By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 7, 2009; A09
ROME, July 6 -- The good news for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is that Italians are no longer quite so obsessed with his wife's demand for a divorce or his flirtations with an 18-year-old model. The bad news is that now they are fixated on his parties with paid escorts and the high-priced hooker who has told Italian media that she spent a night with him.
As Berlusconi prepares to host the leaders of the world's major industrial nations, known as the Group of Eight, at a summit starting Wednesday, the biggest question may be whether the Italian leader can get through the week unscathed by any fresh scandals or gaffes. For months, the paparazzi have peddled photos of guests romping nude at his poolside parties, and now prosecutors are nipping at his heels.
"I'm just ashamed to be Italian. That's something many Italians say," Renata Antonante, a 22-year-old actress, said Wednesday as she bought an espresso across the street from Berlusconi's offices at the Palazzo Chigi in central Rome.
Berlusconi, 72, has long fashioned a public persona as a virile Romeo, a man whose eye and appreciation for beautiful women has, if anything, intensified with age. But in recent months, his libido has turned on him.
The embarrassments began in April, when his wife, Veronica, announced that she was dumping him. Among other things, she blasted him for recruiting showgirls to run for elected office and for attending the birthday party of an 18-year-old underwear model in Naples.
Berlusconi responded by saying that he still loved his wife and that "true love stories can never be erased." The prime minister denied any impropriety with the teenage model, saying he attended the party because her father was a political supporter.
Before that controversy could die down, it was replaced by even more explosive revelations: that Berlusconi had entertained escorts during parties at his homes in Rome and the island of Sardinia. Two women have said in separate interviews with Italian newspapers that a Berlusconi acquaintance paid them $1,400 to attend the soirees.
One of them, Patrizia D'Addario, gave intimate details of the night she said she spent with Berlusconi in November, including how they showered together and what they ate for breakfast. "I never slept," she said.
Berlusconi has said he doesn't remember meeting D'Addario and denied ever paying for sex. "I never understood what the satisfaction is when you are missing the pleasure of conquest," he said in an interview with Chi, a weekly magazine owned by the Berlusconi family.
Since then, he has suggested that he was unwittingly set up with the escorts by political enemies scheming to entrap him. At the same time, he has hinted that there's nothing wrong with the prime minister being a playboy.
"This is the way I'm made," he said at a recent news conference. "People take me as they find me. And the Italians want me."
Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Corriere della Sera, a national newspaper, said Berlusconi was a victim of his own hubris, but also ill-served by staffers afraid to tell their boss to watch his behavior.
"He has no real opponent politically, so he took bigger and bigger chances: one girl, two girls, five girls, girls brought by people he didn't know," Severgnini said. "He knows now that he embarrassed himself. He knows that very well. But to change his lifestyle is too demanding for him. He's aware of that and is willing to pay the price."
Meanwhile, prosecutors in the southern city of Bari are investigating a prostitution ring that they say may have been used to supply young women for Berlusconi's parties. The prime minister is not an official target, but prosecutors have not ruled out questioning him.
Berlusconi and his allies said the controversies were being fanned by his political opponents, but predicted they would fade away during the G-8 summit, which will convene Wednesday through Friday in the central city of L'Aquila.
"The G-8 cannot be and will not be influenced by these polemics," Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, a member of Berlusconi's cabinet, said in a telephone interview Monday. "This is just an empty attack on Prime Minister Berlusconi, one with no foundation whatsoever. It will all fall apart eventually."
So far, the sensational headlines have not badly damaged Berlusconi's political standing at home. A poll conducted for Corriere della Sera two weeks ago put Berlusconi's job approval rating at 49 percent, down just 2 percent since the call-girl scandal broke.
Renato Mannheimer, a leading Italian pollster who oversaw the survey, said public feelings toward Berlusconi have become more polarized. "In Italy, we have a strange situation. Approximately half the population is against Berlusconi and hates him very much, and the hate has increased," Mannheimer said in a telephone interview. "The other group, slightly less than half, admires Berlusconi. There, things have not changed so much. This group says, 'I just want him to govern, and I'm not interested in what he's doing with girls.' "
Gianfranco Pasquino, a political science professor at the University of Bologna, said that although the revelations may have been tawdry, they have not been entirely shocking, either.
"This is the true Berlusconi. It's his personality. He's always behaved this way," said Pasquino, a former member of the Italian Senate from a rival political party. "He's a very social person, and he's always enjoyed the company of beautiful females. This is the way he's led his life, even while he's been in office."
Special correspondent Aaron Maines in Milan contributed to this report.