Silvio Berlusconi and Veronica Lario's second honeymoon is over. The rumour that, having already packed his cabinet with slender beauties, the Italian Prime Minister was grooming a new harem replete with showgirl, beauty queen, reality show starlet and singer to run in the European elections has elicited a ferocious response from his wife.
Taking the unusual step of directly emailing the Italian news agency Ansa, Mrs Berlusconi lambasted the Freedom People party's plans for the June poll as "shameless rubbish" and "entertainment for the emperor".
"What's happening today behind a front of bodily curves and female beauty is grave", she wrote, adding that female politicians should not be used like "pieces of costume jewellery" to attract votes.
It was the fiercest rebuke that Mr Berlusconi's second wife, a former actress celebrated for her independent views, has delivered in public. "I want to make it clear that I and my children are victims and not accomplices in this situation," she said. "We must endure it and it causes us pain."
Her husband tried his usual tactic of blaming the whole kerfuffle about the "showgirl candidates" on the machinations of left-wing journalists, who had duped "Signora Veronica" – the chillily formal equivalent of the British Prime Minister referring to Sarah as "Mrs Brown".
But soon afterwards Mr Berlusconi threw diplomacy to the winds and went on the counter-attack. "I will carry out the election campaign with these so-called showgirls at my side," he declared, "and they will talk as well as me and I will spell out their qualifications and what they have done in life up to now".
Choosing young women as candidates, he said, was a way "to revitalise our political class with people who are cultured, well prepared and who can guarantee that they will be present at every vote". Enough, he said, "of the evil-smelling, badly-dressed people" that other parties put up.
The "showgirl" furore had focused on four women: Camilla Ferranti, a trained ballerina; Eleonora Gaggioli, an actress; Cristina Ravot, a professional singer; and Barbara Matera, a television announcer.
Ms Matera was the only one of the "Berlusconi babes" to end up on the official candidate list when it was published yesterday. Whether this was because of Mrs Berlusconi's outburst or because the other three women had never been in serious contention, remained unclear.
It was speculated that what had really enraged Mrs Berlusconi was the emergence of an 18-year-old who calls the Prime Minister "Daddy".
On Sunday, Mr Berlusconi drove to the outskirts of Naples and popped in to the 18th birthday party of a pretty blonde girl called Noemi, giving her a gold pendant set with diamonds.
Why? "Because he's a friend of the family," Noemi, sitting at her parents' kitchen table, told Corriere della Sera. "He's known me since I was teeny-weeny. For me it's normal to see him, but I didn't expect him at the party, and I didn't tell my friends ... I've never even told them about Daddy."
Daddy? The Italian media never probes too harshly into the private lives of the rich and famous, and so the unspoken questions about Noemi and her mother remained exactly that – unspoken. But Mrs Berlusconi, who has three children with her husband, left no room for doubt that the development was unexpected. "What do I think about it? It was a big surprise for me," she said. "Also because he never came to the 18th birthday parties of any of his children, even though he was invited."
This latest outbreak of war in the Berlusconi household ends the truce that followed their last marital rupture. In the summer of 2007, Mr Berlusconi was photographed with three beauties on his lap at his villa in Sardinia, telling a lawyer-turned-showgirl called Mara Carfagna that "I would marry you like a shot if I wasn't married already".
This attack of public goatishness jolted Mrs Berlusconi into publicly demanding an apology. She duly got it, and Mr Berlusconi, who counts on millions of staunch Italian Catholics to vote for him, went to considerable lengths – in terms of public relations, if nothing else – to mend his bridges. He was photographed walking hand-in-hand with his wife and enjoying a family holiday at his Sardinian villa. Carefully posed shots of the couple now appear in the gossip magazines.
Nobody, however, is fooled. Mr Berlusconi lives his life by his own satyr-like rules, as he has done for decades. Carlo Caracciolo, the founding publisher of La Repubblica newspaper who knew Mr Berlusconi when he was a property developer, recalled how he often had breakfast with Mr Berlusconi in Milan, "and every time he brought a different girl. It was a sort of obsession with him."
The courtier-like discretion of the Italian media means it is impossible to know, and difficult even to imagine, what Mr Berlusconi's life must be like up close. Tantalising hints of obsessive behaviour appear: the plying of girls with expensive gifts, the bizarre preoccupation with finding them acting jobs, the heavy-handed jocularity of the remark he made to Mara Carfagna when she entered parliament, announcing that in his party, the boss enjoyed "droit de seigneur", the right to deflower the virgins.
Does he mean all of it? Or any of it? Is Mr Berlusconi's life a succession of priapic encounters with young beauties? The rumours to that effect have done him no harm politically. Indeed his ability to embody the fantasies of the ordinary Italian male – to be as rich as Croesus but as dirty-minded as the guy at the bar; to be ageing but ageless – offers one clue to his enduring appeal. He's the living legend.
And still the reality remains elusive. Is his life the endless Neronian orgy some imagine? Or might it all get desperately lonely when the aides and bodyguards leave? He dropped one clue in April 2006, on the eve of his only election loss in the past 10 years. He had done his own straw poll, he announced, and seven out of the nine sex chatline girls he had spoken to were going to vote for him.