A Trip Across Silvio Berlusconi's Italy

Show me the country where a former soft-porn starlet is being considered for a cabinet post. Show me the country where labor representatives jet off to company-paid visits to brothels and a media mogul crazy about music controls 80 percent of the tabloid press.

Show me the country where, according to the World Bank, the red tape required to start a company is more inscrutable than in Rwanda or Kazakhstan. Where business executives run their companies into the ground and then expect bailouts from across the Alps.

Where the population, despite catastrophic economic data, wants none of the economic crisis and, instead, insists on living la dolce vita as if nothing had happened. Show me that country. You don't have to look very far to find it. In fact, we're living in the middle of it. I'm talking about Germany.

But there's more to it than meets the eye. The soft-porn film is called "Die Stossburg," in which Dagmar Wöhrl, today a parliamentary secretary of state in the Economics Ministry, played a supporting role, the media mogul is Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of the Springer media group and the World Bank report "Doing Business" was published in 2009.

Sometimes one must read between the lines to arrive at the truth. Headlines don't tell the whole story about a country. Germany has become more Italian, and Italy has become more German.

For instance, Italy's recent smoking ban was quickly enacted and implemented, with an efficiency normally associated with the Germans. Much has changed since the days when the Italian beach holiday resort Rimini was dubbed the "Teutonic Grill" because of its high concentration of German tourists and Italian singer Rita Pavone's song "Arrivederci Hans." But the mutual attraction between the two countries is still going strong. During this year's summer vacation season, 8 million German citizens are expected to cross the Brenner Pass, drive through the Gotthard Tunnel or board discount flights to their favorite place in the world. Once again, they will look forward to saying "due cappucinis, Mario," knowing full well that Mario will be charging them double.

Oh Italy, where every telephone conversation is a standup performance, where every driver treats the road as a race track, and where accelerating after having stopped at a traffic light means jockeying for the best possible position.

Oh Italy, the land of elderly gentlemen, each of them an Agnelli, a Padrone, a Sky du Mont! The country where every citizen is seemingly able to talk on the phone, flirt and fill out tax forms simultaneously -- and while speeding along in the passing lane. Italy is a country where the negligible is pursued with great seriousness and the serious -- even life itself -- with ease.

Ridicule in the Foreign Media

And yet there is something different about the country this summer. Italy hasn't been this maligned in the foreign media since the days of Mussolini. The ridicule certainly has something to do with its prime minister ordering up playmates to his official residence as if they were a plate of oysters -- by the dozen and preferably young and fresh.

But politics is the real reason Italy has become so sinister to its neighbors. The Canadian daily the Globe and Mail compares Italy to "a military regime," while the Economist likens it to Colombia. When the German public radio network WDR aired a report entitled "Dictatorship of Smiles," it was not referring to North Korea. Meanwhile, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper's weekly magazine has rechristened the country south of the Alps as the "stinking boot."

Ciao Bella … Is it even worth going there anymore?

In the 63rd year of its existence, is the Repubblica Italiana truly on its way to a "post-democratic totalitarianism," as serious observers contend? Or, as other credible sources maintain, is the situation not nearly as dire as some would have us believe?

Italy is uneasy with itself. That much is certain. Normally relaxed dinner-table conversations about politics have become increasingly bitter and sharp-edged. Is it because something is coming to an end? Or because something refuses to come to an end?

Andiamo. Let's embark on a small Grand Tour, a political journey through Berlusconistan, from Lago Maggiore down to Bari and Naples. Let's talk to people who ought to know better.

Part 2: A Football World Cup at Lago Maggiore

A football World Cup match is being played at Lago Maggiore, or Lake Maggiore. The country one encounters after crossing the border doesn't seem like Italy at all. Many of the place names include German Umlauts, and green flags flutter in the wind over the stadium in Varese, as if the Iranian opposition had taken over. This is "Padania," a made-up nation with no basis in historical fact, invented by a failed medical student named Umberto Bossi and his right-wing Northern League. In Padania, the League's alternative name for northern Italy, "Italy" is treated as a historic misunderstanding. Padania is one of the reasons Italy has become so peculiar.

A football World Cup match is being played in the Varese stadium to the sound of rousing hymns. This isn't the regular World Cup, however, but the VIVA World Cup of unrecognized nations and other odd entities. In Group 2, Sápli (Lapland) faces off against Provence and Gozo, a largely unknown nation near Malta. Occitania and Iraqi Kurdistan are playing defending champion Padania. Abkhazia didn't qualify, nor did the Republic of St. Pauli (the name under which the Hamburg football club FC St. Pauli competed).

