In Italy, where there's muck, there's Vittorio

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With The Italian television world racked by an under-age sex and prostitution scandal, one might have thought that the more notorious Don Juans of the small screen would be keeping a low profile for fear of ending up on the receiving end of a judicial summons.

Not so Vittorio Sgarbi - erstwhile art critic, television muck-stirrer, anarchic right-wing politician, object of a thousand libel suits and, by his own admission, one of the most relentless skirt-chasers in Italy - who seems to find the whole thing terribly amusing.

"I'll tell you what happened," Mr Sgarbi said in a melodramatic, not to say histrionic interview. "These two had an appointment at two o'clock in the morning, right, and the girl was stupid enough to show up. So he kissed her, like this."

And so saying, Mr Sgarbi grabbed his unsuspecting assistant, Maria, and smothered her face with his mouth, leaving lipstick traces all over his teeth and lips. Maria took the whole thing without a murmur. "Then, three years later," Mr Sgarbi continued, "the girl realises she hasn't made it on television yet, so she goes running to the magistrates."

The television sleaze scandal has been the summer sensation, with well- known personalities questioned and in one case jailed over allegations that they forced sex on girls as young as 15. And leaks from key witnesses suggest a wider scandal in the offing, with politicians receiving sexual favours either for money or for helping friends in broadcasting.

Although not involved himself, Mr Sgarbi hasn't been able to shut up about the scandal since it broke, haranguing the magistrates on his daily five-minute slot on Canale 5 and asking persistent questions in the Chamber of Deputies.

The extraordinary thing is that the more he talks, the sleazier he makes the television world sound - a place where men think they have a God-given right to amuse themselves to their hearts' content, while the women are considered supremely expendable. "I am a politician and a showman and I am a famous seducer of women. For a woman to go out with me is an inevitable boost to her career," he declared.

But what does he think of the allegations of violence and, in one case, enforced anal sex? "Well," he said, "what woman doesn't complain a bit the first time she is sodomised?"

Mr Sgarbi, 44, is something of a one-man phenomenon in Italy, a deliberate provocateur who spends half his time trying to be taken seriously and the other half having far too much fun to care. In many ways, his career trajectory, from academic art historian to multi-purpose Lothario, encapsulates the debasement of Italian public life in general, and television in particular.

Actually, when he stops trying so hard, he can be quite intelligent, almost convincing. "If politicians are involved, it's not for the money," he suggested, "but because they want to recreate the sense of power enjoyed in the 1980s by Craxi and de Michelis, who could attract virtually any woman, and certainly not because of their physical attributes."

But soon his love of one-line insults gets the better of him. He described members of the political party that propelled him to fame, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as sexual and political eunuchs. And he described his embattled television colleagues variously as "not the screwing type" and "a completely asexual man who likes to look at young girls, not touch them" (subtext: I am far more attractive to women than they are).

Mr Sgarbi's opinions might be shrugged off as obnoxious and irrelevant but for the fact that he wields genuine influence. Although now just a backbencher, for two years he was chairman of the parliamentary culture commission. And his daily television programme, in which he rants against any social ills he deems worthy of his scorn, enjoys an audience of millions and sacks full of fan mail.

"I think he's wonderful, and so does my mother," said one particularly ardent female fan who came to see him after his show. "If more people in Italy were like him, we'd all be far better off."