The personal life of Italy's prime minister, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, is the talk of the nation. In a script worthy of a soap opera on one of his TV networks, Berlusconi's wife of 19 years, mother of three of his children, has made a very public request for a divorce.
In response, Berlusconi has appeared on national TV to call her accusations of infidelity with a minor "a lie" and to demand that his wife publicly apologize.
Two days after saying "this is a personal issue," Berlusconi invited himself on a popular late-night TV talk show. The words on the screen behind him: "Now It's My Turn To Talk."
"Everything is absolutely false," Berlusconi said. "My wife has fallen into a trap. The left-wing opposition media can't stand that my popularity rating is 75 percent, and has therefore resorted to personal attacks based on slander."
The first couple's soap opera was triggered by Veronica Berlusconi's statement last week voicing outrage that her husband was lining up showgirls with no political experience as candidates for his party. She called it "shamelessly trashy and a diversion for an emperor." She also accused her husband of going to an 18-year-old starlet's birthday bash but not attending the coming-of-age parties of his own children.
"Her words were 'I cannot remain married to a man who goes out with minors,' " says journalist Maria Latella, who wrote the authorized biography of Veronica Berlusconi. "What she is saying is, if we live in a country where parents approve that their underage daughters go out with powerful men, then this is a country in which Mrs. Berlusconi feels ill at ease."
The 18-year-old starlet, Noemi Letizia, has been quoted as saying that she calls Berlusconi "Daddy" and often visited him in his luxurious homes in Rome and Milan. Berlusconi, who has often boasted of his success as a ladies' man, denies any impropriety with Letizia. He says she is simply the daughter of a friend and blames the rumors on what he calls a left-wing conspiracy. After his wife's charges, Berlusconi did withdraw several starlets from the party's electoral slate.
Italians have been following the first couple's saga with a mixture of bemusement and indignation. Among the people at a Roman marketplace, Sonia Proietta agrees with the first lady that low-brow Italian TV shows have nurtured a superficial society in which starlets are role models. But Proietta wants to know: "Why tell now and not 20 years ago when everything started?"
"She's right to divorce him," Claudio Zamapa says. "He certainly has a roving eye. But let's face it, many Italian men have affairs and act just like that."
But Berlusconi is not just any family man. According to Forbes magazine, he is worth $ 6.5 billion and has five children from two marriages. The divorce is likely to be a nasty feast for the Italian media, much of which Berlusconi controls.
The right-wing daily Libero carried three front-page photos of Veronica Berlusconi from when she was working as a stage actress. In all of them, she is bare-breasted.
But the prime minister can't control everything. The Italian Catholic bishops' newspaper L'Avvenire said Italy deserves a leader who is the "mirror of the country's soul" and called on him to be more "sober and somber."
A divorce could harm Berlusconi politically — especially with Italian Catholics, who voted last year for his center-right coalition in large numbers.