Photographers' Blog

The king of Italian politics

August 20, 2013

Rome, Italy

By Alessandro Bianchi

Four-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost his court case, but not his magic.

Tensions were high three days after he was definitively convicted for tax fraud on August 1. No one knew whether the unpredictable leader of Italy’s center-right for the past two decades would quit politics or not.

After avoiding conviction in dozens of other cases over the years, an appeals court upheld a four-year jail sentence – commuted to one year – for the media mogul, and because of a recently passed corruption law, he also faced a ban from public office. To deliver his response to the ruling, Berlusconi did what comes naturally to him – he called his die-hard supporters to rally around him in a public square.

Organizers set up a stage in front of the billionaire leader’s Rome residence, the 17th century Grazioli palace. Hundreds turned out, waving Italian flags and chanting derogatory slogans about the country’s “communist” judges. Minutes before the besieged leader appeared, dozens of signs reading “Go Italy! Go Berlusconi” were handed out to the crowd, and the scene was set. He made his entrance, walking at the center of a cluster of his usual throng of burly bodyguards, sporting his broad smile and dressed casually with a collarless blue shirt and a blue sport jacket.

He launched into an expected rant against the country’s politicized magistrates who want to eliminate him from politics and then made it clear he had no intention of quitting politics. “I’m here; I will stay here; I will not give up,” Berlusconi said. But, then the mood changed and his face darkened. With a sleight of hand, his bodyguards and image handlers left the stage, and his girlfriend Francesca Pascale, 49 years his junior, climbed up and stood near his side.

Now somber, and with his supporters shouting “sainthood now!” like the faithful in St. Peter’s Square do for Pope John Paul II, Berlusconi broke into tears. Pascale watched, with a motherly look of concern on her face. “These have been the most painful days of my whole life. Your affection makes up for much pain and suffering. Thank you for your support,” he told the adoring crowd.

Under the ironically appropriate Plebiscite Street sign that adorns the facade of his villa – a reminder of his landslide victories in the 2001 and 2008 elections – Berlusconi shed tears again before closing out his address and Pascale, her hand on his shoulder, consoled him as he left the stage. With his bodyguards still at a distance and Pascale’s arm resting on his shoulder, Berlusconi waded into the crowd, shook hands and exchanged words with is supporters. Some of them were crying, and this appeared to move him once again to tears.

By the time the choreography was over and he had disappeared back into his palace, there was no question that Berlusconi remained the undisputed leader of the center-right. The king of Italian politics, instead of abdicating, had taken his first steps toward sainthood.

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