There is a sudden stench of decay coming off the court of King Silvio.
The faithful retainers who have stood by him for decades, and grown immensely rich as a result, are still at his side: the pianist who tinkled along behind his singing on the cruise ships, the Sicilian lawyer fighting a long sentence for mafia crimes, the lawyer who did time for bribing Roman judges on Mr Berlusconi's account; none of them has dropped even a hint of dissidence or doubt in their padrone. But on the fringes of the circle, the unstoppable gusher of revelation and innuendo about the dozens of beautiful young women who flocked to his homes for all-night parties is beginning to do him palpable damage.
It is no longer only his political enemies in the media who are drawing attention to the grotesque spectacle of a 72-year-old Prime Minister cavorting with bimbos young enough to be his granddaughters. This week, after a long, pregnant silence, powerful forces in the Catholic Church have begun to speak out against his excesses. First it was L'Avvenire (The Future), the daily paper of the Italian bishops, which asked the Prime Minister to give Italy "clarification" about what had been going on. Then an important Catholic weekly, La Famiglia Cristiana, published stern comments about "moral decadence". And now three senior churchmen have criticised him publicly. One of them, the Bishop of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily, called on him to consider resigning. And one of the most powerful church figures in the country, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, warned, without mentioning Mr Berlusconi by name, of "men drunk on a delirium of their own greatness, who touch the illusion of omnipotence and distort moral values".
Mr Berlusconi's court has no soothsayers to warn him of the Ides of March, but the sudden emergence of hostile noises from the Catholic Church is the modern Italian equivalent of that – especially as the Catholic Church continues to hold immense sway over public opinion.
So far, Mr Berlusconi has given no indication that the Church's opprobrium is having any effect on him, let alone that he is minded to heed calls to resign. On the contrary, at a press conference in the city of L'Aquila this week, where world leaders will be his guests for next month's G8 summit, he was in buoyant, defiant form.
"This is the way I'm made," he told journalists who asked if he was planning on changing his ways in the face of weeks of bad publicity, "and I don't change. People take me as they find me. And the Italians want me: I have the support of 61 per cent. They want me because they feel that I am good, generous, sincere, loyal, that I keep my promises."
Should the Prime Minister not adopt behaviour more becoming to a head of government, another reporter pursued, avoiding "dangerous situations" in future? "But why?" retorted Mr Berlusconi indignantly. "Life is so beautiful ... It's much better to live life normally, taking things as they come. Besides, at my age change is out of the question..." The campaign against him, he insisted, was nothing but "lies and rubbish".
It was another bravura performance by a man whose self-confidence is legendary. But the danger signs are accumulating. If the core of intimates around him remain solid, others formerly very close are beginning to peel away. One of the few intellectuals in his circle, an obese, red-bearded former Communist and CIA agent called Giuliano Ferrara who edits a slim but influential daily called Il Foglio, recently drew a dire analogy between Mr Berlusconi's present situation and that of Mussolini on 24 July 1943, the day before he was dismissed as Duce by the king and slunk up to Lake Garda to run the puppet statelet of Salo.
Mr Ferrara, whose political chat show was for years one of the liveliest and most unpredictable forums of debate on Italian television, was a minister in Mr Berlusconi's first government, and has remained loyal to his cause through thick and thin ever since. His defection is part of the collateral effect of Veronica Lario's divorce suit: Il Foglio is partly owned by Mr Berlusconi's estranged wife. Mr Ferrara admitted he was embarrassed when the rift between the two became open war, and it is now clear that his loyalties are split.
Mr Berlusconi, on the other hand, gives every indication of believing that the best is yet to come: the life force still flowing through him almost luminously, his ambition is still phosphorescent. Left-wing critics may jeer that "the swan has turned out to be a lame duck", but he has nearly four years of his term left to run, has a
large parliamentary majority, and his coalition allies, massaged by his money and favours, are giving him far less trouble than they did in his last term.
But it is the new sense of estrangement emerging from the Church and its friends which is shaping up to be his real problem. One of his loyalists, Claudio Scajola, a long-serving minister, remarked recently that "more prudence" might be good for him. Relations with the Catholic Church have long been ambivalent. He was unfaithful to his first wife and had three children outside his marriage before divorcing and marrying Veronica Lario in a civil ceremony. Like many other Italians he pays lip service to the Church, taking care not to cross it or defy it; as an arch anti-Communist, he has been regarded by the Church hierarchy as their worst enemy's enemy, even if not exactly their friend. Earlier this year that rather lukewarm relationship suddenly began heating up. Without warning he embraced a church-backed campaign to prevent a woman called Eulana Englaro, who had been in an irreversible coma for 17 years, from being taken off life support – a first step, the Church protested, towards legalising euthanasia. Mr Berlusconi had shown little interest in the subject before, but now he pulled out all the stops to keep Ms Englaro alive, in defiance of the Supreme Court. In the event she died before the emergency law he tried to rush through could be passed. But his campaign was an indication that he had grasped the vital importance of having the Church on his side as he attempted the boldest move of his extraordinary career: changing the constitution to give the President – today a ceremonial figure – enormous powers. It was an open secret that Mr Berlusconi was looking forward to moving up to the presidency at the end of his current term.
