ll get back to you if you’re really interested.”
Minetti began visiting him at Arcore. “He introduced me to some politicians, and they helped me get into politics and stuff,” Minetti explained. I asked if Berlusconi had been her boyfriend, and she said, “No, he’s my mentor.” She went to parties at his house every two or three weeks—“fun parties!” she said—where she became acquainted with Lele Mora and Emilio Fede, her co-defendants. Sometimes, she brought along friends who lived in the same apartment building that she did, on Via Olgettina, and sometimes Berlusconi’s accountant paid their rent.
Minetti said that, before May 27, 2010, when Berlusconi asked her to go to the police station in Milan on Mahroug’s behalf, she’d met her at Arcore. But “Ruby was never my friend,” she said. “I have never gone out with her—I had never even met her for a coffee.” Why, then, would Berlusconi ask Minetti to go to the police? She said, “He trusted me as a person—”
Pesce, who has handled corporate cases for Berlusconi since 1975, cut her off: “She’s a politician. Of course he called her. She’s young, Ruby was young, so two young girls, and that’s why he calls her. It’s easy to see.”
Early one morning in January, the police came to search Minetti’s apartment. “They were like Mafia people looking through our clothes!” Luca Pedrini said. They also searched Minetti’s parents’ house, in Rimini, a seaside town near Bologna where her mother runs a ballet school. “They made everyone put down their telephones,” Minetti said, her eyebrows raised. “You couldn’t hear from anybody—you didn’t know if they were scared!” Minetti has received death threats and voice-mails threatening rape: “They said, ‘There’s going to be six of us; we’re going to find you one day when you’re alone.’ ”
I asked if Berlusconi hadn’t dragged Minetti into something unpleasant. “This is true,” Pesce said, and shrugged. (Minetti has since replaced Pesce with other counsel.) On one of the wiretaps, Minetti tells a friend, “He’s behaving like a shit to save his flaccid ass.” Minetti explained that she was irrational and angry, because she had seen a book called “Whore-ocracy,” which contained a chapter about her. “It just seemed like, Why me? What have I done?”
“She was also jealous,” Pesce interjected. “Berlusconi glanced at other girls.”
When I asked Minetti why she felt so possessive of her mentor, she conceded, “He was never my official boyfriend, of course, but I had an affection relationship with him. Yes, a romance.” Despite his age, she found him attractive, because he is “a very charming, very old-style man, very classy.”
She laughed at the idea that she was ever the Prime Minister’s madam: “He’s a very generous man, and he’s a very rich man, so he does with his money whatever he likes.” On one of the wiretaps, though, she tells a friend, before a party, “You are going to mind your own business and I mine. You’re going to see all sorts of stuff. There are different categories: the whore, the South American who comes from the favelas . . . and then there is me. I do what I do, got it? Don’t be shy—just go with it.”
As the sun set and Milan’s rush-hour traffic inched forward, Lele Mora, a pale, pudgy man who resembles an undercooked dinner roll, took phone calls in his car, which is upholstered entirely in white leather. “He gets five thousand calls per day,” said Mora’s assistant, Alessandro, a tanned, handsome young man with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a swath of shaved chest.
Mora, who is fifty-five, has known Berlusconi for twenty-five years. They met when Mora accompanied a sportscaster he was managing to Arcore, and Mora felt an immediate affinity with his host, based on their shared enthusiasm for television and gregarious parties. They have worked and socialized together ever since. According to bank documents obtained by prosecutors, Mora received three million euros from Berlusconi—payment, they say, for using the talent agency he runs to turn starlets into prostitutes for the Prime Minister. Mora says that he used the money for essentials, because his business was in trouble: “I paid my staff, light, electricity, water, the gas, the banks.” He said, “The moment that I had need, Berlusconi called me aside one evening at a dinner and told me, I know that you’re going through a rough time, that you have money problems. Tomorrow, stop by my accountant.” His agency had recovered, but business is suffering again now, because of Rubygate, which has made Mora a daily presence in the papers. Mora is monetizing his notoriety, though: he was on his way to a night club in Verona, where he was to meet Ruby Rubacuori; each would be paid five thousand euros for enlivening the atmosphere.