Is this some sort of a joke? Not according to Umberto Bossi, the Italian minister of federal reforms, who attended the opening match. His Northern League is now Italy's oldest party.

"Yes We Cane"

"In the past, the Communists and the Christian Democrats held their party celebrations. Today we have the League's events. They still barbeque, and it's still about ordinary people," says Sandra Cane.

Cane seems familiar. She's 48, "tanned," as Berlusconi would say, and was voted into office with a slim majority. Her slogan? "Yes We Cane."

Cane is the first and only black mayor in Padania. A registered Democrat in her native Massachusetts, in Italy she is a member of the Northern League. Viggiu, the town of 5,000 residents she runs, lies in the hills near Lago Maggiore. Cane has appointed women to key posts in her town hall.

When asked why she, the daughter of an Italian woman and an American GI, moved to Padania, Cane says: "Because of my identity." She says it is a feeling that has to do with "knowing your history and your traditions, eating with the family on Sunday and not throwing paper on the ground." It is a feeling of security.

Fear is the League's lifeblood. It sees itself as the revolutionary force of order and as the antidote to the Italian conditions of waste and corruption, bureaucracy and nepotism. Its platform is based on an exaggerated regionalism, armed with straightforward symbols and frequent barbecues for the public. Its message is the only revolutionary message that still appeals to Italian voters. The League is as firmly rooted in most of Italy's northern provinces as the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) is in Bavaria. In European elections, it captured 10 percent of the national vote.

Berlusconi is dependent on the League, which has become the driving force behind his reforms.

Umberto Bossi has pushed through legislation that will require taxes to be assessed and administered federally in the future. The move is meant to increase fiscal responsibility and curb tax evasion, based on a motto shared with the American independence movement: "No taxation without representation."

The federal reform minister is in the process of eliminating unnecessary laws and regulations, of which there are apparently 36,000.

The League is a movement that cuts across classic divisions. In Prato, a textile-manufacturing center, it is the party of workers and factory owners alike. These globalization losers feel browbeaten by the "Made in China" labels and by the tax authorities. More important, they no longer feel represented by the traditional political parties.

It is said that cities with League mayors, like Verona, Bergamo and Prato, are well run. But it's also said that this is only because these cities keep their troublemakers on a tight leash. That was the way Germans used to talk about the Greens -- and about the Nazis many decades earlier.

Before the European election, the Northern League put up posters depicting the face of an American Indian, accompanied by the words: "They suffered because of immigration. Now they live on reservations." Illegal immigrants were reportedly also used to put up posters in Milan.

That, on the other hand, is comforting.

One of the League's proposals was to deploy vigilante groups to patrol neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. But this makes Sandra "Citizen" Cane, the mayor of Viggiu, feel uneasy. "It has to be well-prepared," she says. "I don't want to see a Ku Klux Klan in my Padania."

Under pressure from the League, immigration rules have been tightened so that illegal immigration is now a criminal offence, punishable by fines, detention and deportation. The new laws have prompted critics abroad to draw parallels with the Mussolini era. Ironically, the law is essentially a copy of Germany's immigration legislation.

Part 3: Pasta in the Po Valley

The region south of Turin is ground zero for Italy's imperialism of taste. It is home to pasta-maker Barilla, Parma ham and salami, a town called Cinzano and, towering above it all, the chocolate factory of Michele "Nutella" Ferrero, the richest man in Italy. This is a prosperous region, no matter who is running the show in Rome.

Italy once had the most powerful and impressive political left in Europe, led by the largest communist party in the West. The Partito Comunista Italiano had up to 2.2 million members, or twice as many as Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had in its heyday. And even Germany's Social Democrats were in awe of Euro-communists like Enrico Berlinguer.

None of that has survived. Is one man to blame? "Berlusconi isn't the problem, but Berlusconism is. The quasi-genetic mutation of people after 20 years of constant exposure to TV," says Carlo Petrini. The left had nothing in its political arsenal to oppose the expansion of new forms of mass culture or the fragmentation of old forms of work. "The Northern League showed the left how to become entrenched in a region, how to defend the environment and ordinary citizens," he says.

