ROME -- Italians may have elected a porn sex queen to Parliament but summer visitors who display too much thigh or a rippling chest in the streets may be deemed offensive -- or even be subject to fines on the spot.
The contradictory attitude toward the public display of bare flesh, particularly during the torrid summer months, is one of the paradoxes of this predominantly Roman Catholic country and can be a mine field for the unsuspecting tourist.
Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina (Little Fleshy One), regularly brought Rome traffic to a halt with her breast-baring during the campaign for the June election.
Thousands of Romans voted Cicciolina in as a member of Parliament from the unorthodox Radical Party after apparently taking to heart the 37-year-old blond's favorite campaign slogan, "Down with nuclear energy, up with sexual energy."
Only the pleas of her fellow Radical Party members dissuaded her from turning up for the first day of the new Parliament in a see-through dress.
When it comes to tourists stripping down to the essentials in an effort to cope with the heat of the cities, the message is decidedly tougher.
Venice authorities this summer introduced automatic fines for tourists they consider are lowering the tone of the gracious canal city by sightseeing clad in scanty dress.
"From now on anyone who behaves in an uncivilized way will be punished," Tourism Councilor Augusto Salvadori said, announcing the $35 spot fines.
In Rome, sightseers who strip down to shorts and bikinis are liable to be ordered to cover up by police, while sunbathing or bathing in the city's cooling fountains can bring a stiff fine.
"Rome is not a beach," one city official said, horrified at the sight of tourists plunging into the famous Trevi fountain as temperatures soared into the nineties.
Topless sunbathing is now common on beaches here but even before it became widespread, Italians of both sexes and all hip sizes had a penchant for the skimpiest swimwear on the market.
This year on the Ligurian coast in northwest Italy, well-endowed women are entering seaside competitions for the coveted title of "most artistically painted bust."
Nude or seminaked young women adorn the covers of an increasing number of financial and news weeklies, drawing attention to articles inside on everything from health and travel to politics.
Billboards show half-naked women sprawled voluptuously across everything from cars to typewriters and washing machines, while several privately owned television channels screen full frontal strip shows to not very late night audiences.
In Italy's fledgling home video industry, half the revenue is estimated to come from the sale and rental of pornographic films, with demand for sex videos expected to boom as more Italians buy their own videotape players.
But although Catholicism ceased to be the official state religion only two years ago, there are few signs of any powerful protest movements.
Social researcher Vanno Codeluppi believes the phenomenon owes much to Italy's past 10 years of social changes, which include the legalization of civil divorce and abortion, although both are still rejected and repeatedly condemned by the Catholic Church.
"Protest and opposition movements are in decline because of the progressive secularization of society, and the consequent falling away of various sexual taboos," he said.
The frequent display of nudity and sale of pornography in Italy make it difficult for many tourists to understand when they are accused of offending local customs by sporting brief running shorts and skimpy T-shirts in town.
No self-respecting Roman, Venetian or Florentine would be seen shopping, traveling to work or walking through the city in anything less than normal dress, and they look with disdain on foreign guests who are unable to cope likewise during their short stay.
Bare-chested males and women in sleeveless dresses are ordered to cover up when visiting churches and museums and are likely to be refused service in the best bars and restaurants.
The Italian solution is to leave the cities at the hottest time of the year, to carry a hand fan everywhere and to take a siesta while less experienced foreigners stay out in the midday sun.
The rule is still very much "In Rome, do as the Romans do" and that means coping with three months of stifling summer heat without taking one's clothes off.