We had started the trip in Mora’s office, where visitors are greeted by posters of his female clients, one naked and oiled, another topless under a waterfall, a third holding her breasts in her hands. “Berlusconi, by bringing these buxom girls who showed their bounty, really created a mass erotic fantasy of the male mind in Italy,” Mora said. Mora has won seven Telegatto awards—the Italian Emmy—and his golden cat statuettes are arranged on a row of shelves next to a wall of television monitors, interspersed with a collection of Mussolini memorabilia. “Mussolini did a lot of good things for Italy, and he’s seen only for certain ugly things that his people did—the traitors!” Mora said. “Like Berlusconi has a lot of traitors who speak badly about him and do ugly things to him.”
Alessandro retrieved a gold-foil-wrapped book from a large stack. It was full of photographs of Mora with his clients and acquaintances—Gina Lollobrigida, Billy Zane, the Pope, Paris Hilton—along with pictures of Mora in drag, wearing high heels, lipstick, and a wig. “I am bisexual,” he told me. He has been married since he was eighteen, but has long lived apart from his wife. He is accompanied everywhere by a pack of young men, many of them clients, with carefully tweezed eyebrows and very tight clothes.
His entourage would often join him, Mora said, when he went to dinner at Arcore. “Berlusconi would call me at 8 P.M.—maybe he’d just arrived home from a trip abroad—he’d call me and say, ‘What are you doing, Lele?’ I would say, ‘I’m home tonight; I have ten, twelve people over for dinner.’ He would tell me, ‘Just bring everyone.’ ” Berlusconi always served a tricolore menu. “Mozzarella, basil, and tomato, and three pastas—pomodoro, pesto, and a white one with four cheeses,” Mora said. “For the meat, roast beef, red; mashed potatoes, white; salad, green.” These were evenings of “great warmth, music, and lots of jokes.” In one of the wiretaps, Mora says to a young woman he is bringing to a party at Arcore, “Do you have a nurse’s outfit? Go get one today.” He tells her she should wear nothing underneath except white suspenders.
It was there, Mora said, that he met Karima el Mahroug, who told him the story of her childhood: she was raped by two of her uncles and told by her mother to keep it secret. She was beaten regularly, and rebelled by telling her staunchly Muslim parents that she wished to convert to Christianity. Before Mahroug was silenced by her lawyer, she gave a television interview to a Berlusconi loyalist named Alfonso Signorini, who asked how her father had responded to her religious conversion. “He reacted by throwing a pan of hot oil at me,” Ruby said, and pulled her hair aside to show a scar on her scalp. (Mahroug’s mother claims that it is a birthmark.) And so she ran away from home, slept on park benches, and danced in night clubs. Once, she said, she tried to turn a trick. When her client touched her, she screamed and couldn’t go through with it, but the gentleman gave her the agreed-upon fee of a thousand euros anyway.
Mahroug explained to Signorini that, when she met Berlusconi at Arcore, “I told him my whole story in total honesty, except for my name and my age and my country of birth.” Berlusconi asked Mora to help find her a job, and he also gave her an envelope and told her to open it during the car ride home. It contained seven thousand euros. “I’ll be grateful to him for all my life because he gave me this help without asking anything in return,” Mahroug said. According to the prosecutors, Mahroug visited Arcore on thirteen separate dates between February and May of 2010. The Prime Minister “didn’t put a finger on me,” she said. “I don’t understand why you have to see ugliness where there is no ugliness.” But on another wiretap recording Mahroug tells a friend that Berlusconi told her, “ ‘Ruby, I’ll give you as much money as you want, I’ll pay you, I’ll cover you in gold, but the important thing is that you hide everything; don’t tell anyone anything.’ ” Mahroug tells her friend that she asked for five million euros.
“I felt a great tenderness when I met her,” Mora told me, in his office. He even asked the courts to make him Mahroug’s legal guardian, but the request was denied, and she was placed in a group home. As we were talking, there was a knock at the door and a young woman with long, light-brown hair, wearing tight jeans, boots, and a clingy sweater, walked in. It was Karima el Mahroug. On television, she appears soft and baby-faced, but in person she was lean and hard. She asked to borrow Mora’s car and driver, and told him that she needed a new dress to wear to Verona that night. After she left, Mora said, “Berlusconi today is loved more than before.” His greatest crime, Mora said, was, “at most, he had a fuck.”
