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Berlusconi’s Way

L’odore dei soldi (The Smell of Money)

by Marco Travaglio
Rome: Editori Riuniti, 342 pp., L24,000

L’Italia che ho in mente (The Italy I Have in Mind)

by Silvio Berlusconi
Milan: Mondadori, 310 pp., L26,000

Italian Politics 1998: The Return of Politics

edited by David Hine and Salvatore Vassallo
Istituto Cattaneo/Berghahn, 278 pp., $59.95 (paper)

Italian Politics 1999: The Faltering Transition

edited by Mark Gilbert and Gianfranco Pasquino
Istituto Cattaneo/Berghahn, 276 pp., $49.95


Over every debate about Italian politics hovers the tyranny of the model. Italy is out of line. “The Funding of Political Parties and Control of the Media: Another Italian Anomaly” proclaims the title of one essay in an annual roundup of developments in the bel paese produced by the Istituto Cattaneo, a private political think tank in Bologna. “The End of Italy’s Referendum Anomaly?” inquires another. And yet another: “Italy’s December 1998 ‘Social Pact for Development and Employment’: Towards a New Political Economy for a ‘Normal Country’?”

The model, or normality, that Italy falls short of has a moral value. It is the morality of the modern Western democracy. So Italy’s being an anomaly is also a scandal: “In any other country of the European Union,” claims Elio Veltri in the introduction to L’odore dei soldi (“The Smell of Money”), a book written to show that Silvio Berlusconi is a crook, “the facts we describe would lead to a political earthquake. At the very least those responsible would be forced to quit the political scene. But in Italy this is not the case.”

Fortunately, it turns out that our Western model is not merely abstract or invented, but a state of affairs that humanity naturally tends toward. Italy is thus frequently seen as on the way to, or even on the brink of, normality (sometimes revealingly described by the authoritative historian of Italy Denis Mack Smith, for example, as “maturity”). The decision of the Italian Communist Party, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to change its name to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and later just Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) could thus be interpreted as part of a process of “normalization.” The world need no longer feel, as it had since 1948, that one of Italy’s major political groupings was unelectable. On the other hand, Tangentopoli, the network of political corruption whose unmasking in the early Nineties destroyed the main parties of the center right, was a step back from normality: no sooner had the left become legitimate than the groupings traditionally opposed to them vanished. “Italy’s ‘exceptionalism,’” Anna Cento Bull comments in her book Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy, “which had been thrown out by political analysts, was thus fully reinstated by sociologists, historians and social anthropologists,” who put the blame on “a persisting culture of familism and particularism.”

In this Hegelian interpretation of the world, the scandal of any political anomaly is not, then, just its deviation from the proper model, but the extent to which it obstructs the beneficent historical process that will one day bring every country to have a parliamentary democracy with strong and morally admirable political groupings which alternate in honest government according to the sovereign will of the people. The most recent such obstacle in history’s path is Silvio Berlusconi. “Berlusconi,” wrote the respected journalist Indro Montanelli in Corriere della Sera, “is the millstone that paralyzes Italian politics.” “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy,” proclaimed The Economist‘s cover headline shortly before the recent Italian elections. The article began: “In any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable…,” etc., etc.

After having lived for twenty years in Italy—twenty years in which we have interminably been told that the country is about to become normal—I believe that this way of approaching Italian politics, prevalent both in Italy and abroad and so seductive in its simplicity, is entirely unhelpful. It is thus reassuring to find that Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy, the only one of the books under review that involves interviews with voters in an attempt to understand the relationship between their choices and the lives they are leading, comes to the conclusion: “Reassessing the degree of change (but also of continuity) in Italy’s social identities and political cultures also means reassessing concepts of modernity and modernisation.” And again: “Solutions which may appear ideally suited to the Italian case…can easily backfire.” There is, in short, no ideal model toward which history tends. Or at least not in Italy.

L’odore dei soldi was tossed like a hand grenade into the Italian election campaign, when, on March 14, its author, Marco Travaglio, was interviewed on Satyricon, an “experimental” program produced by public TV and famous for having plumbed new depths of bad taste when a pretty model slipped her red panties from under her dress and offered them as a gift to the show’s host, Daniele Luttazzi. On another occasion guests were given chocolates in the form of turds. Two months before election day, Travaglio claimed to have discovered a lost, indeed suppressed, TV interview with the murdered anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino which spoke of relations between Berlusconi and the mafia. The burden of Travaglio’s book is that the Berlusconi fortune is based on dirty money and hence, quite apart from the problem of his ownership of three of seven national TV networks, he is unelectable. “You’re a courageous man in this shit of a country,” Luttazzi told the writer.

In the days following the program, L’odore dei soldi soared up the bestseller list. The Berlusconi camp claimed that this was further proof that the three public networks were biased toward the government and the left. There were calls by Berlusconi’s spokesmen to boycott the television tax that funds the public channels (which also carry advertising). The commission that assesses the fairness of TV programs during an election campaign agreed that the rules had been broken and suspended Satyricon for a week. Despite the furor, there was almost no debate about the content of the book.

