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10 Jul 2008 09:47
It was September 30 2003. A young intelligence officer, Federico Armati, was renting a house that looks on to Campo de’ Fiori, a bar-packed square in old Rome.
He lived alone, and his private life was not perhaps all that it could be.
Still, he was somewhat bemused when a huge bunch of flowers arrived at the door—particularly when he realised they were from the prime minister.
The night before, Sanjust di Teulada had introduced a prime-time slot in which Silvio Berlusconi—then, as now, Italy’s Prime Minister—had set out plans for pension reform. The way Berlusconi’s lawyer tells it, the flowers were an innocent way of congratulating someone who was, anyhow, the granddaughter of a personal friend.
But, as a court in Rome heard last week, Armati has a different view. He sees it as the point at which his fortunes began to go into an uncontrollable tailspin. And he blames his downfall on Berlusconi, who he claims formed a relationship with his estranged wife. He is now seeking to have Berlusconi put on trial for abusing his position, which is a criminal offence in Italy. His claims are vigorously denied by lawyers for both Berlusconi and Sanjust di Teulada. And the prosecutor who applied for the prime minister’s immunity to be lifted wants the case dropped because of the “unspecific nature of the accusations” and a “lack of sufficient objective proof”.
But what is unquestionably true is that, over the past 12 months—sporting transplanted hair, a cosmetically enhanced countenance and his trademark, year-round tan—the 71-year-old Berlusconi has been repeatedly embroiled in controversies involving attractive and ambitious young women. Some, like Virginia Sanjust de Teulada, are aspiring TV stars. The others include three ex-beauty queens and a bevy of soap opera starlets.
What is more, it could be about to have far-reaching effects on the country he leads. Among the first Bills to be drawn up by Berlusconi’s new government after it was voted into power in April was one that would limit telephone tapping by the police and impose jail sentences on editors who publish intercepted conversations. Critics say that, whatever its intrinsic merits, its true aim is to prevent the leaking of embarrassing details about Berlusconi’s own private life.
For more than a week now, Rome has been alive with rumours that police in Naples, working on yet another investigation of Berlusconi for alleged corruption, taped sexually explicit discussions between the prime minister and his 32-year-old Equal Opportunities Minister, Mara Carfagna, a former topless model. The tapes were reportedly made while investigators were probing the relationship between Berlusconi and the head of drama at RAI, Italy’s equivalent of the BBC.
In a series of telephone conversations that have been published, Berlusconi, then opposition leader, pressed for roles to be given to starlets he named who were looking for parts in soap operas. The prosecutors are investigating claims that he had previously agreed to put up money for the executive to set up in business on his own. If true, this would mean he was corrupting a public official.
Last week, prosecutors agreed to seek authorisation for the destruction of material irrelevant to the core of the investigation. But the case has since been transferred to Rome, and it will be up to a judge there to decide the fate of the allegedly compromising tapes and transcripts.
Last Thursday, the prime minister cancelled a television interview in which he was due to be quizzed about the rumours. Carfagna refused to comment, saying, “I don’t deal with telephone intercepts, with gossip, with nonsense. They don’t form part of the responsibilities of my ministry, so I don’t deal with them.”
Massimo Donadi, a leading member of the opposition, argued however that the transcripts are of legitimate public interest and ought to be published. In the most forthright comment so far on the affair, he asked: “What if Bill Clinton had made Monica Lewinsky a minister in his government?”
Whether founded or not, his allusion points to another, broader aspect of the gossip surrounding Italy’s most go-go granddad. When it comes to sexual morality, Berlusconi and other leaders of the Italian right skate on extraordinarily thin ice. On the hustings and in Parliament, they passionately endorse traditional Roman Catholic thinking on such matters as the sanctity of the family. Yet, none of them actually lives with the woman he originally married.
Pier Ferdinando Casini, the leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, who ran independently at the last general election, began a relationship with a much younger woman after separating from his wife and has since had two children by her. Yet his party is stoutly opposed to legislation that would give legal status to unmarried couples.
Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League, is on his second marriage, while Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s closest ally and the leader of the “post-fascist” National Alliance, recently left his wife of 19 years for a glamorous 35-year-old TV presenter. It subsequently emerged that he was the father of a child she was expecting.
As for Berlusconi himself, for six years after meeting his present wife, Veronica Lario, he had two families. While he was still married to his first wife, Carla Dell’Oglio, Lario bore him the first of three children. The other two were born before the couple were eventually married in 1990.
None of this seems matter to the Italian electorate, which has three times elected Berlusconi and his allies to run the country. But it does not go down well in the Vatican, and it may be no coincidence that, lately, the fiercest critic of the Berlusconi government’s policies on, for example, immigration and minorities has been the Roman Catholic church.
As the American writer Alexander Stille noted in his book The Sack of Rome, Berlusconi profits from a remarkable balancing act, managing “to play the roles of Latin lover and devoted family man simultaneously”. One moment, he is saying that he had to deploy all of his “playboy tactics” on the Finnish president to win a diplomatic victory for Italy at a European summit; the next he is taking part in “Family Day” and telling a vast, mainly Roman Catholic crowd: “I’m here because we have to react [to the threat to matrimony posed by civil unions].”
