2015 04 – Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of all the charges relating to the Ruby case at the start of March. The charges involved corruption in judicial acts, i.e. bribing witnesses and also paying for sex with a woman under 18 years of age. Ruby was 17 years and 10 months old at the time, or as Berlusconi’s lawyer said, she had said “she was twenty-four and from her physique that was plausible” (Corriere della sera, 15.03.15). The penalties, if the case had not been dismissed, would have been seven years in jail and a ban on public office for life.

Berlusconi has been tried in court around 30 times for varying offences in the last 25 years but the case previous to Ruby, for tax fraud, was the first to result in a conviction.  It is said, particularly by Marcus Travaglio, Il Fatto Quotidiano’s  Director, that Berlusconi entered politics to protect his own business interests. Certainly the way that his administration introduced mechanisms to time out possible legal cases through statutes of limitations have allowed him to squeeze his way out of a significant number of legal difficulties.

The tax case resulted (after a partial amnesty) and taking his age into consideration, in only a period of community service, which has now been completed. He spent one day a week in a residential centre for people suffering from dementia. The problem that remains is the ban on taking up legislative office. This would be a problem for any leader of a political party but it is a challenging obstacle for a man who will be 79 in September. For Berlusconi this irritating block, or left wing plot, is there to be defeated, if necessary all the way to the European Court. This is ongoing. As his pact of cooperation with Premier Renzi is over,  he now poses a significant threat to government stability, whether in or outside parliament.

An anti-corruption law brought in by Mario Monti’s technocrat government is relevant to this. Known by the name of the Minister of Justice, Paola Severino, The Severino Law stipulated that anyone given a sentence of more than two years would be barred from public office. The law and subsequent modifications actually facilitated Berlusconi’s acquittal from the Ruby case. Marcus Travaglio wrote a long, widely reported article throwing his hands up in Italian disbelief at Berlusconi’s legal team’s ability to get the dismissal. “Acquittal with a trick” – a dodge. Obviously, he said, Silvio should be lighting a candle to Saint Paula Severino. This hit many headlines and the comparison is shrewd and has caused a measure of amusement. The Catholic Herald writes this about the Ancient Roman Santa Paola: “the more she cast herself down, the more she was lifted up by Christ”. She actually had an odd life. Once rich, she left her family to become a severe ascetic, giving her money away with “reckless abandon”.

Meanwhile, the Berlusconi camp rejoiced at the Ruby judgement. The news services reported a noisy flashmob waving celebratory blue flags. Marcello Fiori, the coordinator of Club Forza Silvio, Berlusconi’s supporters club, (who sell rock star-like mementoes and tee shirts), said that “Today is a great day for democracy (and) for justice.” Berlusconi himself declared that this was “finally the truth” and that the process had not only damaged himself but all Italians. He often blames the judiciary for trying to destabilise and wreck him at times when the political left are too ineffective to do that themselves.

Archbishop Bagnasco of Genova agreed with Travaglio. While the law had concluded the legal case, the point that was brushed aside by Berlusconi, but had not escaped him, was that there had been no discussion of the morality, or the lack of morals unveiled by the case. And this is where Italian and British perceptions of Berlusconi are usually different. Professor Franco Coppi, Berlusconi’s lawyer, has no comment to make on the nature of the dinners at Arcore (Berlusconi’s residence). Were they elegant dinners or orgies?, the British press would ask with fascination. Franco Coppi said ” It was the prosecution who claimed the evenings weren’t elegant dinners. That was the starting point and by then it didn’t make much sense to discuss how uninhibited the young ladies were.” He goes on to say that Berlusconi will sort things like that out in the confessional. (Corriere della sera: 15 03 14)

Many Italians not only like but admire Berlusconi, while the British press generally portray him as a buffoon. Italians have respect for people who fight to win, who are cheeky and take chances.  In contrast, Northern Europeans inhabit a culture underpinned by Protestantism which has a moral sense that is black and white, right or wrong and is unforgiving. The Italian culture is based more on the redemptive Catholic Church which allows matters to continue by forgiving and absolving sins and sinners.

My simplistic summary lies inside explanations of the Italian mentality given in John Hooper’s recent book The Italians. He discusses the terms furbo and fesso. To be furbo is to be a Berlusconi: smart, cunning, crafty, sly. He says that while it shouldn’t be seen as a blanket national characteristic, it is something that Italians have a complicit approval of. The opposite: fesso, translates as idiot, simpleton, but Hooper cautions about equating this with a lack of intelligence. He quotes the journalist and wit Giuseppe Prezzolini explaining that you are fesso “if you pay the full price rail ticket…tell the taxman your real income…” “The fessi have principals, whereas the furbi only have aims.” Hooper calls the clever and grey Mario Monti an arch-fesso and sees this as a solidly Northern European trait.

The Guardian of 25 March ran an article about the appeal of Nigel Farage. It summed this up by quoting a supporter, who said of Farage: “He’s a snake, ruthless, but that’s why I’d vote for him. The rest are trying to be nice and he doesn’t care if he’s popular or what people think.” Are we starting to admire Berlusconi-esque figures? Is Farage a furbo? Have we been infected by too much vino and pasta?