The Decline and Fall of Berlusconi’s Italy

by by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Alex Dale


Silvio Berlusconi was first elected Prime Minister of Italy in 1994. He was re-elected in 2001, and again in 2008. Mired by legal accusations of corruption and tales of “Bunga Bunga” sex parties thrown at his many houses, surrounded by embarrassment at home and reduced to the butt of jokes abroad, he remained the defiantly smiling face of a crumbling country. That is, until last week.

The People of Freedom, Berlusconi’s political party, has been hanging by a tenuous thread in a coalition that finally snapped. On November 8, a Parliamentary budget vote showed that Berlusconi no longer held the majority—more than half the members had refused to vote. The Prime Minister conceded his imminent resignation on that Tuesday, but he wasn't out of the picture immediately. After over fifty separate no-confidence votes throughout his career and even more calls for him to step down, Berlusconi resigned from office on Saturday, November 12.

As Europe worries about the bailout of Greece, its second largest debt is miring across the Adriatic in a country too big to bail out. Berlusconi’s government is paralyzed in the face of the economic crisis. Berlusconi himself has brushed concern aside. In an October 24 statement, Berlusconi responded to the deficit, 120% of the nation’s GDP, by saying, “No one has anything to fear about Europe’s third largest economy.”

Berlusconi has done little to assuage the fears that do exist. Where he has seen success—plans for future school and prison reform, a crackdown on illegal immigration, a slowdown of national spending—he has ignored or failed to solve rising unemployment and rising bonds. One of the laws he did manage to pass granted himself retroactive immunity from the many accusations against him, protection that was only just overturned at the beginning of this year. As his reign is coming to a close, and the national image and economy are deeply threatened, Italians and foreigners alike are wondering how he lasted so long.


On November 2, in another city that has seen jovial government corruption, another Italian who knows the art of flattery came to Brown University with some answers. Giuseppe Severgnini is a journalist for Il Corriere della Sera, one of the Italian newspapers not controlled by Berlusconi, and he came to Providence to talk about his new book. Mamma Mia: Berlusconi’s Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad is exactly what the title suggests: hair-pulling exasperation amid an attempt to break down Italy’s long-standing political situation for those pointing and laughing, or scratching their heads. The author kept a crowded auditorium chortling as he explained the ten factors he uses to explain why Berlusconi remained in power for seventeen years, despite a failing economy and seemingly never-ending scandals.

The factors range from the Harem factor to the psychology of The Truman Show, but essentially, Italians keep re-electing Berlusconi because they see a bit of themselves in him. It is a funhouse mirror, exaggerating and distorting the similarities to embarrassing proportions, but a mirror nonetheless. Berlusconi represents the vices that everybody secretly harbors, and the financial and social success that everyone desires in vain.

Even Severgnini is not immune to a sweet-talking Berlusconi comparison. He treated his “very nice interviewer” to coffee before the event, hung back with the girls to discuss it after, and later tweeted how much he loved Brown, complete with a disclaimer that he was not being flattering—Berlusconesque. But his score would still register low on the Berluscometer. “If you’re over 50 percent,” Severgnini hypothesizes, “you probably vote for him.” Even non-voters cannot avoid the man who represents “the best and much of the worst of Italy.” One Italian reader who didn’t much care for this assertion declared vehemently at a book talk that he had zero percent of the prime minister in him, to which the author replied, “Let me have a word with your accountant, your confessor, and your wife. Then we’ll talk.”


Born during the reign of Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi, the child of a bank employee and a housewife, grew up to become a mogul of media and politics. In the 1960s, he launched a residential complex, Milano Due, in the outskirts of Milan. He went on to create a small cable company made specifically for the residents of his housing project, his first foray into television which soon morphed into his first media group, Fininvest. Today, Berlusconi sits at the top of a mountain of gold that comprises MediaSet, which controls over half of Italy’s public television and major advertising; the country’s largest publishing house; several newspapers, magazines, and production companies; and the  AC Milan soccer club to boot.

The tenacity with which Berlusconi rose from nothing to excess rivals that of a winner of the American Dream. Where others attempted entrepreneurism and failed, Berlusconi succeeded, although not without a little help. His television empire and subsequent political success was in part due to the patronage of Bettino Craxi, who ranks among his protégé and Mussolini as one of the twentieth century’s more controversial Italian politicians. Craxi was eventually convicted of corruption and bribery and fled to Tunisia. It remains impossible to trace the exact origins of the money that funded Berlusconi’s endeavors.

Berlusconi has paid the nepotism forward. His siblings and spouses, past and present, have holdings in his companies, and an attractive Italian girl might plan on a career in either TV or politics, or both, either way appointed by ‘Papi.’

The cover of Severgnini’s book shows the Prime Minister gently fondling Botticelli’s Venus. This anachronistic defacing of cultural capital is not too far from truth. Last year, the Prime Minister reportedly did some sprucing up of second-century statues in his office in Palazzo Chigi. Venus was given back her hand, and Mars was gifted a brand new penis. The cultural ministry assured art conservators around the world not to worry; the cosmetic improvements are only attached by magnets.

Italians were perhaps waiting out the last days of Berlusconi’s regime, anticipating the moment when they could pull off the magnets and restore a sense of national pride. The lasting repercussions of Berlusconi’s comportment remain to be seen. Now that Italy has voted to stop placing fig leaves over the Prime Minister’s indiscretions, the effects of such long-standing inadequacy will have to be dealt with openly, against a backdrop of economic crisis.