All that seems a long time ago. Mr Berlusconi insists now that nothing could be further from his mind than becoming President. And as the sleazy revelations about the "harem parties" in Sardinia and Rome continue to pour out, the Church is quietly putting him at arm's length.
Almost since the beginning of what the Italian press have begun to call "Sexgate", Mr Berlusconi has been claiming that there was a complotto, a conspiracy to bring him down, orchestrated by the usual suspects, the Italian left. We've heard it all before: Mr Berlusconi has always been quick to spot reds under the bed, even when disguised as journalists of the Financial Times or The Economist. But the relentless nature of the coverage of "Sexgate", when nothing of a criminal nature pertaining directly to Mr Berlusconi has yet emerged, suggests one of two things: either Italy's usually rather staid papers, suffering from steep circulation losses in recent months, have decided that British-style tabloid tales are the way to claw back their readers; or alternatively (or additionally), they really are out to get the Prime Minister, whatever it takes.
Last week the affair shifted up a gear as prosecutors in Bari, capital of the southern region of Puglia, became involved, investigating claims that anti-prostitution laws were violated when girls were allegedly paid to attend the Sardinian parties. As a result the scandal has now entered the realm of the judiciary. All eyes are now fixed on the second week of July, when the leaders of G8, including Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, fly to Italy for the summit in the earthquake-hit city of L'Aquila.
It is not inconceivable that the prosecutors of Bari are preparing a nasty surprise for the Prime Minister. In November 1994, a few months into his first term in office, Mr Berlusconi fatally lost face when he was served with notice that he was under investigation for corruption during a summit in Naples. It may be that something equally embarrassing – before the leaders and cameras of the world – will happen in L'Aquila. And given the importance of face in the Italian context, the consequences of that would be unpredictable. Even the most devoted Berlusconi courtiers are now beginning to think the unthinkable.
Friends turned foe: The models, the politicians, the wife and the priest
She was invited to dinner at Mr Berlusconi's apartment in Rome with dozens of other women, then went on to join him at his villa in Sardinia, for which a man from Bari in southern Italy, Gianpaolo Tarantini, who is under investigation by anti-prostitution police, paid her €1,000. Montereale, 23, said that Mr Berlusconi gave her "rings and necklaces that he said he designed" and a CD of Neapolitan love songs. At the end of her stay he gave her a bag with "a very generous sum of money". This week, after her revelations became public, she said her car had been set alight and destroyed outside her home.
The 42-year-old prostitute from Bari in southern Italy claims the businessman Gianpaolo Tarantini paid her €2,000 to attend a party in Mr Berlusconi's Rome apartment. "I went down a long corridor that opened into a room where I found there were already many girls ... In total we were around 20." She said that the Prime Minister said: "How lovely you are!" She added: "He wanted me to sit next to him ... they put on a really long video of his meetings with international leaders ..." Barbara Montereale said she believed that Ms D'Addario spent the night with Berlusconi.
She was a busty young actress when Berlusconi saw her performing topless on stage and fell for her 30 years ago. The estrangement from her husband has been an open secret for more than a decade. In April she described Berlusconi's decision to put up showgirls as candidates for the European Parliament as "shameless rubbish", forcing him to drop the idea. Days later she sued for divorce.
A brilliant journalist and politician who served as the minister for relations with parliament in Berlusconi's short-lived first government, he has defended his ex-boss through thick and thin ever since. But his closeness to Berlusconi's estranged wife, a major investor in the paper he edits, now seems to be dragging him away from his original padrone.
The president of the Italian Bishops' Conference and one of the most important clerics in the country. Attacked recently by a priest in his diocese for "treating Berlusconi too well", his oblique criticism of the Prime Minister this week may be a sign that he and the Conference are preparing to take a more robust stand.
The Minister for Economic Development has served loyally at his master's side since throwing in his lot with him in 1995. But Scajola's roots are in the Christian Democrat party, and this week he became the first close political ally to issue a warning about behaviour and the need for the premier to be "more prudent" about his private life.Reuse content