The first sign he might just be slipping on the high wire came in February 2007. That was when La Repubblica, Italy’s leading centre-left daily, published a bombshell letter from his wife.
She said her husband’s conduct at a TV prize-giving dinner had been “unacceptable” and “damaging to my dignity”. And she demanded—and received—a public apology. Before the day was out, Berlusconi had himself released a letter begging his wife’s forgiveness. It was an astonishing climb-down for a man who, 10 months after losing office, still refused to acknowledge that he had lost the general election.
‘I’d go with you anywhere’
But what made the affair puzzling was that—at least by his own flamboyant standards—his behaviour had not been particularly outrageous. At a ceremony hosted by his Mediaset TV group, he had joked with Aída Yéspica, a Venezuelan-born dancer, that “I’d go with you anywhere”.
He then turned his attention to a woman who has arguably the most remarkable CV in Italian politics—and one that illustrates just how intensely entwined are Berlusconi’s political movement and his media empire. Born in Salento, south of Naples, Mara Carfagna first came to prominence when was elected Miss TV Smiles and Songs before going on to finish sixth in the 1997 edition of Miss Italy. She took a law degree, but even before graduating had launched herself into a career as a TV starlet on Mediaset. At an early stage in her career, she posed semi-naked for the men’s magazine Maxim.
Before the 2006 general election, officials of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia! (Come on Italy!) were surprised, and in some cases dismayed, to find her name on the slate of candidates, and in a position that allowed her to win a seat in the chamber of deputies. By the time of the prize-giving dinner, Carfagna, still only 31, was secretary of the Italian Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee.
It was neither her brains nor her eloquence, though, to which Berlusconi chose to draw attention that evening. Standing at Carfagna’s side, he told his fellow-guests: “Take a look at her! I’d marry her if I weren’t married already.”
A pretty cringe-making remark for his wife, Veronica Lario, who said that her husband had made her feel like “half of nothing”. Speculation about the links between Berlusconi and Carfagna has simmered ever since. But for several months afterwards, it was eclipsed by other, and more sensational, developments.
In April 2007, the magazine Oggi published a series of paparazzi photographs showing the then-opposition leader in the grounds of his Sardinian villa with no less than than five young women. In one, he was pictured with a woman on each knee. In others, he was snapped walking hand-in-hand with one or more of his guests.
His spokesperson insisted the pictures merely showed “a normal holiday visit, with Berlusconi happy and proud to show his guests the wonders of his garden”.
Four months later, attention switched to yet another former beauty queen. Michela Vittoria Brambilla had also taken part in the Miss Italy contest and gone on to be an employee of Mediaset, where she worked as a TV journalist. Since then, she had carved out a successful business career and been chosen as head of Italy’s young retailers’ association. There has never been any claim that she is more than a close political associate of the prime minister. She was also the founder—at Berlusconi’s behest—of a network of political clubs known as the Freedom Circles and, for a while, it seemed as if they would form the basis of the new and all-embracing rightwing movement that the tycoon politician was keen to bring into existence. Indeed, when Berlusconi announced that he was dissolving Forza Italia to speed up the process, he did so with the strikingly flame-haired Brambilla at his side, prompting speculation she might even be its leader.
Flowers and diamonds
But although something rather less ambitious has since taken shape in the form of a tight electoral alliance with Gianfranco Fini’s party known as the Freedom People, Brambilla’s star has waned. After his election victory in April, Berlusconi appointed four women to his cabinet. But La Rossa (“the Redhead”), as she is known, was not among them. She has had to content herself with a junior ministership, attached to the prime minister’s office and responsible for tourism.
As for Sanjust di Teulada, the intelligence officer’s wife, her role remains mysterious. According to Armati’s version, set out in documents submitted to the Rome court and summarised this week in La Repubblica, the flowers his wife received were the prelude to a lunch the next day at the prime minister’s office and a gift of a diamond bracelet. The intelligence officer claims it was the start of a intense romance from which he initially benefited.
With a view to the well-being of their son, says Armati, his ex-wife secured for him a promotion and pay rise from Berlusconi, the overall boss of Italy’s intelligence services. But their arrangement, he claims, turned sour for him the following year after he rowed with his ex-wife. Shortly afterwards, he was removed from SISDE and transferred to a lowly post in the Constitutional Court on less than half his previous salary.
While denying it was a love affair, his ex-wife’s lawyer acknowledged to the court that the “friendly relationship” between her client and Berlusconi was “undeniable”. But she added that it had been used by Armati to blackmail the then opposition leader before the 2006 election and secure for himself a better-paid job in the intelligence coordination agency CESIS. Sanjust di Teulada made a statement last year confirming that Berlusconi had rung her at the time sounding “very worried”.
By then, she was no longer an announcer. Less than two years after being chosen to be the “face” of RAI 1, the leading continuity announcer on the network’s first channel, she abruptly retired from her screen career. Armati has given the court documents which he says show the couple’s former home in Campo de’ Fiori was bought by a senator belonging to Berlusconi’s party and that, in May 2006, a month after the election, his ex-wife went back to live there.
Contacted by a journalist from Corriere della Sera, she replied with a refined ambiguity worthy of a character in a Pirandello drama. “The truth,” mused Virginia Sanjust di Teulada, “is always - but in this case particularly—impossible to explain in words.” - guardian.co.uk
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