It has long been one of the strangest marriages in international politics.
But yesterday Silvio Berlusconi's wife Veronica Lario, his partner for 27 years, finally blew her stack.
In a letter dripping with dignity and disdain dispatched to La Repubblica, the Roman daily owned by one of Mr Berlusconi's deadliest business enemies, the wife of Italy's richest man and former prime minister did the impossible: driving the transfer of Ronaldo to Mr Berlusconi's football team AC Milan off the front pages.
The cause for her unprecedented outburst was a very ordinary bit of Berlusconian nonsense. During a gala dinner Silvio accosted the MP Mara Carfagna, one of a group of young women, with the gallant words: "Just look at Carfagna. If I wasn't married already I would marry you right away. I would take you anywhere."
Mr Berlusconi has long been famous for his gaffes, usually hinting at his innumerable conquests. "I love France and I always will," he once quipped. "You only have to count my [French] girlfriends."
"I had to use all my playboy tactics," he remarked of a diplomatic success with Finland's female Prime Minister, "and they haven't been used for some time." That provoked an official protest.
"Gerhard, let's talk of football and women!" he cried jovially once to Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor.
Veronica Lario, the dramatic blue-eyed blonde whose topless appearance on stage in Milan 27 years ago struck Mr Berlusconi "like lightning" as he said at the time, did not rise to these provocations. In all their years together she has been practically invisible. Once in a blue moon she escorts him on official functions - when George Bush came to call, for example. But most of the time she goes to great lengths to preserve her privacy and that of their three children. Occasionally she hints at a streak of wild frustration. Her dream, she once confessed, was to ramble around the world on her own, "a cross," she enthused, "between [Bruce] Chatwin and [Jack] Kerouac."
Mr Berlusconi claimed to live an idyllic existence with Veronica. But sometimes a darker truth seeps out. Speaking to her biographer, she revealed that they never holiday together. "Your husband is very busy, do you often get to see him or speak to him on the telephone?" a journalist asked her once. "There is not only the telephone," she answered smiling. "Sometimes I can even see him on television!" But it is precisely because she has been so good at keeping her head down that she is so devastating on the rare occasions when she decides to raise it. Such as yesterday.
"With difficulty I conquer the reserve which has distinguished my mode of being in the course of the 27 years passed alongside the public man... who is my husband," she began. "I have maintained that my role must be circumscribed mostly within the private dimension, with the scope of bringing serenity and equilibrium within my family." But not any more.
Silvio's very public flirtation with women one-third his age was "injurious to my dignity", she wrote, "and cannot be reduced to a jocular outburst. I request a public apology from my husband... not having received one privately."
The demand was carefully phrased. She had always avoided complaining about her husband, she wrote, because of "extra-familiar" considerations and out of respect for their children.
But there was a limit to such self-effacement: namely, "my dignity as a woman, which must also be an example to our children". "For my daughters, already grown up ... the example of a woman capable of protecting her dignity in her relationships with men assumes a particularly pregnant importance."
It was an awesome performance: the nation held its breath. At 4.40pm, the wires reported the husband's reply. "Dear Veronica, here are my apologies," Mr Berlusconi wrote. "I was recalcitrant in private because I am jocular, but also because I am proud. Challenged in public, the temptation to give in is strong. And I don't resist it... We are together for life."
A long-lasting love match
Veronica - she said:
"I have faced the conflicts and painful moments of a long conjugal relationship with respect and discretion. Now I write to state my reaction.
"These are statements that I see as damaging to my dignity, affirmations that... cannot be reduced to jokes.
"To my husband and to the public man I therefore ask for a public apology, having not received one privately. This line of conduct has a sole limit, my dignity as a woman. Today for my female children... the example of a woman capable of defending her own dignity in her relationships with men takes on a particularly significant importance."
Silvio - he said:
"Here I am, saying I'm sorry. I was recalcitrant in private, because I am playful but proud too. Challenged in public, the temptation to give in to you is strong. I can't resist. We have been together for a whole life. [We have] three adorable children whom you have prepared for life with the care and loving rigour of the splendid person that you are, and which you have always been for me from the first moment that we met and fell in love. Believe me, I have never made a marriage proposal to anyone. So, I beg you, forgive me and accept this public display of a private pride that gives in to your rage as an act of love - just one of many."Reuse content