Any media-based tussle in Italy is bound to play out in favor of Silvio Berlusconi -- the latest uproar being no exception. Last week, the 72-year-old's attendance at a beautiful blonde's 18th birthday prompted his wife to announce she's had enough, she wants a divorce and that she will tolerate no more of his galavanting around with pretty young women. On Tuesday, Italian papers across the political spectrum are awash with pictures of the now notorious birthday party, which has fuelled speculation that Il Cavalieri is either romancing minors or keeping an illegitimate daughter secret.
But the TV screenshots of Noemi Letizia's birthday show a party that is about as wild as a first communion. In one, a demure Berlusconi is surrounded by the champagne-flute-holding birthday girl and her smiling parents. In another, the girl's diminutive grandmother rests her head peacefully on Berlusconi's shoulder.
Little matter that the pictures are supplied by Studio Aperto, a program broadcast by one of Berlusconi's own TV stations. Or that the picture showing Berlusconi in communion with Letizia and her parents looks remarkably like a photo montage, as scores of readers of the Italian news Web site Libero noted. The pictures have been published by major national dailies including Corriere della Sera, and over the weekend Italians will be able to view an extended version of the exculpating photo gallery when they are published in Chi, a gossip magazine whose majority shareholder is Berlusconi.
It's part of Berlusconi's reaction to what's been filling Italian newspapers -- his wife Veronica Lario's decision, after 19 years of marriage, to sue for divorce over what she claims is his dalliance with a minor. It's also likely his reaction to a Vatican statement published Tuesday in Rome's daily paper La Repubblica that the moral values of a leader should influence the way in which he is regarded.
Italian voters -- who next month must decide the fate of Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia party in the European Parliamentary elections -- have been following the soap opera with smiles, interest and frustration.
The scandal over Berlusconi and his penchant for leggy blondes several decades his junior is unlikely to dampen his party's success at the upcoming European elections, EU politicians say. Of the 24 conservative Italians elected into the European Parliament in 2004, 19 belong to his Party, and few expect much of a change in the June elections.
Yet Berlusconi will not stand quietly by and allow 52-year-old Lario to call him names. "I'm indignant," he told the press after reading of his wife's divorce plans in the Sunday papers.
"These are private, very private things, that don't belong in the press," the media tycoon told journalists in Ancone, near Milan, on Sunday. "I'm worried and sad," he told La Stampa. And he warned that this time she had gone too far; this time there would be no reconciliation.
Lario has been largely silent for many years. During 29 years spent as his partner -- the last 19 years as his wife -- she has steered clear of political controversy, making only occasional critical comments about the US-led invasion of Iraq and backing more liberal laws in Italy on issues such as artificial insemination.
It was not until early 2007 that the Berlusconis began conducting their rows through the press. In an open letter published in La Repubblica, Lario demanded an apology from her husband. The reason: Berlusconi had jokingly -- and on TV -- proposed to marry fellow party member Mara Carfagna. Carfagna herself had recently ruffled Italian feathers with the publication of provocative pictures.
Last week, Lario launched a new salvo. She contacted Italy's national press agency Ansa to voice her outrage at the line-up of showgirls and starlets that her husband was putting forward as candidates for the European parliamentary elections. Dismissing the candidates as "hussies in the service of power," she warned her husband's "impudence" and "shamelessness" in their selection served to offend and discredit women as a whole. Berlusconi subsequently withdrew all but one of the showgirls, actress Barbara Matera, from his candidate list.
But the last straw seems to have been Berlusconi's participation at Noemi Letizia's birthday party, reportedly held in a Naples night club, and reportedly involving a gold and diamond necklace as a present.
"I can't be with a man who is involved with minors," Lario said Sunday and announced the end of the Berlusconi union.
The prime minister seems at first to have hoped for a quick end to the tiff, saying the issue shouldn't be made into a soap opera.
"Do They Think I'm Crazy?"
But as far as the Italian public was concerned, that soap opera had already started. Internet rumors suggested Noemi Letizia was not even Berlusconi's lover, but rather his illegitimate daughter -- speculation that was fuelled by the fact that Letizia referred to the statesman as "Papi" (Daddy). Others demanded that he submit to a DNA test.
Neither Letizia and Berlusconi's assurances to the press - that he was a friend of the family, that she was almost a daughter to him - did much to dampen the fire of speculation. "I swear it," Berlusconi told the liberal La Stampa. "How can anyone assume that I'd visit the entire family when there was something going on? Do they think I'm crazy?"
But once news of an impending divorce arose, it didn't take long for an exasperated Berlusconi to target his wife. "She should be ashamed of herself. She did this to get our children to side against me," he told Corriere della sera.
"It's the third time she has played this kind of joke on me during an electoral campaign. This time she's gone too far," he said. "Veronica will have to apologize in public, and I don't know if even that will be enough."
And he took aim at his political opponents. Lario was being manipulated, he said, adding that there was a media campaign being waged against him. Never mind that he owns Italy's Canale 5, Rete 4 and Italia 1 private television stations. As the country's prime minister, he also has influence over the state-owned RAI channels.