"I Cannot Condemn Myself To Be His Wet Nurse": Berlusconi's Wife Speaks Out

In a book released today, Silvio Berlusconi's wife says he "look[s] ridiculous before the world." But are Italians willing to forgive his lavish parties and dalliances with young women?

A newly revised biography, Veronica's Way, details the relationship between Berlusconi and Veronica Lario from its beginning in 1980 to its current unhappy end. Lario says that when her husband attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old (and bought her an $8,500 birthday gift), he told her he was at a conference. She tells biographer Maria Latella,

It was the umpteenth lie. Better to finally respect myself, better to divorce. [...] I cannot condemn myself to be his wetnurse and I cannot stop him from making himself ridiculous before the world.

But according to Daniel Flynn of Reuters, neither the 18-year-old nor Berlusconi's alleged party with a high-priced call girl have soured Italy on him. Flynn writes, "While the 'sexgate' scandal has excited the foreign press, opinion polls show many Italians consider it a private matter and it has done little to dent Berlusconi's high popularity, despite the worst economic downturn since World War II." In a Times editorial, Italian professor Chiara Volpato has a different take. She says,

Many outside Italy seem to assume that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets away with his sexist behavior because Italian men condone it and the women at least tolerate it. But this is no longer true. Today there are two Italys: one Italy has soaked up Mr. Berlusconi's ideology either out of self-interest or an inability to resist his enormous powers of persuasion; the other is fighting back.

After a discussion of Italy's gender gap (example: fewer than half of Italian women have jobs, but Italian men still have 80 minutes more free time per day), Volpato describes the ways Italian women are fighting back against sexism in general and Berlusconi specifically. She mentions a documentary about female objectification called Il Corpo delle Donne, a recent first ladies' boycott of the G8 summit in Italy, and Berlusconi's dropping approval ratings among women. Still, she says, Italians must do more to combat Berlusconi and the anti-woman culture he represents. She writes,

An important step is to make dissent known, a difficult task considering that true free speech is largely limited to only a few independent newspapers and, importantly, the Internet. We need to start working on a systematic documentation of incidents of discrimination against women.

Michael Wolff's recent Vanity Fair article illustrates why this may, indeed, be very difficult — through his TV empire, Berlusconi has made both himself and the object vacation of women key facets of Italian pop culture. Wolff writes that Berlusconi's rise to control Italy's three private TV networks (as prime minister, he now controls the three public TV networks as well) can be traced to his replacement of "heavyset" male talking heads with "big-bosomed girls" called veline. These veline are now at the center of Italian culture — varying soccer stars and dictating fashion trends — and of political life as well. Berlusconi has appointed many of them to government positions, and one former velina, now Italy's equal-opportunity minister even hosted the very G8 summit the first ladies boycotted.

It sounds a little like packing Parliament with Playboy bunnies — but there's a reason Italian women haven't yet risen up against Berlusconi's velinocracy. The veline are popular. According to Volpato, becoming one of them is now the most popular career goal among Italian teenage girls. Volpato chalks this up to the fact that in Italy, "young women and girls are consistently taught that their bodies, rather than their abilities and their knowledge, are the key to success."

But maybe Veronica Lario can change that. In her biography, she says, "I think that I have no choice but to separate...He would tell me another lie and this time I could not stand it," and "I've reached the end of the road. Ten years ago I was not ready but now I can say: I am leaving this man." Lario herself is a former velina, who took up with Berlusconi when she was 23 and he was 43 and married. Perhaps her very public rage at him will provide an antidote to his advice to a female student — to get ahead, marry a rich man. Veronica's Way could serve as a lesson that neither being a velina nor marrying up necessarily brings an Italian woman happiness — and as an impetus for other women to demand more real power.

Italian Women Rise Up [NYT]
Berlusconi Wife: He Is Ridiculous Before The World [Reuters]
All Broads Lead To Rome [Vanity Fair]

Earlier: Wine, Women, & Santa Costumes Have Italian Leader In Loads Of Trouble