The king of Bunga Bunga is a master of the yo-yo. The harder he falls, the quicker he pops back up. And in the long and meandering career of Silvio Berlusconi—cruise-ship crooner, billionaire media mogul, three-time Italian prime minister—there have been many, many falls.
Like the tax-fraud-and-bribery probe in 1994 that scuttled his coalition government just seven months into his first premiership. Or the imprisonment of the co-founder of his political party for connections to the Cosa Nostra in 2004. Or the emergency heart surgery he underwent following a collapse in 2006. (He later said it was nothing serious and that he’d live to 120.) Or the Eurozone crisis in 2011 that finally saw the public momentarily fall out of love with the master deal-maker. Or the tax-fraud conviction that led to his ejection from the Italian Senate in 2013. (He was sentenced to one year of community service, which he carried out from a nursing home.) “I must have written the phrase ‘Silvio Berlusconi is finished’ dozens of times during my career,” says Giada Zampano, an Italian journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal and The Telegraph. “But every single time, he proves me wrong.”
Indeed, he’s at it again. At 83, Berlusconi looks to hold the keys to power in the nation, thanks to a rift in the ruling coalition that it seems only he can paper over. As Zampano explains: “The man is made of Teflon.”
Well, you’d need to be. Especially with the litany of gaffes, bawdy jokes, and diplomatic blunders that have blotted Berlusconi’s public appearances. Like the time he hollered at Barack Obama during a U.K. state visit and ticked off the Queen, who was reported to say, “Why does he have to shout?”; the time he said the Chinese state used to boil its children “to fertilize the fields”; the time he compared a German M.E.P. to a concentration-camp guard; the time he told an audience at a trade fair that it was “better to be fond of pretty girls than to be gay”; the time he was alleged to have said that Angela Merkel’s bottom was not worth penetrating; the time he told the survivors of the L’Aquila earthquake that they should consider their homelessness “like a weekend of camping”; or the time he said the Italian Army wasn’t big enough to defend its citizens from rape, because the girls were so “beautiful.”
Ah, yes. The girls. Berlusconi’s only authorized biography has the title My Way. (The man is an avowed Sinatra fan—he used to sing his ballads on cruise ships in the Mediterranean as a student, and a former girlfriend even claimed in her 2009 tell-all memoir that they would dance to the song before having sex.) But really it should have been called Girls Girls Girls. Or maybe: Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. Because there has not been a single moment of Berlusconi’s career that has not been colored by his relationships with women. Showgirls, television stars, budding M.P.’s, weather girls, Miss Italias, singers, models—they have all found themselves in Berlusconi’s tractor beam over the years. The politician joked in 2011 that “when asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said yes, while the other 70% replied: ‘What, again?’” Questioned at another point about his womanizing, the twice-divorced premier simply said, “I am not a saint.”
Stealing Hearts and Spilling Names
In November 2010, a 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer and alleged prostitute who goes by the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (literally “Ruby Heartstealer”) claimed she was paid $10,000 by Berlusconi to attend parties at his private villa outside Milan (duties often involving a double bed given to the politician by Vladimir Putin, which he once proudly showed off to a bemused George Clooney, according to My Way). Rubacuori told police in Milan that Berlusconi would organize orgies that culminated in 20 young women performing a tribal sexual ritual known as the “Bunga Bunga.” (The term itself, Berlusconi explained in My Way, comes from a favorite joke he shared with Muammar Qaddafi about gang rape.) Though both Rubacuori and Berlusconi denied the allegations, “Rubygate,” as it became known, embroiled the prime minister in charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor and extortion, and saw him sentenced to seven years in prison and a life ban from public office. He shrugged these off in a not-guilty appeal in 2014, the political ban was dropped, and he resumed his post as leader of his party, called Forza Italia.
“He always bounces back,” says Zampano.
Questioned about his womanizing, the twice-divorced premier simply said, “I am not a saint.”
In recent years, however, it had begun to look like there was no bounce left in the old boy. With Forza Italia languishing at around 7.5 percent in the polls, and a younger generation of far-right politicians retooling his populist playbook for the Internet age, it finally seemed, by the start of 2020, like the old bull had been put out to pasture. “He’s weak and old and on the sideline,” says Zampano. “But he’s also the Comeback King. And he knows how to pick his moment.”
