Italy was galvanised again this week by the baroque sex life of its extraordinary Prime Minister, with the release of tapes surreptitiously recorded by a high-class prostitute called Patrizia D'Addario, who spent an apparently exhausting and sleepless night with Mr Berlusconi last year.

Mr Berlusconi's legal spokesman has dismissed the tapes as an invention, but Italians are inclined to believe they are the real thing.

Who could have invented the bragging during their first meeting, when Mr Berlusconi regaled Ms D'Addario with tales of a recent visit to Finland and the "disintegrating wooden church" the Finns proudly showed him round n such a contrast to Italy where "we have 40,000 historical parks with all their treasures, 3,500 churches, 2,500 archaeological sites..." etc, etc.

The tapes have drawn millions to the websites where they have been posted. Coming on top of two months of lurid revelations about the "harem parties" in Sardinia and Rome, and the still-unsolved mystery of Mr Berlusconi's relationship with the Neapolitan lingerie model Noemi Letizia, they would seem to add another stack of scandal to the burden of a man who has been staggering under allegations of every sort ever since he entered politics 15 years ago.

When will the camel's back break, the world asks? How much longer before the Italians decide they have had enough of this sex-obsessed buffoon?

Yet while his popularity seems to have dipped slightly, the belief he is drinking in the last chance saloon is based on a misunderstanding.

Italy has known all about Mr Berlusconi's wandering eye, his dirty mouth and his tireless promiscuity for years, and has yet to find these aspects of his character an obstacle to voting for him.

One reason is that, in contrast to countries with puritanical attitudes towards sex, Italians believe that what goes on behind closed doors is none of their business: personal morality and political careers are kept firmly apart.

Tacitly, the Catholic Church, which remains such an important font of values, endorses this compartmentalisation: it was not considered a scandal when the leader of the small Christian Democratic party left his wife for another woman whom he subsequently married, despite the church's hostility to divorce.

At another level, millions actually approve: Mr Berlusconi is behaving exactly in the way truly powerful men are supposed to behave. There is a primitive aspect to his appeal, the king of the bimbo jungle. The ability to attract unlimited numbers of beautiful, nubile young women is the clearest, most naked proof of power.

Does this mean Italy is politically primitive? In a way, yes n but Mr Berlusconi's appeal is more complex than that. He is the most shameless male chauvinist on the European political scene, but he is also fully committed to the idea that the women he fancies - who, typically, are clever as well as beautiful - want and deserve careers of their own, desires which, in the typical spirit of the padrone, he does his best to gratify, by getting them into parliament, into his cabinet, on to television and so on.

Thus in his own peculiar way, Mr Berlusconi is both a modernist and a feminist. Italy will continue to lap up the revelations from Ms D'Addario's tapes. But on the basis of the ones released so far, they are unlikely to shake the convictions of millions of Italians that he is exactly the sort of leader they like.


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