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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Italy's first lady reveals all

By Tamsin Smith
BBC reporter in Rome

Veronica's Tendency, the first biography written about an Italian first lady, offers a glimpse into the private life of the country's most controversial leader of recent times.

Silvio Berlusconi and his wife Veronica Lario
A rare shot of the couple together
Twenty-five years ago, glamorous blond actress Veronica Lario swept business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi off his feet.

He left his wife to marry her. But when he entered politics and became prime minister she melted away from public life, rarely appearing alongside her husband.

The role of Italy's first lady is traditionally very different to the Anglo Saxon model.

There's never been an Italian equivalent to Hillary Clinton or Cherie Blair, who display strong professional and media personalities of their own.

Silent partners

In the past, the wives of Italian political leaders have been savagely criticised by journalists and even their husband's colleagues.

The result was that they stayed visible but silent. Veronica Berlusconi took this tradition one step further, preferring not to appear at all.

She has made just one official foreign visit in the past 10 years, to Moscow. Now the former actress explains her decision to be interviewed for a biography.

"I had to do it", she told author Maria Latella, "people were starting to think I was mute".

Veronica's stoical silence has fuelled Italy's gossip columns in the past few years. Rumours circulated that all was not well in the Berlusconi marital household and that a bearded left wing philosopher was on the scene.

Silvio eats lunch whilst attached to the phone and dinner is the same.
Veronica Berlusconi

Rumours which even Silvio Berlusconi hinted at last year with one of his trademark press conference clangers. But in the book Veronica Berlusconi dismisses this outright.

What emerges from these pages is the solitude of a woman who has taken a back seat, not sharing her husband's choice to enter the world of politics.

She admits she rarely sees him but won't stand in the way of his determination to succeed.

"I think I am the perfect kind of wife for the kind of man Silvio is. He can concentrate on himself and his work knowing his wife won't create a fuss if he's away from his family".

Stable marriage

Before the last general election in 2001 Silvio Berlusconi sent copies of his own autobiography called An Italian Story to 12 million households.

Glossy photographs portrayed him smiling with his wife and their three children.

He talked about the delight of returning to home life and home cooking after his exertions on the international stage of politics. But his wife paints a rather different picture about these family values.

"Silvio eats lunch whilst attached to the phone and dinner is the same. Even at Christmas whilst he's talking to us and tasting the turkey he answers whoever calls... he's never silent... he even talks when he sleeps".

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi: Never off-duty

"Berlusconi is a man of his time" explains author Maria Latella. "Like many men from the 1950s he desperately wanted a family but he also gives very little time to them.

"You only have to see his favourite villa which is like Disneyland to realise this is a man who is not ready to confront reality. "

Details of the Silvio Berlusconi's collection of miniature ceramic models of Napoleon will no doubt be greeted with glee by Italian cartoonists. The prime minister is often sketched wearing Bonaparte's bicorn hat and boots.

Political differences

Although Mrs Berlusconi insists their marriage is stable, it seems the couple share few interests. This includes political views. In a rare interview given last year to a left-wing magazine Veronica indicated her opposition to the war in Iraq, supported by her husband.

Although less candid in the biography she does admit that she has voted for the Socialist party and the left-wing radicals, not the prime minister's Forza Italia.

It is this glimpse of her political leanings which prompted the title of the book.

Mrs Berlusconi hints that her husband would prefer her not to get involved in politics.

She tells a story of when Silvio came home to find a new bronze statue in the hallway. "I hope you didn't buy this disgraceful thing," he exclaimed horrified. "No, Silvio, I made it myself".

My husband reflected for a minute and realised it could be a good thing if his wife created statues instead of giving interviews.

He looked at it more closely again and quickly said: "You know you're rather good at this ... it's actually not bad at all".


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