That moment may well be right now. This summer, against the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, and with Italy’s coffers lying near barren, Silvio Berlusconi has found himself in a position of once unthinkable influence. With a paper-thin majority in government, and a squabbling coalition behind him, current prime minister Giuseppe Conte has begun to look to Berlusconi’s support on a number of key issues—not least the European Recovery Fund (a hefty bailout from the E.U., essentially) that squeaked through the Italian parliament on July 21 thanks to the borrowed votes of Berlusconi’s M.E.P.’s. Renato Brunetta, Berlusconi’s right-hand man in Forza Italia, said that the party would back the government on knife-edge votes, comparing their M.E.P.’s to “blood donors.” The Italians call it the phenomenon of “beach government”—the creation of eclectic, chummy political allegiances in the summer holidays. And there’s no beach party without Berlusconi.
“Berlusconi represents a more moderate right, which is more appealing to the center,” explains Zampano. “He’s come back in, acting like the responsible one who’s going to support the government at this difficult time.”
“In the last few years he has sought to adopt a more ‘grandfatherly’ role,” says David Broder, a Rome-based journalist and the Europe editor at Jacobin magazine, “as if guiding younger and more dynamic figures [Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, leaders of the right-wing Northern League and Brothers of Italy parties, respectively].” He’s also adopted the part of “repentant sinner,” says Broder.
Despite his party’s piffling numbers in the polls, the Italian media are already hailing the tycoon as the “kingmaker.” His old rival, the former Democrat prime minister Romano Prodi, even hinted in July that Berlusconi should return properly to the political fray. “Figures on the centrist wing of the center left want Forza Italia to be part of some sort of centrist/pro-European bloc,” explains Broder. According to Prodi, the idea of Berlusconi as a uniting leader is “no longer a taboo.” As he puts it, “Old age brings wisdom.”
But with Berlusconi, the political is so often personal. No comeback on one front would be complete without an assault on the other. In March, it was confirmed that Berlusconi had split up with his long-term girlfriend Francesca Pascale, after he was photographed leaving a Swiss hotel with a 30-year-old Forza Italia M.P. named Marta Fascina. Berlusconi kept Pascale’s dog—a white Maltese terrier named Dudu—for good measure: all part of the politician’s new “cuddlier” image, according to Broder.
Then, earlier this month, a photograph of Pascale sunbathing topless on a yacht and kissing Italian pop star Paola Turci was splashed all over the tabloids. “There were always rumors that she was a lesbian” says Zampano. “Then they break up, and this happens? It provoked Berlusconi. It angered him.” A few days later, in an almost immediate retaliation, a long-lens image of Berlusconi and Fascina, stepping hand in hand onto a yacht in Sardinia, found its way onto several front pages. “He wanted to show that he was still young, still good with women. The first tabloid to publish the story was owned by his family. If he didn’t want that photo to be taken, it wouldn’t have been,” says Zampano. “Anything published in Chi is bound to say what he wants,” adds Broder. (That same week, Berlusconi was also spotted embracing Formula 1 boss and old friend Flavio Briatore, one of Italy’s most vocal coronavirus skeptics. Neither of them was wearing a mask; Briatore has since been admitted to the hospital with symptoms of the virus, while Berlusconi himself tested positive for the virus on September 2.)
Candida Morvillo, a journalist for Milan’s Corriere della Sera, believes even Marta Fascina’s outfit was stage-managed for maximum impact. “She had dressed herself in a very retro style, as if taking a distance from the ‘modernity’ of Pascale’s LGBT relationship.” Zampano, meanwhile, explains that, “from his point of view, it looks good. She even used to work for A.C. Milan, which was Berlusconi’s soccer team—so she has the pedigree that’s perfect for him.” Broder simply says, “Everything about his persona is carefully manicured.” This back-and-forth is all part of the complex game that political leaders in Italy play, often in cahoots with the paparazzi, where their personal lives (and loves) are deployed for political gain. Last year, when Luigi Di Maio, the then leader of the Five Star party and now the foreign minister, was snapped in Rome with a new girlfriend, the rumor was that he was stealing the thunder from Salvini, his coalition partner at the time, who was often seen in the tabloids with his own girlfriend.
Well, the game’s afoot now. Just last week, Berlusconi signed a pact with his center-right counterparts to stick together, with a built-in “anti-mess” clause. This would, theoretically, stop him from supporting Conte’s center-left coalition. But, as Broder explains, “it means nothing: they always do this in the run-up to important votes” (like September’s regional elections). “It’s a game,” Zampano adds. “He’s playing kingmaker on both sides.” Once September’s votes have been counted, the fun will really begin. “Then,” Broder says, the players will begin to “barter for positions.” And Berlusconi—that old dog, the great grinning yo-yo—might just hold more chips than most.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL