Portrait of a marriage

When Silvio Berlusconi first laid eyes on Veronica Lario, he was enchanted - and left his wife to marry her. Now she's come out as a pacifist and he accuses her of infidelity with a Marxist academic. Peter Popham reports on a very Italian affair
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Main Street, Crawford, Texas, where George Bush has his ranch ("White House West"), was this week strung with banners shouting "Benvenuti da Crawford" and "Dio Benedice l'Italia". Italy's billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was Bush's guest at the ranch, as the US President thanked him for his support over Iraq.

But although Berlusconi took off his jacket and opened his top button and smiled his most dazzling smile, wasn't there something a little sad, a little lonesome about the balding fatty, sandwiched between George and Laura as they climbed down from the helicopter? Wouldn't Laura's chargrilled chicken have tasted even sweeter with one more on hand - a blonde Italian bombshell, let's say, with huge baby-blue eyes, long, long lashes and a décolletage to make the hound dogs howl - to make up the numbers?

But Veronica Lario, Berlusconi's second wife, who answers pretty much to that description, stayed home. Maybe this time it was just as well: Veronica's opposition to the Iraq war is a matter of record. The chat over the clam chowder might have gotten a little too lively for Bush's liking. But Veronica always stays home. And although, unlike those incorrigible Anglo-Saxons, Italians like to fancy themselves too sophisticated to indulge in tittle-tattle about the sex lives of their masters, the dysfunctioning of the Berlusconi ménage has lately grown too glaring for even them to ignore completely.

It was Silvio himself who gratuitously exposed his marital problems to the glare of publicity. Last October during Denmark's turn at the rotating European Union presidency, Denmark's dashing young Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was in Rome for talks. He and Silvio held a press conference. With that cocksure, cruise-ship-crooner grin of his, which close Silvio watchers have learnt to identify as a harbinger of his most unconscionable clangers, Berlusconi remarked, "Rasmussen is the most handsome prime minister in Europe." The grin twitched a little wider, out came those uncannily gleaming teeth. "I think I will introduce him to my wife, because he is even more handsome than Cacciari." At his side, Rasmussen's own smile froze on his face. What on earth was the Italian talking about?

Berlusconi was alluding to rumours doing the rounds that he had been cuckolded by a bearded Marxist philosopher called Massimo Cacciari, a former mayor of Venice and a university professor. Like other stunning remarks by the Italian Prime Minister - such as his comparison the other day, for example, of a German MEP to a guard in a Nazi concentration camp, which sparked a huge diplomatic kerfuffle and an unprecedented rupture in Italian-German relations - it seemed like a deliberate and pointless own goal. As well as an outrageous slur on the woman he has routinely called "my great love."

Massimo Cacciari, tracked down at a book launch the same day, appeared thunderstruck by the remark. The interview went like this:

Q: Berlusconi said the Danish Prime Minister was more handsome than you.

A: Is he crazy?

Q: He said that he would introduce him to his wife.

A: He's crazy!

Q: I must ask you if you are acquainted with that lady.

A: But what are you asking? This is the most idiotic nonsense...

For her part, Veronica Lario reacted to the humiliation dumped on her by her husband with the stoical silence that has long been her trademark. However ravenous the world of Italian gossip may be for any tit-bits she cares to throw its way, she is not one to feed it. But last week, surprised at a performance of Macbeth in the city of Piacenza, she allowed her reserve to slip a little. "Your husband is a very busy man," the journalist noted. "Do you get to see him or speak to him on the telephone?"

"There is not only the telephone," she responded, smiling. "Sometimes I can even see him on television!"

And obliquely she added her own endorsement to her husband's amazing "cuckold" declaration. "My daughter Barbara has enrolled in the philosophy faculty of San Raffaele University, where Cacciari teaches," she told the reporter with no prompting. "It seems an ideal situation, don't you think?"

There is therefore irony in the fact that Berlusconi first clapped eyes on his future wife, then a hopeful young actress, at a production of a play called The Magnificent Cuckold. During the course of the play Veronica was required to strip off: Silvio liked what he saw, and went backstage to convey his admiration. The year was 1980, and Berlusconi, a property tycoon, was still 12 years away from launching himself into politics. He had been married for 15 years and had two children. Veronica, real name Miriam Bartolini, had recently taken her first, faltering steps into the world of movies - in her first film role, in a horror film titled Unsane, she was first disembowelled, then decapitated by a fiend with an axe - but Berlusconi whisked her away from all that and set her up in a villa in Milan, with weekend escapes to places such as San Moritz and Portofino. A year and a half before Berlusconi finally left his first wife, Veronica bore him their first child, Barbara. Two more children, Eleonora and Luigi, followed later.

The same year that he met Veronica, Berlusconi managed to buy at a knockdown price an astonishing 17th-century country house outside Milan, the Villa Arcore, and it was there, after disentangling himself from his first marriage, that he installed his new love. Behind the mansion's high, ornate gates vanished Veronica Lario and her small children; in the lap, one must assume, of fantastic luxury, but lost to the world.

Whatever happened at the Villa Arcore? Were there scenes, tears, fights, furious recriminations? Or merely the hushed bustle of a large, smoothly functioning domestic machine in the aching vacancy that opened up once the coming billionaire had settled his trophy wife and returned to the business matters that obsessed him?

Berlusconi's elaborate security systems and Veronica's legendary discretion ensure that the record is thin. Before the general election of 2001 - which he won by a landslide - Berlusconi commissioned and published an autobiographical memoir about himself entitled An Italian Story and had copies distributed to 12 million homes throughout the land. The book strove to depict Berlusconi as both heroically successful and stunningly normal at once: grinning and shaking hands with world leaders, but never happier than when returning to the comforts of plain home cooking - no garlic, no onions - of his "great love", surrounded by his loving family.

But in reality, as Veronica admitted to the local reporter last week, she sees her husband in the flesh "very rarely, I would say". She has never been a political wife, standing by his side on the stump, but Italy's gossips have pointed out that they no longer even go on holiday together: the Prime Minister left her behind when he went to Spain for the wedding of the daughter of the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and last summer Veronica took her younger children, but not her husband, to Australia for the summer holiday.

They have the wherewithal to lead separate lives: he has his official residence in Rome, Palazzo Chigi, and the fabulous apartment near Piazza Navona that is his preferred billet in the capital; he has also, as he likes to boast, "houses all over the world", including his favourite holiday villa in Sardinia. He need never go home at all.

Villa Arcore, abode of his "great love", does however have a special place in his heart, because it is here that he has constructed his tomb. Long before Berlusconi entered politics, he gave the BBC's veteran Rome correspondent David Willey a tour of the place. "Silvio Berlusconi's underground mausoleum has 100 tonnes of marble abstract sculpture on top," he wrote. "You enter it by a stairway reminiscent of pre-Roman burial sites, pass through a narrow corridor and enter an imposing square burial chamber with a pink marble and granite sarcophagus in the centre. It looks for all the world like the tomb of a pharaoh. All around are niches ready to receive other remains. They are for Silvio's family, and also his 'collaborators'... Afterwards we had tea in the garden with Mr Berlusconi and his family. The Prime Minister relaxed in a white Japanese kimono and his second wife... poured the tea."

That glimpse of the pharaoh-like private life is more than any journalist has been vouchsafed during Berlusconi's 11 years in politics: for the prudence and caution of his aides and minders is inversely proportional to his own. But the consensus is that the Prime Minister's marriage has been on the rocks for years. "In his novelised autobiography," wrote Claudio Rinaldi, "Silvio Berlusconi painted a picture of an idyllic second marriage... But that is merely a propaganda ploy. The Cavalier [Berlusconi's nickname in Italy] has not appeared in public with his delightful wife for years, and that has been striking since 1994. They don't even go on holiday together. At the end of 2001 his weekly magazine, Chi, to illustrate an article on the family's imaginary Christmas together, was obliged to rifle the archives..."

Links between the "great love" and "the Cavalier" remain: notably Veronica is the owner of Il Foglio, an extraordinary four-page daily newspaper, which is the organ of Berlusconi's small but vocal high-brow fan club. But if, as Italian journalists insist, there has been nothing doing between the couple since 1994, what has happened in the past few months to make both of them drop their guard, to admit their growing distance and the arrival of new love interests on the scene? Perhaps the reason is political: if Veronica truly is the love of Professor Cacciari - as she has come close to acknowledging - it is a step towards the political enemy that would surely be regarded by this most vehement anti-communist as a betrayal. The offence was compounded in the run up to the Iraq war when Veronica gave an interview to Micro Mega, a magazine notably hostile to Berlusconi, in which she praised Italy's pacifists, saying, "I believe the pacifist movement serves to re-awaken our consciences." She followed that up in her comments last week, with the observation that "the development of the situation [in Iraq after the war] has confirmed my convictions".

So perhaps, after the years of make-believe and luxurious entombment, it really is all over between Silvio and Veronica, bar the haggling over terms. But if Mr Berlusconi truly is the magnificent cuckold, he has arranged that no one need waste too much pity on him. Paparazzi from a scandal sheet called Visto ("Seen") managed mysteriously to penetrate the dense security of Berlusconi's Sardinian villa last summer and photographed him relaxing in the company of his shiny new personal assistant and secretary, Francesca Romana Impiglia: aged 21, a stunning, high-bosomed, fine-boned blonde - a dead ringer, as has been noted, for Veronica in her younger days.

But there's one important difference from Veronica: Francesca's political credentials are immaculate. Her father, a funeral director, is a town councillor for Berlusconi's party Forza Italia in the province of Ancona, and a close friend of a political intimate of Berlusconi (and former member of his government), Vittorio Sgarbi. And Francesca seems to be the same way inclined herself: not long after making the Prime Minister's acquaintance she found herself running Forza Italia's national youth branch.