Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 10:17 UK

The battle of the Berlusconis

Veronica Lario in 2008
Veronica Lario has referred to her husband as Italy's Napoleon

By Annalisa Piras

In Italy's latest soap opera - Silvio Berlusconi's divorce - former actress Mrs Berlusconi may well have landed one of the greatest roles of her life: as a role model to her Italian sisters.

Berlusconi is seen while a portrait of his wife Veronica
Mr Berlusconi has demanded that his wife apologise to him

Fifty-two-year-old Veronica Lario - her former stage name - has shaken Italian society with her public criticism of Italy's head of government, and the demand for a divorce from her partner of 29 years.

For the long-suffering Mrs Berlusconi, revelations that her 72-year-old husband attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old lingerie model who calls him Papi - Daddy - was the latest in a series of public humiliations.

Apart from one public outburst in 2007, she has remained silent about the PM's behaviour. But enough is enough, she says. She recently denounced his behaviour, his political methods and a culture of machismo that she said offended women's dignity.

"I can't go on being with a man who consorts with minors… He is not well," she said after his appearance at Noemi Letizia's party in Naples.

veronica lario
In Feb 2007, Veronica demanded a public apology from her husband for his flirting, to which he replied with a written one
In the 2004 biography Veronica's Tendency she revealed that "Silvio eats lunch while attached to the phone and dinner is the same"
Veronica rarely accompanies her husband on foreign trips
The couple met in 1980, wed 10 years later and have three children in their 20s
Mr Berlusconi has said he was smitten when he first saw the 24-year-old actress on stage

She also voiced her anger over plans by Mr Berlusconi's coalition to line up several attractive young women for June's European Parliament elections, describing the party's list as "shamelessly trashy" and a "dangerous degradation of Italian politics".

Maria Laura Rodota, a commentator with Corriere della Sera's popular online forum on pop culture and politics - in Italy, the two go hand-in-hand - says Mrs Berlusconi has "struck the most formidable and effective challenge to Berlusconi's mystique to date".

But, she says, "it's extraordinarily sad that it had to be his wife who denounced him and not a female politician or the leader of the opposition".

Defending Veronica

The "Noemi and the Papi" episode together with the election affair have left many Italian women feeling uncomfortable.

For once, the dividing lines between right and left have been blurred. Influential female intellectuals and commentators from across the political spectrum have rallied to Veronica's defence - albeit on small comment-led newspaper, websites and TV programmes.

Even right-wing politician Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of Il Duce, supported the PM's wife, saying that Italian women had "emerged in a very bad light from this episode".

 Noemi Letizia
Ms Letizia sports the gold and diamond pendant given to her by the PM

But there are few signs yet of the marital saga harming Mr Berlusconi politically.

"Italians identify totally with him," said Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of il Foglio Newspaper, which is partly owned by Veronica Lario.

Mr Berlusconi controls much of the mainstream media, and since her public comments, the first lady has taken a battering in the press. Libero, for one, ran a 30-year-old picture of the former actress topless on stage under the headline: "Veronica Ungrateful Showgirl".

"She now must apologise for having embarrassed me," proclaimed her husband in a charm offensive on national and foreign TV channels.

His position, shared by many Italians, is that she should have kept quiet about the reasons of her divorce, as it was a private matter and not a political one.

Privacy issues

The former cruise crooner, turned media tycoon, turned right-wing politician, has rewritten the rules of Italian politics over the past 15 years, blurring the lines between TV, showbiz and politics.

Gender issues researcher Lorella Zanardo suggests that over his three mandates, Mr Berlusconi media interests have shaped a popular culture that distorts images of women.

2005 file picture of the couple in a Russian resort
Mr and Mrs Berlusconi were not often seen out in public together

But, while the media has fed Italians for years with gossip and reality TV intrusions into people's privacy, most Italians think he should be granted total privacy when it comes to his own conduct.

According to one recent poll, he still enjoys 66% popularity - even though the majority of Italians, 67%, defend Veronica Lario.

However, another poll published this week on the La Repubblica website, suggested his rating had slipped three points since the controversy over Noemi began.

Responsibility as a mother

"Berlusconi's media are now engaged in what appears to be a massive spin operation to divert attention, in order to bury the first lady's serious criticisms and accusations," says Corriere della Sera's Ms Rodota.

"But... I record a growing, ebullient cross-party female indignation online. It might be a minority, but it is significant in a country which is ranked almost last in Europe, with Turkey, for the freedom of the press, and I think in the long term the 'Noemi-gate' will have political consequences."

Mrs Berlusconi - until now unanimously respected as an intelligent woman known for her discretion and liberal and anti-war views - said she was compelled to act because of her responsibility towards her three children.

To the girls Barbara, 25, and Eleonora, 23, she wants "to show them that their mother can defend her dignity as a woman", and to Luigi, 20, to teach him that "respect for women must be one of the most important values for a man".

Meanwhile, on social networking site Facebook, "Veronica for President" groups multiply.

She appeared to speak for many of the 62% of Italians who did not vote for Mr Berlusconi, when she said: "I have come to wonder what kind of country we live in. Through some strange alchemy, this country appears to forgive all and justify all for its new emperor."

Some commentators have noted that Mr Berlusconi's party quietly dropped most of the attractive female candidates from its European list, after Mrs Berlusconi's outburst.

It may be a small victory, but it's certainly seen by some as a symbolic one.

Annalisa Piras is the London correspondent for L'Espresso magazine

Print Sponsor

Berlusconi demands wife apology
04 May 09 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
13 Dec 09 |  Europe
Berlusconi's wife to divorce him
03 May 09 |  Europe
Wife's poll rage hits Berlusconi
30 Apr 09 |  Europe

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific