Berlusconi served as Prime Minister for years before journalists in Rome paid much attention to his private life, but then it hit us like a bomb. It was well known that Berlusconi like to flirt and liked young beautiful women. He made some waves when he put showgirls and starlets on his political party lists for Parliament positions. He even set up a little school in his party headquarters for starlets to learn some of the basics of politics. During the Berlusconi years, veline (scantily clad showgirls) took the political and cultural stage.
Berlusconi’s dubious behavior with young women became a front-page news story when he attended the birthday party of a skinny, blond 18-year-old aspiring lingerie model named Noemi. Turns out it was a strange relationship. Noemi called him ‘Papi’ (Daddy). For her birthday he gave her a gold necklace with diamonds. It came out later that he had also invited her to parties at his villa in Sardinia. I guess ‘Papi’ was more like a sugar-daddy. Shortly after his trip to Noemi’s party, Berlusconi’s estranged second wife Veronica Lario announced that she was asking for a divorce, noting that her husband was ‘sick’ and had a problem with ‘underage women’.
Berlusconi denied that his relationship with the underage Noemi was in any way scandalous. Over the next year he would be forced to explain unusual relationships with many women – escorts, starlets and TV showgirls. Berlusconi has repeatedly declared that he is ‘”no saint” and “likes women” but says he has “never paid for sex”.
The night that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, November 4, 2008, Silvio Berlusconi was having one of his famous starlet-filled parties at Palazzo Grazioli, his Rome residence, just across the street from the AP offices.
I spent the entire night going from one Italian TV station to another, providing commentary on the US elections. Italians got caught up in the excitement of the election and I noticed a feeling of elation in Rome. For me to be able to explain how it all happened and tell Italians how the US democratic system works was a thrill. Little did I or other journalists know that Berlusconi was getting his thrills in other ways.
Among the invitees at Palazzo Grazioli was Patrizia D’Addario, a 42-year-old beautiful, blond escort from Bari in Southern Italy. She later explained that he did not give her money for her night of sex with him, but he promised to help her get the building contract she wanted in Bari. She later said he reneged on his promise and so she revealed that she had been taping their conversations. Berlusconi survived the scandal, because prostitution is not illegal in Italy, but he did not learn any lessons from it. Instead, he became more brazen.
After this shaky start, Berlusconi’s relations with the Obama administration were not ideal. Berlusconi on several occasions referred to Obama as ‘tanned’, and said that his wife, Michelle, must have gone to the beach with him because she is also ‘tanned’. I found that comment offensive, and was disgusted as I watched our video of Berlusconi saying it, standing on a podium in front of a crowd of white supporters. They all seemed to get a good laugh.
When the Wikileaks State Department documents came out, one of the first cables that emerged with comments about Berlusconi noted his ‘wild parties’ suggesting that his “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest”. Elizabeth Dibble, a top official at the US Embassy in Rome, described him as “feckless, vain and ineffective as a leader”.
In December 2010, a new scandal exploded, this time involving a beautiful young girl originally from Morocco. She went by the name of Ruby, short for Ruba-Cuori or ‘Heart-Stealer’. The story was too good to be true.
According to court documents, Ruby attended numerous parties at Berlusconi’s Villa near Milan (the same one where I had interviewed him years earlier), and later, when she got arrested for stealing (guess she didn’t just steal hearts), Berlusconi called the police headquarters in Milan and said that she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that he, the Prime Minister, would prefer to have her quietly released so as not to create problems.
The Ruby story went from bad to worse as prosecutors began to dig. Tales emerged of 33 women attending ‘bunga bunga’ parties at the villa of the 74-year-old Prime Minister.
Ruby described one such party in a TV interview. She said it began with a dinner where all the food followed a three-colored theme — red, green, and white, the colors of the Italian flag. She said that at the end of the evening Berlusconi gave her an envelope with 7,000 Euro in it. She insisted she did not have sex with him.
In the following days more details emerged. According to court documents, prosecutors, through the use of intercepted telephone conversations of the young women, established that following the dinners, the girls went with Berlusconi and his two friends to the ‘bunga, bunga’ room, outfitted with a pole for lap-dancing and seats for the men. The starlets were encouraged to put on nurse or police officer costumes but remain topless underneath with just thigh-high nylon stockings. After this entertainment, the young women were then taken to another room, where a Berlusconi aide handed out envelopes to the girls, filled with different amounts of cash. A few would be asked to stay the night with Silvio. Confiscated diaries from some of the women who attended the parties noted the cash received in these envelopes ranged from 2,000 to 7,000 Euros.
A headline from Italy’s mainstream daily Corriere della Sera on January 19, 2011 summed it up: “Silvio Berlusconi, The Bank Machine.”
