He had not been heard from since he was seen guiding his ancient mum into a polling booth and instructing her audibly to "put a cross on the symbol for Forza Italia". In the wake of this tightest, most nail-biting of Italian elections, Silvio Berlusconi, the man of torrential eloquence, had dried up. The nation's journalists spent the best part of yesterday waiting for the gusher to resume.
Finally, after 48 hours of silence and seven hours later than first announced, he took to the stage in his 16th-century Roman headquarters, all gilt rococo cupids, and told the press that as far as he was concerned the election had been won by nobody.
"We do not believe," he said at a press conference repeatedly postponed during the day, "that today, as things stand, anyone can claim to have won." Why not? It was not just that the voting was very close. The results, he claimed, displayed "many, many murky aspects". The man they call the Cavalier was not going quietly.
It was the crowning tragi-comic moment of a historic day in which Italy finally got a new government. By now, after such twists and turns, he was an isolated figure as the congratulations rained in on the winner, Romano Prodi.
And the fact that an era was passing was underlined by the stunning news, just seven minutes after Mr Berlusconi's defeat became certain, that the most wanted mafioso in Sicily, the man from Corleone who has been capo di capi for 13 years and on the run for 30 more than that, had been arrested.
A political vacuum had opened up: Berlusconi, long tainted by his Mafia links, was on his way; and suddenly the biggest mobster of the lot was in the bag. Italy does not lose its capacity to amaze.
The day in fact began in the middle of the previous night. With provisional results pointing to a slim centre-left victory, Romano Prodi and his allies stood up and with most un-Prodi-like boldness seized the initiative.
Their supporters had waited five years for some good news: the Italian left were not going to let a little thing like a tied Senate and a whisker-thin advantage in the Chamber of Deputies poop their party. The big bash in Piazza del Popolo planned for yesterday evening had been canned as the good news curdled and Italy's general election grew ever tighter. But at 2.30 on a chilly morning, with a cutting scirocco wind coursing through Rome's cobbled lanes, the road outside Romano Prodi's campaign headquarters in Piazza Santi Apostoli, solid with Prodi supporters, exploded with joy as their leader took the stage and announced that the coalition had won.
But the words were hardly out of his mouth when Paolo Bonaiuti, Mr Berlusconi's spokesman, told reporters a few hundred yards away that Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition, the House of Liberties, was contesting the left's victory because "we have won the Senate". As the morning wore on, Mr Bonaiuti was proved wrong. The last Senate seats to be accounted for were the six given, for the first time, to expatriates, and although the idea of giving Italians abroad the vote was dreamt up by Mr Berlusconi's government in the belief that it would work to the right's advantage, four out of the six went to the centre-left. By the slimmest margin, 158 Senate seats to 156, the centre-left had scraped home.
It was at 11.21am that the centre-left coalition announced their success in the Senate - not a definitive result, but solid enough to go on. And then a very bizarre thing happened: out of the proverbial clear blue sky came the news that the most important living mafioso, Bernardo Provenzano, had been caught outside his home town of Corleone in western Sicily.
It was the strangest coincidence. The Mafia is a subject on which Mr Berlusconi has never spoken. On this subject, so close to the concerns of many millions of Italians, he has had nothing at all to say. And now, in the moment when Mr Berlusconi had fallen from grace, this bombshell. "It was the end of a season, the end of an era," remarked a journalist in Rome.
Back in Rome, as the wait for Mr Berlusconi's press conference got under way, the left and its supporters began ruminating on the close result. In the Chamber of Deputies, thanks to the premium given to the winning group, the majority is of 63 seats. It is in the Senate that Mr Prodi's problems lurk, because all legislation in Italy must be passed twice by both houses. Mr Prodi attempted to soothe fears, declaring that his government was "politically and technically strong", and would govern for five years. It would be a government for all Italians, he insisted, "including those who didn't vote for us."
For his part, Mr Berlusconi has difficulty accepting that the campaign is really over. At his press conference, after floating the idea of a recount, he thought of something else. How about a grand coalition? "I think that we maybe need to take the example of another European country, perhaps like Germany, to see if there is not a case for unifying our forces and governing in agreement," he suggested. People of good sense," he went on, "must think of a government in the interests of all, not one which ranges one half of the country against the other." Somebody will have to break it to him gently: he's out of power.
A Europhile most at home in the countryside of Bologna
Only rarely, while European Commission president, did Romano Prodi share a platform with his compatriot and rival Silvio Berlusconi - and only once did he seem to enjoy himself.
Mr Berlusconi, then Italian Prime Minister, had just committed a political gaffe by describing Western civilisation as superior to Islam. At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Prodi looked on in silence while an aggressive European press corps laid into Mr Berlusconi. As an irritable Italian premier dug himself deeper into a hole, the faintest ghost of a smile was seen on the face of the European Commission president.
The episode highlighted the contrast between Mr Berlusconi, the erratic, loud-mouthed, flashy media magnate, and Mr Prodi, the solid, cautious economics professor from Bologna.
When in office as European Commission president between 1999 and 2004, the nickname he liked was the Diesel. He saw himself as someone who, through methodical hard work, delivered decent results.
His minders debated how to improve Mr Prodi's communication skills, persuading him to give up speaking in English or French. Unfortunately compatriots said he did not sound that much better in Italian.
Mr Prodi, who studied at LSE, Harvard and Stanford, was born in 1939, number eight of nine brothers and sisters. Seven of his siblings went on to be university lecturers. This academic background counted in his favour during his first stint as Italian Prime Minister, when he was seen as the antidote to his corrupt professional political rivals. But in ultra-political Brussels he was criticised by the (non-Italian) media for his lack of charisma and failure to get a grip on the bureaucratic machine.
He is a committed European, but while in Brussels his main focus always seemed to be Italy. Whenever possible he quit the Belgian capital for his base in provincial Bologna, enjoying the countryside on his mountain bike. Terra e Vita, a weekly for Italian farmers, is his favourite magazine. And he once complained that, while he could tell an Italian's background and politics from a brief conversation, it was impossible to perform the same trick in multinational Brussels.
The job of Italian Prime Minister was the one he wanted. Now that he seems to have won it back, at the head of an extraordinarily broad and cumbersome coalition, the real hard work is set to begin.Reuse content