RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The personal life of Italian prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi is the talk of Italy this week. In a script worthy of a soap opera, the prime minister's wife of 19 years made a very public request for a divorce. Since then, the barbs and insults have been flying back and forth. She's accused him of infidelity with a teenage girl. And he's gone on national television to demand an apology. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Over the weekend, Veronica Berlusconi announced she was seeking a divorce. The prime minister tersely responded, this is a personal issue not necessary to speak about. But two days later, 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.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) Everything is absolutely false. My wife has fallen into a trap. The left wing opposition media can't stand it that my popularity rating is 75 percent, and has therefore resorted to personal attacks based on slander.
POGGIOLI: 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, calling 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.
Journalist Maria Latella, who wrote the authorized biography of Veronica Berlusconi, stresses how the first lady explained her decision.
Ms. MARIA LATELLA (Author): (Through translator): Her key words were, I cannot remain married to a man who goes out with minors. What she's 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.
POGGIOLI: The 18-year-old starlet, Noemi Letizia, has been quoted as saying that she called 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, saying she's simply the daughter of a friend. And he blames the rumors on what he calls a left wing conspiracy. But following his wife's charges, he did withdraw several starlets from the party's electoral slate.
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POGGIOLI: Italians have been following the first couple's saga with a mixture of bemusement and indignation. At this Roman marketplace, Sonia Proetta(ph) agrees with the first lady, who used to be an actress, that lowbrow Italian TV shows have nurtured a superficial society where starlets are role models.
Ms. SONIA PROETTA: She's right, but why tell him now and not 20 years ago when everything started? Why now?
POGGIOLI: Claudio Zamp(ph), on the other hand, says divorce can happen in any family.
Mr. CLAUDIO ZAMP: (Through translator) She's right to divorce, because he certainly has a roaming eye. But let's face it: Many Italian men have affairs and act just like that.
POGGIOLI: But Berlusconi is not just any family man. According to Forbes, he's 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 when she was working on the stage, all of them 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 for his center-right coalition last year in large numbers.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.