No one is exactly clear on what bunga bunga actually entails, so I will go with the description in an article from The Economist describing the prosecutors’ file in the case:
“The 782 pages of witness statements and wiretap transcripts in the file depict Mr. Berlusconi as spending his free time as if he were one of the sleazier Roman emperors: inviting dozens of showgirls and courtesans to dinners at his home near Milan that were followed by bunga-bunga sessions involving erotic play that in turn led to sex.”
Again, Berlusconi went directly to the people, and gave his version of bunga-bunga. In one of the recent stories I did on Berlusconi I used this soundbite of his from a meeting with young people in which he received enthusiastic applause when he said: “When we talk about bunga-bunga– as some people do- bunga-bunga etc., it is some extremely innocent. It means after 15 days of intense work, let’s get together and share some gossip, let’s get together and be happy, let’s get together – I like to sing, I like to tell stories about the things one does, and then let’s dance.”
At APTN, we are frequently asked to do VOX POPS. VOX POPS are, essentially, the voice of the people or man-on-the-street comments about stories we are covering. Over the years I have asked hundreds of people on the street about Berlusconi and the reactions are always strong. My colleagues and I were amazed how frequently Italians on the street were supportive of Berlusconi on the bunga bunga question. I remember a little old lady walking in front of the Vatican who declared, “He has sinned, he exaggerated, but we can forgive him, who has not sinned?” An older man walking with his wife declared to an APTN camera, “Look at those women he is going with. Berlusconi’s great. He’s powerful, he’s rich, and he’s divorced. I would do it too if I were him.”
Many analysts suggested that Berlusconi’s popularity with the average Italian was due to his use of television to send his message directly to the people, side-stepping Italy’s intellectuals. Author Alexander Stille, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, in his article entitled “A Sin that May not be Forgiven”, explained how Berlusconi has effectively used his hold on the media to maintain his power.
“Much of the evidence in the current scandal (as with those in the past) has not been aired on the principal newscast of the Italian state TV which, together with Berlusconi’s networks, enjoys nearly 90 percent market share in a country where 70-80 percent of the public gets it news from television…..Before Berlusconi, there was no tradition of restrictions on ethical problems such as conflict of interest or insider trading. When Berlusconi was first elected to office in 1994, it became accepted that the richest man in the country, its largest media owner and the subject of numerous criminal investigations could, without selling any of his private holdings, run the government, oversee the large state broadcasting system and rewrite criminal laws. It seems almost a natural consequence that he should use the resources of government for his own ends…”
Berlusconi’s trial for induction of a minor into prostitution and using his power to cover it up, maybe be the one of his four current trials in which he risk being convicted. His other three trials – all on corruption charges- will run out due to the statute of limitations next year.
The Associated Press has its office on a special street in the center of Rome. It’s called Via della Gatta, the cat street. Via della Gatta opens up into a lovely little piazza called Piazza Grazioli. The doorway to our building is Number 5, Piazza Grazioli. Just across the street is Palazzo Grazioli, and perched on a cornice of that building is a marble cat, its eyes fixed on our entrance. Legend has it that someone was murdered right where our doorway is, and the only witness to the crime was a cat making its way around the cornice. The marble cat statue was put there to remind the murderer that there was a witness to the crime. Now the cat gets to keep an eye on APTN TV crews, photographers and journalists running in and out on news stories or wandering out for a mid-morning cappuccino.
But if that marble cat could just swing its head around in the other direction….!! Palazzo Grazioli is now the Rome residence of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The windows facing our office are kept shuttered, but once, one of Berlusconi’s bodyguards said to an APTN cameraman, “If you could just film from your windows through the windows across the street, then you would have a story!” At the time, we had no idea how true that comment was.
Last Sunday morning I was assigned to chase the new Italian Prime Minister Designate Mario Monti. We heard he was going to Catholic mass at a Roman church near the Senate, Sant’ Ivo Alla Sapienza. This little jewel of a church is hidden inside the Italian Senate archives and one has to walk across a spectacular courtyard to reach it. The camera crews waited in the courtyard, peering in at the back of Monti’s grey head waiting for him to come out. As he came out the church doorway, I threw a question at him in English, “Mr. Monti what can you do to restore confidence in the Italian economy?” He did not answer and his wife Elsa looked straight at me, gave me a very amusing look, raised her eyebrows, and mouthed the word “NO.” I liked her immediately.
For the past week that cat has seen a lot of action below. It has been chaotic in in Piazza Grazioli. Camera crews, journalists, photgraphers from around the world and in the past few days thousands of Italian citizens have gathered around Berlusconi’s residence to get a glimpse of the him in his last days in power. I have spent some time there myself.
There is a little bit of me that is sad to see Silvio leave the political stage. It is an end of an era, and the end of probably the most colorful character I will ever cover. So I say, Bye bye Berlusconi, and so long Silvio….
Post in: Italiano
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.