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A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Essay: Weary Italians aren't in the mood to laugh anymore at Berlusconi's latest transgressions.

It’s still not clear how a man who began as a crooner on a cruise ship came to own a construction and media empire worth an estimated $7.6 billion. Suspicions of mafia money laundering linger.

Once in power, he passed laws that helped him avoid a series of corruption trials. Many Italians took them in stride. Who wouldn’t play the system to protect their interests?

They even express relief. They expect politicians to stuff their pockets. But with Berlusconi, a common refrain goes something like this: “He’s so rich he doesn’t have to steal.” (Because he already has, his critics add.)

A chunk of his wealth is from sales — he controls 60 percent of the television advertising market. But the product he sells best is himself. He introduced a politics of personality to a country run by a technocratic cabal for decades.

His personal fastidiousness is almost a parody of image-based politics: Heels to look taller, impeccable double-breasted suits, a permanent tan, a facelift and a hair transplant. And why not, Italians say. Looking good — la bella figura — is a national obsession.

Before his hair transplant, one of his magazines retouched a photo to cover his bald spot. More serious are the examples of critical journalists and satirists banned from the public RAI network, which he controls as prime minister, and the main private channels, which he owns. When the D’Addario sex tapes became public, neither the RAI network nor the Berlusconi-owned private channels mentioned them in their newscasts.

Italians spend an average of four hours a day watching TV, dominated by soap operas and showgirls.

“In the Berlusconian world, there is no difference between reality and what is sold as reality,” says Paolo Guzzanti, a former senator and MP with Berlusconi’s party. “Berlusconi’s criteria is always the same: Packaged little asses and packaged little minds.”

Berlusconi also transformed Italy’s tedious political discourse. The owner of the storied AC Milan soccer team, he uses the banter of soccer fans as a model, says Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador and a leading political analyst.

The sexual bragging, the repartee, the childish hijinks (he once made the cuckold horn sign with his fingers behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister) — all reflect the language and behavior in sports bars, Romano adds. And fans in this soccer-crazed country get it.

“Berlusconi has always behaved improperly — quote, unquote,” Romano says from Milan, the city where Berlusconi made his fortune. “He seems to delight in doing it. He seems to think his faux pas are part of his charm, part of his capacity to seduce.”

“We’ve always felt that it wasn’t the proper thing to do,” he says, referring to political observers. “But when we look at the polls we realize that Berlusconi doesn’t lose because of it. And sometimes, he gains.” Says Ferrarotti, who has written extensively on the prime minister: “You can’t use the traditional concept of populism to describe Berlusconi because he thinks of himself as the incarnation of the people. Therefore, he feels he can do whatever he wants.”

Some accuse Berlusconi of megalomania. He has, after all, compared himself to Napoleon. But with his latest sex-charged peccadillos, some observers believe he may have gone too far.

The Catholic church isn’t pleased — he’s heading for his second divorce. There’s talk of Berlusconi seeking a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI and — perhaps as penance — of making a pilgrimage to the grave of revered Italian saint Padre Pio.

A poll published late last month in the Roman daily La Repubblica found 49 percent of those surveyed expressing “confidence” in the prime minister, a drop from 62 percent last October. A growing number of Italians wonder who is minding the recession while the prime minister sorts out his personal life.

Italians describe their country as a bel casino — a beautiful mess. But with the example Berlusconi sets, some might argue the literal translation is more appropriate — a beautiful brothel.