Silvio Berlusconi: the many faces of Italy's premier

Politician, media mogul, musician, buffoon, womaniser: 72-year-old Silvioo Berllusconi, listed by Forbes as the 70th richest man in the world, has been dubbed the "Houdini of European politics".

There are signs that Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's "libidinous" prime minister, is ready to play the penitent, says Nick Pisa in The Times, with plans to keep away from his infamous Sardinian villa (see below) to oversee construction in the earthquake-struck region of Abruzzo. A pilgrimage to the shrine of one of Italy's most revered stigmatics, St Pio of Petrelcina, has also been mooted.

But critics believe he is only a little chastened. The 72-year-old media tycoon, listed by Forbes as the 70th richest man in the world, has been dubbed the "Houdini of European politics". He has a long record of criminal allegations but has so far avoided conviction. Last year his government passed a law granting the prime minister immunity from prosecution while in office.

While foreigners may see him as an ageing, gaffe-prone buffoon, many Italians love him, says Sarah Vine in The Times. He has been elected prime minister three times, in 1994, 2001 and 2008, in spite of "serious questions about his performance" each time. His stranglehold over the media he owns 90% of commercial TV channels may have helped. According to Censis, 73% of Italians based their votes in the last election on television coverage.

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Born in Milan in 1936, the son of a bank official, Berlusconi funded his university studies by working as a pianist and singer aboard cruise ships. He made his first fortune from property in the 1960s and '70s, says Ed Vulliamy in The Observer, in spite of having no experience in construction. He expanded into media and his empire, under the umbrella of Fininvest, grew to comprise some of Italy's most important companies including Mediaset (Italy's biggest private entertainment firm) and AC Milan football club.

In 1992, he got his chance in politics as the Christian Democrat government was blown apart by a bribery scandal in Milan. Claiming he wanted to "save the country from the Communists" and clean up Italy (in reality Fininvest was under threat from the Italian Left), he launched a new party, Forza Italia. He sold himself as an outsider who could "whip Italy's inefficient bureaucracy into shape", says Alexander Stille in his book about the controversial politician, The Sack of Rome. He won the 1994 election, but his government fell apart in seven months amid coalition squabbles.

He staged a comeback in 2001, serving for five years. His ability to unite Italy's chaotic political system is in little doubt, but voters' hopes that his entrepreneurial magic would rub off on the country have proved misplaced. Berlusconi has introduced tough measures on crime and immigration, but largely failed on managing the economy.

His first government "achieved nothing". His second was "notable mainly for its failure to introduce the liberalising reforms that Italy desperately needs to make itself competitive"; and he is now "presiding over a slump" that the IMF thinks may make Italy the only eurozone country to experience three years of recession from 2008-10, says Tony Barber in the Financial Times. Worst of all, Italy's public debt is set to soar to 116% of GDP by 2010. That is his "real sin".

Berlusconi's women

Polls suggest the public is wearying of Berlusconi's exploits, but until now his womanising has done little but enhance his reputation. As one male journalist put it, "Berlusconi represents hope that all men will be f***ing in their 70s". The scandal began in May when Veronica Lario, his wife and mother of three of his children, demanded a divorce. The final straw was the news that Berlusconi had attended the 18th birthday party of aspiring starlet Noemi Letizia and given her a gold necklace.

Since then there has been a drip feed of revelations about his private life, culminating with the "sex tapes" of a 42-year-old escort girl, Patrizia D'Addario, who claims she recorded bedroom chats between her and the prime minister at his Rome townhouse on her mobile phone.

D'Addario is the latest of many women linked to Berlusconi. In April 2007, Oggi magazine published photos of parties at his Sardinian villa, including shots of Berlusconi with his hand inside a female guest's shirt, says John Follain in The Sunday Times. An investigation into the alleged recruitment of female guests for parties at Berlusconi's homes is under way in Bari.

Does any of this matter? Of course, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. It speaks volumes about his character: "Berlusconi is in receipt of state secrets. He is the dominant Italian politician of the era the parties, the girls, the gifts they are issues of state."