To Antonio, Severgnini’s nineteen-year-old son, Berlusconi is like a Sony Walkman. Antonio knows what the dinosaur device is, but it’s just shoved in a drawer somewhere. He has more relevant modes of staying tuned in. Yes, Berlusconi is an analog figure: Internet-illiterate, reliant on the power of TV, a playboy of the past. Except, as his father points out, “Berlusconi is still playing.”

Andrea Back, a student from Venice, is “fed up with Berlusconi.” After studying at Ca’ Foscari University, twenty-two-year-old Andrea has since gone to the United Kingdom for graduate school and an escape from the precarious job situation that awaits university graduates in Italy. To Andrea, Berlusconi is a “first-rate scapegoat.” For all his public failings, the blame cannot be solely pinned on one man. “Italy is a boat losing water from all sides, and if you cover one hole, two more will open,” Andrea told The Independent. “The problem is Italy itself, and its thousand contradictions.”

The Italian peninsula has an ancient history, but the country itself is still new. This year, the country celebrated its 150th birthday. To put this in perspective, Berlusconi is half as old as the country. It is only since 1946 that Italy has been a republic (so declared by a referendum in which democracy only just eked out  a victory over monarchy). Its democracy struggles against a background of ancient dominion, division, and delusion, and another decline and fall appears to be looming.

Rome is a city of this confusion. Google (not Gogol, the Russian novelist Berlusconi has confused with the search engine) Maps calculates that 180 meters separate Palazzo Grazzioli, where Berlusconi is known to host underage girls, and Palazzo Venezia. Here, Mussolini inspired Italians from the balcony with glorifying speeches, right up to the country’s impending collapse in 1941. Around these two buildings, both constructed as opulent aristocratic homes during the Renaissance, lie the ruins of one of the greatest empires and greatest republics. Not to be forgotten, always complicit: just across the river lives and rules the Pope himself, a supporter of the Prime Minister who, during the 2006 election campaign, called himself  “the Jesus Christ of politics.”


For many Americans, Italy is a dream tourist destination. To temper the country’s timeless appeal, they tell timely jokes about its prime minister. The situation is distanced, as much from themselves as from the ruins tourists wish to visit. When his talk had ended, Severgnini admitted a concern that his approach was too comical for such a serious reality. Perhaps the only way to reach an attentive public is to wrap the truth in shiny paper, or in a book cover emblazoned with a female icon in the nude. And who else likes inappropriate jokes? Berlusconi’s favorite involves him finally falling from power, hurtling toward the ground from the top of a building with just enough time to catch a glimpse of a woman changing through a window. He has told the joke many times, but now he is in full descent, and keeping his eyes open.

When Americans are the friends abroad to whom Berlusconi is being explained, included in this intended audience are the Eliot Spitzers, the Herman Cains. It’s easy to sit in a Brown University auditorium and laugh about drama playing out on a Roman amphitheatre’s political stage. But what if the Berluscometer were put up to America and to its own politicians? The mirror might show amused but guilty faces. Among Berlusconi’s valued friends—Putin, Mubarak, the late Qaddafi—he counted America’s own George W. Bush. And one can imagine that a Berlusconismo would gain a place in a political dictionary right between a Bachmann gaffe and a Bushism.


Italy’s next steps will be complicated by one of Severgnini’s ten factors: T.I.N.A. or, “There is No Alternative,” coined by Margaret Thatcher and today applied to Berlusconi in a country where the enduring fear of communism means that voters will choose anything else.

“I support two teams,” New England natives chant with pride. “The Red Sox, and whoever beats the Yankees.” Berlusconi is the team that beat the Yankees. The Red Sox are currently unavailable, so Berlusconi sweeps in for the title of Cavaliere, the knight, as he has affectionately dubbed himself. Berlusconi is the Center-Right, bordered on one side by Umberto Bossi and the hyper-Right Northern League, whose campaign shouts “Yes to Polenta, No to Couscous,” and the divided, uninspiring Democratic Party, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, on the other. The Left, Severgnini writes, “proposes confused solutions to complex problems with a contrite expression. Italy would prefer simple solutions presented with a smile.”  Hence Berlusconi’s official party song, which he also helped to write, which croons to audiences from the TV channels that he owns, “Thank goodness for Silvio.”

According to Severgnini, the public response must go through the necessary stages before breaking its stasis. Italians will feel complicit, then embarrassed, a feeling that will morph into shame, and finally, anger. Frustration and anger have certainly already taken hold, but even as Berlusconi is voted out of office, it is unclear if this will be the overhaul hoped for by Andrea and the next generation, or another blip in a procession of distrusted politicians. “In Italy,” Andrea told The Independent, “as long as they [politicians] keep coming and supporting the interference of the Vatican, the absurd pretense of the law, the mafia and the code of silence, nothing will ever change.”

Severgnini had predicted last week that Berlusconi’s days were numbered. “There will be some sort of interim government, with some sort of fancy name. The Truce Government. The National Reconcilation Government. The Government for Europe.” This temporary government is now being headed by former European Commissioner Mario Monti, appointed to office by the President of the Republic as an emergency measure in a time of financial crisis. An economist more than a politician, it remains to be seen how Monti will be received by domestic politics, and by Italians themselves, who did not vote for the technocrat but will nonetheless be subject to his ambitious financial reforms.

Berlusconi may have resigned, but he will not go without a fight, and it is safe to assume that the world has not seen the man’s final smirk. Directly after the parliamentary vote, in which Berlusconi missed his majority by only eight votes, a photographer’s zoom lens caught the words the former Prime Minister was scribbling on a scrap of paper. Above the word “resignation,” two more words were also legible: “eight traitors.”

BELLE CUSHING B’13 has less than 50% of the Prime Minister in her.