It is not hard to understand why. L’odore dei soldi opens with an attempt to establish that Berlusconi is connected with the Sicilian mafia. In the early 1970s, while still a young man embarked on a career of real estate development in Milan, he gave employment, on the advice of his Sicilian assistant Marcello Dell’Utri, to a certain Vittorio Mangano, who was to be gardener at the Berlusconi villa and possibly a horse breeder (horse breeding is apparently mafia jargon for drug smuggling). Mangano was later fired when suspected of being responsible for a number of thefts and even of trying to organize the kidnapping of a rich guest. Later still, it turned out he was a member of a mafia family.

Travaglio floats the idea that it was through the mafia and the person of Mangano that Berlusconi acquired the financing to start his business. There are long quotations from various pentiti (those mafia members who have decided to collaborate with the magistrates) that support this interpretation. At the end of the opening section we are given the interview, just four pages, with Paolo Borsellino, an interview that, far from being suppressed, was published in the popular magazine Espresso in April 1994 (shortly after Berlusconi became directly involved in politics) and shown on public television. It is unremarkable. To the key question, “It has been said that he [Mangano] worked for Berlusconi,” Borsellino replies: “I wouldn’t know what to say about that, or…even if I must make clear that, as a magistrate, I’m reluctant to talk of things I’m not certain of…” “There is an ongoing investigation though?” “I do know that there is an ongoing investigation.”

There are some frequently used Italian words that may be useful here for getting across the effect of the stories told in Travaglio’s book: polverone (a great cloud of dust) describes the confusion generated by extravagant and hotly contested versions of the same ambiguous incident; fantapolitica refers to fantastic, scandalous, usually paranoid accounts of what is going on in political life; dietrologia (behind-the-scenes-ology) is the obsessive study or invention of fantapolitica and in particular of the way life is pilotata, secretly and illegally manipulated (by one’s enemies); insabbiare’ (to sink something in the sand) describes the process by which an overwhelming quantity of red herrings (often provided by mafia pentiti) and/or red tape can lead to a criminal investigation’s being archiviato, filed away and forgotten.

The sad comedy of a book like L’odore dei soldi, typical of much investigative journalism in Italy, is that the extravagance and sheer abundance of the claims made create such bewilderment in the reader that what damaging content there may be is lost and ignored. That Berlusconi’s companies would have come into contact with the mafia when extending his TV stations to Sicily would hardly be surprising. That he was involved in the murder of Borsellino, as Travaglio vaguely hints, is about as believable as that the Queen ordered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Here is a typical paragraph: Travaglio has just quoted Berlusconi’s assistant Marcello Dell’Utri as saying that he wasn’t aware that a certain Gaetano Cinà was a mafioso:

Strange. Because Tanino Cinà, born in Palermo in 1930, owner of a laundry and a sports shop in Palermo, together with an elementary school certificate, is reported by all the main pentiti to have been the man who—so write Peter Gomez and Leo Sisti in The Untouchable—at least from 1980 onward and doubtless up until the murders of Falcone and Borsellino (1992), was supposed to have made substantial payments to the mafia on behalf of the Berlusconi group. Cinà obviously denies this. But arrested and questioned in 1996, he would be forced at least to admit having relatives and friends among some of the finest names of the honorable society, names including Mimmo Teresi, cousin and right-hand man to Stefano Bontate.

If Anna Bull’s desperately dry study Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy sets out to establish the persisting importance of the family and local community in the dynamics of Italian public life, it need go no further than this account, in which to be related to someone, or to have been part of a community, is to be presumed guilty, and in which the syntax deployed seems itself to embrace the complications of the extended family. Typical of this kind of journalism is the way an account of the facts gets mixed up with a complacent declaration of cultural superiority (the comment on Cinà’s level of education) which nevertheless doesn’t exclude a certain residual populist romanticism about the very phenomenon condemned (“some of the finest names of the honorable society”). Clarity, whether intellectual or emotional, is not at a premium.

But Berlusconi himself is no stranger to the art of generating confusion. The most amusing part of Travaglio’s book is the section where he describes the dizzying series of Chinese boxes that contained Berlusconi’s financial empire throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Aside from the umbrella finance company, Fininvest, and a variety of real estate and, later, TV companies, he formed twenty-three holding companies, officially owned by old and innocuous friends and relatives, and monotonously named Holding Italiana first, second, third, fourth, etc., as if in an attempt to defy distinction. Quoting the reports of various tax inspections, all launched, it has to be said, soon after Berlusconi’s entry into politics in 1993, Travaglio describes how large sums of money of unknown origin were shunted back and forth between, say, holding companies 9, 10, and 11 or 2, 17, and 6, or 3, 18, and 22, apparently to no end.

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