That evening, after several hours in traffic, Mora arrived at the night club in Verona, a vast, subterranean place that resembled an airport food court. It was brightly lit, and the air was heavy with the smell from a tremendous grill heaped with steaks. Mora sat at a long table with a dozen young men, and they all cheered for the transvestites who were performing onstage. Scores of people came up to have their picture taken with Mora or to get his autograph. The evening stretched on for hours, but Ruby never materialized.
After the show, Mora’s driver escorted him back to his car, holding a manila envelope full of cash, his payment for the evening. Mora used a disinfectant wipe to clean the lipstick kisses off his cheeks. “Did you see how people love me?” he said. “I can go with all the most important, famous artists in all the clubs, but people always want their picture taken with me. Most of the time, with a scandal you get much more fame than with hard work.” Mora picked up his envelope. “There is an expression in Italian: not all bad comes from bad.” He shook the money. “All this is thanks to Silvio Berlusconi.”
When I finally met Berlusconi—“Mr. Winner, Mr. Machismo,” as Flavia Perina described him—I was shocked. He is tiny, no more than five feet four inches tall. He wears white eyeliner on his lower lids to make his eyes pop in photographs, and he uses heavy foundation on his face, which renders him the same orangey-brown color as the cast of “Jersey Shore.” His hair is thinning—“because I had too many girlfriends,” he once said, before he got implants—and dyed a vivid burnt sienna. Despite these efforts, he is not a young seventy-four; Berlusconi, in the words of his best friend, is a bit dilapidated.
He was in court that day, in Milan. He looked tense and fatigued, though he kept his face frozen in a tight smile. He embraced Daria Pesce, who stood in her black robe with the other lawyers, and he straightened her son’s tie and mussed his hair. Then he walked to the back of the courtroom, past the empty cages, and spoke to a group of reporters. “I am unjustly accused of prostitution with a minor . . . after the girl herself has said, has sworn, she received no advances from me,” he said. “After she told me and everyone a very, very painful story that moved us, I helped her.” Berlusconi said he gave her “about forty-five thousand euros, although she says it’s sixty thousand, but I can’t really remember,” so she could start a beauty parlor, “where she could have laser epilation.” He rambled on, occasionally repeating the same phrase several times. “I gave her that money to help her for the exact opposite reason from what I’m accused!” Berlusconi said. “To avoid prostitution.” Then he went up to the front of the court.
Whether or not he is guilty, it is unlikely that Berlusconi will serve the three-year sentence that comes with the crime of paying a minor for sex. (If he had slept with her for nothing, there would be no trial: the age of consent in Italy is fourteen.) But Rubygate could be the scandal that ends his political career. Though his term isn’t up until 2013, his approval rating has dropped to thirty per cent, an all-time low, and he could lose his parliamentary majority if deputies start defecting en masse—which may become politically expedient. “We are living day to day,” Deborah Bergamini told me. Two weeks ago, the P.D.L. suffered historic losses in regional elections. The mayor of Milan, for whom Berlusconi had campaigned vigorously, was forced into a runoff, which she is expected to lose. It would be the first time in more than a decade that Berlusconi’s party had lost control of his home town.
In front of the courthouse, there were several hundred supporters, and the sky was spotted with giant blue P.D.L. balloons. (Police had removed anti-Berlusconi protesters, telling them that they could stand at a different entrance.) Massimo, the mechanic, was back—the front page of that morning’s paper had said that the P.D.L. was bringing a thousand salami sandwiches to distribute—and, as I made my way through the crowd, I ran into Michele Lecce, the cheek-pinching retiree. He put his hands on my shoulders and asked if I would go with him for an espresso. I explained that I had to stay, because I was working. He looked baffled and disappointed, until something occurred to him. He took his hands off me, grinned, and said, “I can change!” ♦
Dal New Yorker