I'll never forget my first (and only) meeting with Silvio Berlusconi, in the mid-1980s. The TV tycoon walked up to me at a friend's New Year's Eve party in Milan, and firmly planted a kiss on my lips. What was I to make of this untoward greeting? The self-made billionaire's apparent infatuation with a fashion model, also at the venue, suggested to me that Italy was a polyamorous playground. It was ever thus.
While Italy's status as a single political entity is fairly recent (1861), its fractious past recalls centuries of sybaritic commerce. The whispered confidences, the secret rendezvous, the rippling orgies, the feuds and the lavish restitution gifts -- all these delightful and often deceitful elements of love have been the modus operandi of Italy's cast of political paramours since the beginning of the Empire. Small wonder that Rome is the capital of romance, and the alleged birthplace of St. Valentine.
As it turns out, the early Roman poets were the bards of erotic romance. One was the daring and original Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC-17 AD), who wrote The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), (translated by James Michie, Modern Library, 2002), a witty and notoriously frank manual of seduction. A sample of this surprisingly modern tome confirms that 2,000 years have done little to change Italy's perception of love, vanity, temptation and sexual intrigue.
"Love is like warfare," Ovid begins, "and no assignment for cowards." He teaches the ardent lover how to "win" his mistress, and moves on to instruct this novice of amour how to "retain" her: "Good looks are something, but charm of manner is a great deal more. Pleasant words -- like music -- are the food of love." Ovid's advice does not stop there. "Promise, promise, promise," he writes. "Promises cost you nothing. Everyone's a millionaire where promises are concerned." The wicked darling of Rome continues, "Do not imagine that I am going to act the rigid moralist and condemn you to love but one mistress."
These words would seem to reveal that Ovid was unaware of the female as an autonomous lover in her own right. (A fact that Berlusconi, 70, seems mysteriously to have overlooked as well.) It was Ovid's ill fortune to publish The Art of Love at a time when the Emperor was trying to institute a new moral order. He set penalties, for example, for those who remained childless, or who didn't marry. The thrice-divorced Ovid had many amorous conquests, often with women who had endured years of spousal infidelity. Lest things should get out of control, Ovid advises Art of Love practitioners to "beware of exciting jealous furies." That's advice Berlusconi could have used.
The Italian Renaissance celebrated its own expression of love and Casanova (Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt) was the perfect embodiment of Venetian culture at its height. Seducer, necromancer, gambler, spy, swashbuckler, entrepreneur, wit, philosopher and poet, Casanova (1725-1798) is largely remembered from his autobiography Story of My Life (translated by Stephen Sartarelli, Penguin Classics, 2001), which established his reputation as one of the world's most famous lovers. This memoir, an extraordinary 12 volumes (approximately 3,500 pages), also relates his encounters with political and literary figures, and provides an enchanting journey into the heart of the Venetian Serenissima (most serene and lovely).
"Recollecting the pleasures I have had formerly, I renew them, I enjoy them a second time, while I laugh at the remembrance of troubles now past, and which I no longer feel," Casanova wrote, probably referring to his numerous sexual exploits -- 122 women, according to his own count, from noblewomen to nuns -- all willing partners. Casanova's behaviour may have been reprehensibly libertine, but Italy could not keep its eyes off him.
Perhaps Casanova's accounts of his erotic exploits set the bar unnaturally high for subsequent Lotharios, especially in light of the somewhat competitive nature of the Italian male. Unspoken expectations of seductive power still haunt them. But the realm of the rake, perhaps especially on the Italian peninsula, has never been exclusively masculine. From Tullia d'Aragona and Fiammetta Bianchini through to Veronica Franco, Italian women have also played a central role.
In fact, they have also held great authority. One book that captures feminine power and passion in Italy is Anthony A. Barrett's Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome (Yale University Press, 2002). In this fascinating historical exposé, the British Columbia-based author of previous books on Caligula and Agrippina resurrects the desires, sacrifices and motives of the empire's first lady. And, not unlike Veronica Lario, the wife of Italy's former prime minister, Livia appears to have maintained a "deliberate reserve" throughout her married life.
Rivers of ink have flowed in misogynistic prejudices concerning Livia's influence on her husband, Augustus, during his reign, and legend holds that she deliberately poisoned his heirs. The emperor was said to be so fearful of poisoning that he would only drink from a flowing stream and eat figs directly from the tree in his own garden It is common belief that the Empress smeared some poison on the tree-borne figs and urged Augustus to pick the tainted ones, resulting in his untimely death.
Poison, it is worth noting, has always been rooted in matriarchal Italy, and its history induces a kind of nostalgia, resurrecting a time when women were the custodians and on par with the gods, even if these attributes did not grant them any real power. Readers might keep in mind that, with the exception of the Vestal Virgins, women of antiquity could not participate in politics. Making things even more dire, they exercised very little authority in their marriages. Roman women, many as young as 12, were passed directly from father to husband. Even so, a woman could still become famous or notorious, and the most aspiring managed to achieve great power by eliminating her opponents with sophisticated poisons.
In the end, Barrett's Livia is a much more complex woman, an astute political contriver who understands the psychology of love in the patriarchal world. She would heartily have approved of how Berlusconi's wife, Veronica, 50, dealt with her husband's philandering when she heard of his public flirtation with two young and beautiful women who subsequently kissed and told. Veronica, although furious, tempered her response as coolly as Livia would have. Instead of flying into a rage, she wrote a letter to the newspaper demanding a public apology (not having received one in private) from the ex-prime minister. What Italians would call a brutta figura (bad show).
But politics and love are, as always, difficult to disentangle in Italy. The newspaper she chose was La Republica, the paper that had sought to dethrone Berlusconi right from the start of his career. I think he got the message.