It was the first official appearance in public for Veronica Berlusconi, an attractive woman who reminds older Italians of Anita Ekberg, the famous Swedish actress of the early Sixties, star of the film La Dolce Vita. A former actress herself, she lives quietly in the Berlusconi palatial country home at Arcore, near Milan, which is dedicated entirely to their three small children, their garden and their animals. She seems shy, shuns society and played no part in her husband's election campaign.
She appeared on the platform for President Bill Clinton's speech to the Romans on Thursday wearing dark sunglasses, net gloves, a beige Armani suit and her long hair loose like a young girl's. Youngsters in the crowd called out 'Barbie, Barbie'.
'Fashion stayed at home', said Laura Biagiotti, a top Italian designer. 'The first ladies do not have a clear style, they lack character. It is not enough to buy a beautiful designer suit to be elegant.'
Her verdict on Mrs Clinton, who wore a succession of bright pink, turquoise and black outfits was: 'Gutsy but without style.' For the audience with the Pope, Mrs Clinton wore a black mantilla, or veil, tied - 'absurdly', the daily La Stampa found - under her chin to look like a bonnet.
Ms Biagiotti was upset by Mrs Berlusconi's dark glasses. 'Never seen Queen Elizabeth in sunglasses, even in Africa . . . on official occasions you have to learn to put up with bright light. Or next we will have eyeshades and perhaps even Coca Cola with a straw]'
La Repubblica's verdict on Mrs Clinton was: 'She is tenacious, clever, relentless - but she is not elegant.' Her clothes were 'uncertain creations' by 'not very well- known' designers, 'without particular grace' and 'lacking in imagination'.
Public opinion seemed divided in the first lady stakes. Mrs Berlusconi, however, had the questionable honour of being vastly preferred by Teodoro Buontempo, diehard leader of the neo-Fascists in Rome City Council, who is a frequent embarrassment to the party leader, Gianfranco Fini. 'A mediterranean Venus', he enthused. 'She's more of a housewife, she's more capable, better in the kitchen, more traditional.'
High marks for elegance went instead to a third first lady, the wife of Rome's Mayor, Francesco Rutelli, but better known in her own right as Barbara Palumbelli, a star political writer on La Repub blica. She wore a chic navy Valen tino suit and the crowd shouted: 'Barbara, you are the best.'