If it were made into a film or a play, it would have to begin near the end: from the parties that were held in the weeks and days before the trial, when the girls tried to grab the last of the money and favours whilst talking privately about him with open, at times ferocious disrespect, calling him a ‘flaccid arse’ and other things. ‘He’ was at this time the Prime Minister of what is still formally regarded as the world’s seventh largest industrial power. They, ‘the girls’, were a disparate group of women ranging in age from 17 to 27, some foreign, some prostitutes, some studying towards a degree, some aspiring to make a name for themselves in the world of televised entertainment, many a combination of the above, but all struggling right now to make the most of those last few parties. To corner him, to persuade him to help them start a business – which was code for receiving a large payment, practically a severance – or even, as they dreamed, to have the deed for one of the apartments in which they lived in Via Olgettina, in the outskirts of Milan, transferred into their names, so that they could ‘settle’, walk away with something.
In the day-to-day, or rather night-to-night, the competition consisted in seeing who would receive the thickest, richest envelope at the end of the party. ‘Aris got nine pretty flowers the other night,’ says Nicole Minetti in one of the phone calls recorded by the police. This means that Aris Espinoza, then 22, was handed an envelope containing 9,000 euros at the end of that one evening spent at Berlusconi’s palace in Arcore. In exchange for what? For being beautiful and being available, I think, would be the most accurate answer. For being pretty. For being there. Whether or not sex was part of the transactions, or of which particular transactions – whilst of material interest to the prosecutors and of largely prurient interest to the public – seems to me a much less interesting question. One of Berlusconi’s lines of defence in the media has always been that he gave all that money because it’s in his nature to help people in financial strife. It just so happened that the people in question where all young, beautiful women. ‘Girls’, as he always called them, as they called each other. And this story could not fail to be not only about power but also about the subservient role of women in Italian society and the role of the female body in the national psyche.
Berlusconi’s women weren’t sex workers. They were a live-in harem, serving as wives, housewives, companions, lovers, all supposed to be available whenever ‘the boss’ or Papi (‘Daddy’) asked the caretaker of the group – former dental hygienist and current regional councillor Nicole Minetti – to organise one of the parties known to the world as bunga-bunga. The international press has concentrated on the ‘last days of the empire’ nature of these festivities, the grotesque dress-ups. One of the girls once dressed as Obama, another time as Ilda Boccassini, the public prosecutor who had led most of the trials against Berlusconi (including, eventually, this one). You can see why people would focus on such things. But there is a much harder edge to this affair, and it becomes most evident when the Olgettina system is about to be dismantled. You can read it in the increasingly fevered pitch of those last requests, even as the girls started meeting with Berlusconi’s lawyers to receive the necessary coaching on how to speak and what to say to the magistrates. They knew they had given this 75 year-old man, whom now they frequently and openly confessed to each other to finding repulsive, their one shot at youth, beauty and a good, clean name, that is to say their most valuable assets in a society that trained them to see themselves not as possessing but as being those things (and a special chapter ought be devoted, when somebody writes the book, to the parents who reassured their daughters in the recorded phone calls, pleading with them not to walk away, at least not before having secured a large enough sum of money.)
It is in those final days, when the stakes were raised, that the market logic of the system became impossible to conceal – and besides there was less of a reason to bother with the decorum. What Berlusconi got out of the exchange was the ability to switch between a series of roles within his private theatre: he could be loving uncle, flirty friend, insatiable lover to all of these women, who were his. If you wonder how badly he could possibly have needed those psychological comforts, consider that he had a whole other mirror bunga-bunga party system going in Rome (where he spent half the year as Prime Minister), about which we know very little other than the fact it existed and was likely as large. Now the Olgettina girls were setting aside all of the pleasantries, demanding to see the money. On one occasion they did so openly and in a group, almost acting as a collective, to which an angered Berlusconi replied that they shouldn’t complain about getting in one night what it would take a factory worker five months to earn.
This is clearly the mirror not just of a nation’s moral decline, but also of its broader social and economic relations. The boss owns your body, your personal history, your future. At the end of the day’s work, he sets the price for your services. Because he is the market, he tells you how much you are worth. It is almost always less than you think.
I feel I should write a much longer post about this. I read the 400-page long court summons. I listened to the phone calls. I waded through two years’ worth of media reports. There is so much detail, and so much of it is exhausting, enervating. It is said that power wears you out, and weariness is a strong theme in this entire story. The standard narrative about the end of the Olgettina system pits a tired, fragile Berlusconi against his increasingly impudent, greedy menagerie, and is tinged with an undercurrent of melancholy sympathy for the old man. The sentiment is quite misplaced. Now we now from yet more recorded conversation from another wire that he had moved on, that he soon started partying elsewhere, even as the Olgettina trial got going. He found himself a new group of young women and boasted that his lovemaking was leaving them exhausted. In fact – reveals wryly his friend in the recording – they had quickly worked out that all they had to do to make him happy was to cry ‘enough, I can’t take it any more!’ after a couple of his pelvic thrusts.
Adesso basta – ‘enough is enough’ – was also the slogan of the feminist marches at the height of the bunga-bunga scandal. It captured the mix of weariness and anger that so many of us feel. How many of the same battles for women and the Left have had to be fought over and over again in my lifetime? But exasperation is no strategy on which to build alternative futures. The demonstrations came and went. They made no difference. Berlusconi’s fortunes only came to an end once he had tired himself out.
I should write a much longer post about this. Begin again from the beginning. I haven’t even told you why Berlusconi is on trial for this. Almost everything he did was legal. But I won’t. Ça suffit. It’s enough.