Will Sex Scandal Finally Topple Berlusconi?

Silvio Berlusconi is not having a good summer. Instead of frolicking on the lavish grounds of his Sardinian villa as he usually does, the Italian prime minister is spending this year's scorcher mired in the tedium of reconstruction efforts in Abruzzo, the region devastated by an earthquake last April. It's not that the 72-year-old prime minister doesn't trust the contractors—it's that he doesn't trust himself. Berlusconi—Teflon Silvo—is a survivor: in three terms, he has dodged allegations of Mafia collusion, false accounting, and bribing judges. But even in Europe, whose residents are generally tolerant of their politicians' dalliances, a recent series of steamy sex scandals may finally be Berlusconi's undoing.

Italians, even more than their Western European neighbors, have never shown much interest in the private lives of their politicians. (Berlusconi himself fathered children with his current wife even before divorcing his previous one; and rumors of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's pre-Carla Bruni womanizing rarely made the papers.) They even balked at Americans for their puritanical outrage against philanderers like Bill Clinton and John Edwards. "Americans have been ridiculed by many Italians who describe them as being puritans or exaggeratedly interested in the private life of their president," says sociologist Aldo Grasso. But Berlusconi's antics have Italians saying he's too tawdry even for them.

In May, he attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old underwear model rumored to be his lover, after which his wife (herself known to shrug off previous Berlusconi affairs) began divorce proceedings. Since then, a steady stream of photos and firsthand accounts have emerged of orgies at his Sardinian villa and offers of political appointments in exchange for sexual favors.

Recently leaked transcripts of conversations between Berlusconi and €1,000-per-night call girl Patrizia D'Addario paint a bizarre picture of the prime minister's lifestyle. D'Addario released the tapes because, even after Berlusconi promised to help arrange a building permit for her bed-and-breakfast, the paperwork fell through. When he offered her a European Parliament seat as consolation, she handed over four hours of recorded conversation to opposition media outlets. In one transcript, he brags about having Phoenician tombs from the third century B.C. at his Sardinian villa that he kept secret from Italy's culture ministry. In another, he explains that his premature ejaculation is hereditary. The sexual parts are the weirdest: Berlusconi instructs D'Addario to wait on "Putin's bed" while he showered, referring to a gauzy-curtained bedroom adorned with a quilt given by the Russian president on a state visit. Elsewhere, D'Addario compliments Berlusconi on his stamina during a morning-after breakfast. The prime minister, in turn, urges her to masturbate often to bolster her sexual appetite. D'Addario also taped herself telling a friend that she and Berlusconi "didn't sleep all night" because he is "an animal, a bull."

Berlusconi does not deny knowing D'Addario but says he has never paid for sex, since "there is no pleasure without conquest." Meanwhile, his friend Giampaolo Tarantini is under investigation for negotiating sex deals for the prime minister with D'Addario and several other high-priced call girls, including two who used their cell phones to take self-portraits in Berlusconi's gold-gilded bathroom. In one recorded conversation, Tarantini tells D'Addario that Berlusconi won't use condoms. "No way, no chance without a condom. How can I be sure [that it's safe to have unprotected sex with him]," she pleaded. Tarantini replied, "Come on … it's Berlusconi!"

"Italians like me the way I am," Berlusconi told supporters earlier this month. "I'm no saint; you've all understood that." If so, they may not have realized the scale of his deviltry. Official polls now show the prime minister's popularity waning. For the first time since his election, he has dipped below a 50 percent approval rating—down nearly 10 percentage points since his wife filed for divorce.

Even if this, too, shall pass, the fallout extends past Rome. What may seem to Berlusconi like domestic bumbling has already damaged his credibility abroad. Photos taken from outside his Sardinian villa show nude women showering together and a full frontal of the obviously aroused Czech prime minister, exposing a clear breach of security. His answer was to file an injunction to stop the publication of the photos in Italy, but the Spanish newspaper El Pais printed the most damning photos (which are not safe for work).

Part of Berlusconi's appeal to Italians has always been his perceived invincibility. He is a true, self-made man in a country where most success rises on the foundation of old family money. He has been accused of using the law as a mere suggestion rather than a rule. (And of changing the rules when can't abide by them: he made some white-collar crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies, shortened statutes of limitation, and granted immunity to government leaders, including himself.) Now, Italians are finally feeling ambivalent about the way he legitimizes the gray area between right and wrong. Every new scandal during Berlusconi's three terms seems to top the last one in absurdity. With this latest bout of disgrace, Italians have to believe he found the ceiling.