Peter Popham: Not even Silvio can get away with this


Monday 17 January 2011 01:00 GMT

I think the fact that Silvio Berlusconi had sex with, or perhaps merely indulged in "concupiscent palpations" with, a young woman who was technically under age is going down rather ill here in Italy.

It was his canny second wife, Veronica Lario, resolving to offload the bounder two years ago, who first drew that particular line in the sand.

Italy's Prime Minister could and did do practically anything he wanted, from hiring a Mafia boss to look after his (non-existent) horses to setting off a miniature volcanic eruption in his back garden. But when he started turning his predatory attentions to girls in their early teens, she said enough was enough. Historians may well decide that Silvio's political decline dated from that moment.

"Tombeur d'enfants," sneered La Repubblica's cartoonist on Saturday. The Berlusconi house journal, Il Giornale, was yesterday at pains to claim that Karima El Mahroug, the Moroccan lap-dancer who was only 17 when she attended parties at Berlusconi's villa, had told the Prime Minister she was 23, and that he was upset about the deception. But that served only to remind people that he showed no such remorse over his relationship with Noemi Letizia, the Neapolitan adolescent whose 18th birthday party he attended two years ago, prompting Veronica's broadside.

Even for the oh-so-broadminded Italians the whole thing is becoming a bit creepy. One of the girls who attended a bunga-bunga party later told a friend, "That guy is sick, it's obvious he's sick!" If enough Italians come to the same conclusion it could be the end of the road for "the Cavalier".

On the other hand, we in the foreign press have been predicting his demise for so long it would be wise to keep that "if" firmly in place.

For the time being, the majority of readers of Il Giornale, and the millions who have turned out regularly to vote for him, will probably confine themselves to the stock reaction that revelations of this sort have always excited: unrestrained envy and admiration. This guy not only built a very classy housing estate but then, in the fullness of time, crammed it full of silicon babes in Lycra and six-inch stilettoes competing to drive him to undreamed-of priapic heights. If that's not the stuff of fantasy, what is?

It's left to the saddies in the opposition to ponder the morality of a politician, committed to a policy of Italy for the Italians, whose attitude to the child of immigrants is transformed when she has next to nothing on.

The best of this city is hidden from view

It's little thanks to Berlusconi, the world's most famous native of Milan, but my new home is coming up in the world. Shrouded in fog, full of redundant factories and disconsolate migrants from the south, flat as a board, Milan has long had a bit of an image problem. Money town, people say. Far too Austrian to be really Italian. Home of the veal cutlet and the Northern League. No river worth mentioning, only a lot of cemented-over canals.

But now the New York Times has placed the city at No 5 in its list of top places to visit in 2011, Milan may be ripe for reconsideration. It is the only Italian destination on the list, and two places above London.

On my rather brief acquaintance the praise is deserved. Milan is a sort of anti-Rome, and not only because of the awful weather. All Rome's splendours are on show, spread out under the sunshine, from the Colosseum to Zaha Hadid's stunning new MAXXI museum of modern art. In contrast, Milan hides a lot of its treasures away. Getting to know the city is like picking a lock. At someone's vague suggestion, you go through an ugly steel gate and find yourself in an exquisite courtyard. A brilliant dance performance occurs in secret, in someone's garage. There is a huge Calvin Klein boutique 200 metres from our flat, unadvertised and invisible until you walk through the front door, hidden inside another of the city's tranquil courtyards.

Super Mario's challenge to deeply held prejudices

There are disturbing similarities between the life stories of Karima El Mahroug and the ex-Inter Milan, now Manchester City, striker Mario Balotelli. Both started life in poor immigrant families in Sicily. Both appear to have fallen out with those families: Balotelli was fostered at the age of three and grew up calling his new, white foster parents mum and dad; Karima's parents, exasperated by their wild runaway daughter, who has repeatedly been put in care, want nothing more to do with her.

"Super Mario" Balotelli is one of the most mercurial stars in the game – his manager at Inter, Jose Mourinho, said he feared Balotelli "would age me prematurely and make me visit a psychiatrist", and at Manchester, too, he has often behaved with startling immaturity. That may well be the legacy of his time with Inter, where he was frequently the target of racial abuse. Juventus fans once held up banners reading, "A negro cannot be Italian".

For many years, Africans in Italy were known as vu cumpra, or "wanna buy", because the only time they were seen was hassling people on the street to buy socks and bags. Now their role has expanded: today an immigrant's child can gyrate for the Prime Minister, or score goals for a top Italian club – but just don't expect it to result in any respect.

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