In Italy, Loose Lips Don't Get Kissed

By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 1, 2007

ROME, Jan. 31 -- Sometimes love does mean having to say you're sorry, and in the case of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, it means doing it in a very public way.

In an act of venting pent-up exasperation, Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, took him to task in a letter on the front page of a major daily newspaper for openly ogling and commenting on starlets, and demanded a public apology for the "damage to my dignity." Several hours later, she got one.

"Dear Veronica, here is my apology," wrote Berlusconi, 70, a man not easily humbled, blaming on pride his earlier failure to ask forgiveness. "I was reluctant in private, because I am playful but also proud. Challenged in public, the temptation to give in is strong. And I can't resist."

Lario, 50, a former actress, was objecting specifically to remarks the flamboyant media tycoon reportedly made to female admirers last week as he greeted a showbiz crowd at an Italian television awards ceremony. The remarks were, as quoted in her letter: "I'd follow you anywhere" and "If I weren't already married, I'd marry you."

She wrote, "They are comments that I interpret as damaging to my dignity, comments that for the age, political and social position, family context . . . of the person who made them, can't be brushed off as harmless jokes."

Lario has distinguished herself and earned respect across the political spectrum for her efforts to keep their family life private, functioning as a foil for the attention-loving Berlusconi. She has appeared at his side as first lady on only two occasions: once to meet President and Laura Bush and once to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Ludmila.

In her letter, Lario said she had "overcome the reserve that has characterized my way of being over the course of 27 years" at Berlusconi's side. Over that long period she had faced "inevitable contrasts and painful moments" with "respect and discretion."

But enough, apparently, is enough. And by publicly reacting, she said, she could send a message to their two daughters and their son: They should demand respect from men, and he should give it to women.

Wednesday night the excitement was being discussed simultaneously on five major television stations. The Italian public not only seized upon this celebrity gossip but also took the opportunity to indulge a fondness for politicizing everything. Lario's choice of news organs for her venting was noteworthy -- La Repubblica, one of the former prime minister's most unrelenting critics. Berlusconi responded by releasing his apology through his Forza Italia party.

In his kiss-and-make-up letter, Berlusconi reminded his wife that "we've been together for a lifetime." He acknowledged tough times, blaming it on his "crazy" public life, and admitted he was "often irreverent." But he said he held her dignity "in my heart, even when a thoughtless remark comes from my mouth."

He supplicated: "Please forgive me, I beg you, and take this public testimony as a proud act of love. One of many. A big kiss, Silvio."

Everyone had a comment on the highly uncharacteristic detour into the Berlusconis' private life.

One female Forza Italia member of the House of Deputies, Iole Santelli, said, "Brava, Veronica -- she's speaking for all women who go out with their men only to have them looking at someone else." Katia Belillo of the Italian Communist Party said Berlusconi had offended his wife and all Italian women with his comments, "so he hurries to make excuses because he recognizes he was an imbecile," according to La Repubblica.

Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice, said, "When they get to talking through newspapers and public letters, it's clear the story is over."

Cacciari has been on the receiving end of one of Berlusconi's dubious remarks: In 2002, during a news conference with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Berlusconi remarked on Rasmussen's good looks and added: "I'm thinking of introducing him to my wife. He's better-looking than Cacciari." That immediately fueled speculation about a secret link between Lario and the mayor.

Berlusconi has a history of making remarks many consider sexist.

When addressing Italian American businessmen in New York, he advised them to set up their businesses in Italy because "we have beautiful secretaries."

And his exuberance in 2005 after Parma was designated for the headquarters of the European Union food agency caused a diplomatic incident: He said it was his "playboy tactics" that had won over the Finnish president, Tarja Halonen. She was not amused.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, owns several fabulous villas in Italy and elsewhere. He spends most of his time in the Villa San Martino in Arcore, a suburb of Milan, while Lario and their three children seem to have spent most of their time in a nearby mansion. Berlusconi has two grown children from an earlier marriage.

Will she relent? In a return to character, she's not saying.

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