Why Italy's first ladies remain in the shadows

Partly that is the southern European way: the Anglo-American habit of parading the wife and children strikes people in the south as a bit naff, and insulting to the woman, dangled as a prestigious, grinning appendage.

But it is also a reflection of the nature of the two women whose men are (if the opinion polls can be believed) about to change places.

On the surface, they could not be more different, these two wives: Veronica, the former star of horror films, the voluptuous blonde with the bee-stung lips whose bared breasts in a play called The Magnificent Cuckold prompted the budding tycoon to go backstage and plight his troth and, shortly afterwards, move her into a flat next to his office (he was already married with two children); and Flavia Franzoni, the brunette with large, droll eyes and imperious eyebrows, the woman who has known Prodi since childhood, an economics expert like him, and described as his closest political adviser.

Yet they also have a surprising number of things in common. Both have had the strength of mind to remain in control of their own world while their ambitious men flew off in pursuit of their destinies. When Mr Prodi went to Rome to become prime minister and subsequently to Brussels to become president of the European Commission, Flavia stayed behind in their flat in Bologna. "I defended tooth and nail our ties with Bologna," Flavia wrote. "We have lived in the same home since we were married... I wanted to continue living in Bologna when Romano worked in Rome and Brussels... It was a sacrifice, but our family life remained intact... In Brussels Romano often complained about my absence... but he became a much better cook."

Veronica Lario has also chosen to create a life for herself and her three children, an oasis of calm and of slightly fusty alternative ideas, light years away from the frenetic yet conventional world of her husband.

Ms Lario has never opened her doors to Hello! but telling details have seeped out. When they were small she banned her children from watching television. "For children," she says tartly, "television is not experience, it's alienation... from the Eighties on (in other words since Italian television fell into Berlusconi's hands) television programmes have become increasingly unsuitable for children."

She has a passion for organic vegetables. She became an expert in anthroposophic medicine, which led to her sending all three children to Rudolf Steiner schools. Years later one of her children decided to study philosophy - papa was not happy.

The circumstances of the two women could not be more different, but temperamentally they may not be so far apart. If Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi were cast away on the same desert island, the former would surely kill, cook and eat the latter in short order. But their wives might get on rather well.

Because the belief has been growing in Italy that the oh-so discreet Veronica Lario is actually a bit of a leftie. This view received dramatic confirmation in February 2003, weeks before the invasion of Iraq, when Veronica granted her first political interview, to a left-wing magazine. Despite her husband's support for the war, she used the interview to heap praise on the protesters. The peace movement, she said, "serves to re-awaken our consciences ... These demonstrations deserve respect. If they didn't happen, we would be living in a spiritual desert."

Voting in Italy's general election finishes at 3pm today. Is it possible that Flavia and Veronica will both vote for Flavia's man? And would that explain why Silvio Berlusconi was in such a flaming temper all last week?

Comments