German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer walk in the thermal baths of Sant'Angelo d'Ischia, southern Italy, where they spent their Easter holidays. (Marco Cantile/AP)

The photos were splashed across the top-circulating tabloid in Germany this week — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “secret family life” uncovered for all to see.

The secret? That she has a private life.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, many European leaders keep their personal lives out of sight, and Merkel may be the most intensely private of them all. Her husband, a chemist, skipped her first inauguration in 2005 and rarely appears with her in public. Her political friends have never visited her at home. And she is rarely photographed wearing anything other than a suit.

Merkel’s deep-cover privacy is aided and abetted by a high-minded German mainstream media that rarely deign to report on anything they deems outside the realm of her political decision-making. But with Germany increasingly calling the shots in Europe because of the economic crisis in the 17-nation euro zone, more people are hungry for a glimpse of what makes Merkel tick.

“Never before have we seen Angela Merkel so relaxed,” read a headline in Germany’s Bild tabloid.

The photos, shot by paparazzi with high-powered telephoto lenses as Merkel vacationed on the Italian island of Ischia this past week, showed the 58-year-old German leader smiling, relaxed and wearing beige khakis and a blue collared shirt. In some photos, she is walking on the beach with her step-grandchildren. Others published in Italy show her taking a dip in a pool in a one-piece bathing suit.

Unremarkable by American standards, the photos caused a minor scandal in Germany, where Merkel’s subordinates greeted them with pursed lips.

“You can imagine that it is not always relaxing when one is vacationing somewhere and one has the feeling that a lens is peeking out from every corner,” Merkel spokesman Georg Streiter told journalists.

He said he was glad that he had successfully talked a German newspaper into pixelating the faces of Merkel’s stepson, his wife and their children — “completely innocent people who cannot help it that Mrs. Chancellor is chancellor.”

The rarity of the photos highlighted the differences between Germany and the United States, where images of George W. Bush cutting brush on his Texas ranch and Barack Obama swimming with his family in Hawaii are not only commonplace but officially produced by White House photographers.

Not every European leader has been as private as Merkel. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his second wife divorced soon after he became his country’s leader, and he very publicly wooed, then wed, the singer and model Carla Bruni while in office. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi cheerfully embraced public exposure — especially from his own media empire.

But many in Germany consider the private lives of their leaders out of bounds. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, was on his fourth marriage when he was elected chancellor, a personal history that probably would have made him unelectable in the United States. And in a parliamentary system where political parties, not the public, decide who will run for top office, charisma is less a prerequisite for the job than it is in America.

Merkel rarely gives one-on-one interviews or grand public addresses. Even in situations tailor-made to show off her softer side, she has been determinedly blank. In an interview with German celebrities last year, one person asked her what she would do if she could lead a double life. “I have neither time nor inclination for this idea,” she said. When asked whether she kept a joke at hand, she said, simply, “Yes, always.”

“Germans are not so eager to look on the personal lives of politicians,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, a professor of political science at the University of Passau. “Angela Merkel is seen in Germany more as a political being than as a personal being.”

But the long-running euro crisis has forced external scrutiny on the German leader in a harsher manner than is usual at home. Now Merkel is an object of fascination — and frustration — across the continent. Images of the chancellor in which she was given a Hitler mustache have popped up in countries that have been forced to accept fiscal austerity dictated by Germany.

In Italy, where Merkel has taken an annual Easter vacation since long before she was elected chancellor, the leader of the Campania region, Stefano Caldoro, this year welcomed her to his territory in a video message but told her to look around the town where she is staying and notice the high unemployment. Austerity “cannot continue,” Caldoro said.

In Germany, many commentators tut-tutted about the rude reception. But even the mainstream press found a way to write about the Italian-made pictures once her spokesman said he was unhappy about them. Interest in Merkel’s private life — despite protestations to the contrary — may be growing at home, too.

“In all dimensions of political communication,” said Oberreuter, the political science professor, “we have something like Americanization.”