Silvio Berlusconi's flirtatious ways have landed him, full beam, in the media spotlight again.
Photos of the former Italian prime minister cavorting with a group of young girls on the grounds of his Sardinian villa have been splashed all over the Italian press.
Berlusconi is reportedly furious about the photos that show him strolling happily hand in hand with a young redhead and grinning with glee as he embraces two young ladies perched on his knees, the redhead at his side.
The photos appeared in the cover story of this week's Italian gossip magazine Oggi, under the headline "Berlusconi's Harem."
Commenting about the latest paparazzi brouhaha in Italy, today's Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted a "very irritated" Berlusconi as having told his collaborators, "My privacy has been violated." Behind the publication of these photos, he believes, there is a "clear political strategy" to damage his image. This time he is determined to take legal action and "to go all the way," he said.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, a senator in Berlusconi's center-right political party, said, "These photos have been obtained breaking the privacy laws. A deliberate choice was made to only publish the photos that show him in the presence of female guests, omitting to show the presence of any others."
Oggi editor Pino Belleri defended the publication of the photos and denied that the photographers had trespassed on Berlusconi's private property to take the photos.
"We never wrote that Berlusconi and his guests were alone. I know that about 200 people work at the villa, but if his body guards, security guards and gardeners were 50 to a 100 meters away from him when the photographers took the photos, I can't do anything about it."
Paolo Baonaiuti, Belusconi's spokesman, insists these photos are innocent.
"That was a typical holiday with visits from his Forza Italia party youths, both male and female, who Berlusconi was happy to show off his park to -- all in broad sunlight with lots of people about. The decision to publish only the photos that show the women is just malicious."
A Political Conspiracy?
As is the norm in Italy, even celebrity gossip has political overtones.
The director of Oggi has recently been accused of deliberately not publishing compromising pictures of the center-left government spokesman, despite the fact that the magazine admitted buying the photos.
Berlusconi and his center-right followers are not the only ones to see this as a political conspiracy. Three members of the governing center-left party expressed concern yesterday about the privacy of politicians, and called on the house speaker to ensure that privacy is better respected. As the outcry in political circles grew yesterday, the privacy ombudsman announced it had opened an inquiry.
The 70-year-old TV magnate and politician is known for his flamboyant ways and Casanova-style manners. Not embarrassed to show that he takes great care of his image, he has admitted to getting a face-lift and hair transplants to keep his youthful appearance.
Just three months ago, his wife, normally exceedingly discreet, surprised Italians -- and her husband -- with a letter she wrote to him that appeared in an Italian national paper. In the letter, she publicly scolded him for his flirtatious behavior and the disrespect it showed toward her and her children. The letter received wide media coverage, and Italians seemed fascinated -- for a while -- with the unexpected glimpse into this couple's private life. Berlusconi was forced to publish a letter of apology.
When asked about this latest episode, his wife reportedly said she had nothing to add to her earlier letter.
In the meantime, the Italian media has started a wild chase to identify the five young women in the photos.