Sarah Sands: Bravo, Silvio! Bellissima, Veronica! Viva Berlusconi!

Lario is no Portia. She caught her husband's eye by stripping on stage
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The Independent Online

It is a modern Marriage of Figaro. Veronica Lario, the wife of the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, rebukes him in the pages of La Repubblica for flirting with younger women at a television awards ceremony. It is amusing and effective. Her husband is brought to his senses by the dignified appeal of his wife and repents. She, being Italian, celebrates her victory in a convent.

Is this a feminist milestone for Italy? Lario's mother, who is not an independent witness, applauds her daughter's courage. So too do Italian feminists, rounded up by American newspapers, who draw a favourable comparison with Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Lario could end up running for political office.

But when I tried out the feminist argument on an Italian friend, he replied that this had been the best week of Silvio Berlusconi's life, both personally and politically. The florid response to his wife by the former prime minister certainly overflows with excitement: "Take this public testimony of private pride that submits to your anger as an act of love. A huge kiss. Silvio." For rather than showing cultural change, this is a tale of glorious stereotypes.

Television presenters in Italy are judged by criteria that Anna Ford would find wanting. In his book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones describes typical television election coverage. One debate is hosted by a woman who takes off an item of clothing every time a speaker becomes long-winded. A favourite Italian show centres on a woman in a milk bath, wriggling out of her bikini, which she hands to a male presenter. And Berlusconi played the proper role of the Italian male: at the end of the week he headed off to Como to celebrate the 96th birthday of the most important woman in this drama, his mother.

Veronica Lario is no Portia, however. She caught Berlusconi's eye by stripping on stage in a performance of a play called The Magnificent Cuckold. Her husband has not always been sure of her. In 2002, he presented her to a bemused Danish Prime Minister at an EU conference. "Anders Rasmussen is the most handsome prime minister in Europe. I think I will introduce him to my wife because he is even more handsome than Cacciari," he said. Massimo Cacciari, an Italian philosopher, was alleged to be having an affair with Lario.

Despite all the praise and pride of his mother, last summer Berlusconi was feeling a little deflated. He was heading towards 70. His self-awarded nickname The Great Seducer was sounding wistful. He was witnessed dancing as hard as his dicky heart would allow him at Sardinian nightclubs. My Italian friend came across him at a meeting in Venice. At the end of the evening, Berlusconi took off with a group of friends to serenade women in the streets.

The last global image of Berlusconi was of him collapsing at a public meeting at the end of last year. Only his pride was injured. Soon after, he paid one of his visits to America, allegedly for further cosmetic surgery.

The coverage of Berlusconi's marital apology has had an Anglo-Saxon bias. It has assumed that things are what they seem. The Mediterranean view is that Berlusconi's amour propre is restored. He has looked priapic and powerful. Of course women throw themselves at him at television ceremonies: he owns most channels. Even rival channels have learnt not to antagonise him. My friend says any account of Berlusconi's activities is prefixed with the observation that he is looking remarkably well.

Moreover, he has cheered everyone up. The new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, may be a model of probity, but he is considered boring. His nickname, "Mortadella", refers to his blandness. Berlusconi is accused of tax evasion, fraud, and mafia links, but he knows what is expected of an Italian man. So, apparently, does his wife.

"Veronica has never made me look bad, never," Berlusconi once boasted. So why the public outburst now, after 27 years of marriage? My Italian friend has no doubts. "Because Berlusconi encouraged her, to make him look good." This was not feminism, but a wife's ultimate sacrifice.