A Revolution of the Kitchen Table

Carlo Petrini is Italy's most successful revolutionary. He is the founder of Slow Food, a now-worldwide movement to save the art of pleasure. Slow Food was born in Bra, a provincial town in the Piedmont region, where notaries walk to lunch with bundles of documents under their arms, and where, by July, mothers have already left for the beach with their children.

Slow Food is the most popular legacy of late-1960s Italy. It was a time when Petrini supported the class struggle but was more interested in tasting the wines of Piedmont with his comrades and stirring up the farmers of the Po Valley so that they would continue growing the incomparable Carmagnola peppers.

It was a revolution of the kitchen and the table, not the factories. Forks and spades were more successful than hammers and sickles. Nowadays, Slow Food campaigns to save endangered fish species and supports stubborn raw cheese producers.

But Petrini doesn't look too pleased by the movement's success. He has the grayish-yellow skin of someone with liver disease, veins protrude from his forehead and he is constantly wiping his mouth with a napkin. "We need a new humanism," he says, launching into a lengthy discussion of the dictatorship of consumerism, one-sided thinking and the unimaginative opposition.

He wants to believe in ordinary people, but he has also given up on them. The Italians don't love Berlusconi. In fact, many find him embarrassing. But in the voting booth, when no one is looking over their shoulders, they check off the box next to his name, choosing what they perceive as the lesser evil, because they have no confidence in anyone else to change anything at all.

Petrini's voice has considerable influence. His columns on the environment are published in La Repubblica, a national newspaper. But there is also an air of snobbery about him, of the quiet contempt for the masses and their culture that was the downfall of Italy's left.

An Expression of a Political Crisis

Perhaps Berlusconi isn't the cause of the crisis, but merely its expression, at least if you believe the thinking of Giuliano Ferrara. A former minister in Berlusconi's cabinet, Ferrara founded Il Foglio, a newspaper that appeals to the right-wing intelligentsia. It derives much of its funding from Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, who has reportedly filed for divorce. Ferrara is nicknamed "Elefantino," and not just because of his obesity. It is said that if Berlusconi had any political sense, he would use Ferrara's arguments.

Ferrara is sitting in a restaurant on the rooftop of the Lingotto building in Turin, devouring a plate of seafood. Lingotto was once Fiat's main factory, and it featured a rooftop test track for the Mirafiori and Spider models. Nowadays, the complex is home to a post-industrial complex of shops and restaurants, and even Ferrara has long since abandoned his communist phase. "You don't understand what is happening in Italy," he says. "Virtually all parties disappeared after 1994. All of them! Imagine if the Republicans and Democrats in the United States vanished overnight. That was our situation. Berlusconi was worried about his business at the time, and so he went into politics and filled the vacuum, without asking too many questions."

Italy saw two sweeping changes in 1994. The Communist Party, suddenly isolated, was disbanded. And the "Democrazia Cristiana," the Italian Christian Democratic party, which had ruled the country for 50 years along with its satellites, disappeared in the wake of the "mani pulite" (Italian for "clean hands") investigation into political corruption.

The old political establishment vanished overnight, and politics in Italy has not been the same since. The ruling caste said its goodbyes, leaving the keys in the door. When Silvio Berlusconi arrived on the scene, they were there for the taking.

Berlusconi has changed the country since then -- for the better, according to Ferrara. He has united the right with the liberal conservatives to oppose the old party machines, the extreme left has been voted out of the parliament, and the Democratic Party, after its last defeat against Berlusconi, is still trying to find itself.

The Media's Wrath

"The Cavaliere" -- or knight, one of Berlusconi's monikers -- "was the first politician in Europe to figure out how to control television," Ferrara says. "Of course, he has no sense of government. He will never be able to differentiate between private and public. He is simply the prototype of the impresario."

In Berlusconi's Italy, everything can be settled with a joke, a compliment, a pearl necklace or an envelope stuffed with cash. "Gianni Agnelli, the former head of Fiat nicknamed the 'King of Italy,' also had his illicit accounts abroad and his orgies. No one wrote about that. The wrath of the judiciary and the press has been visited on the Cavaliere more than anyone else. Why?"

Ferrara stops to catch his breath and says: "It's because this man doesn't fall within political categories. He does things that are inappropriate for a statesman. He was never a member of the club, and he was always on the outside. I like that. Berlusconi is the politician who most resembles a South American caudillo."

So it's a "dictatorship of smiles," after all? Those responsible for the bloody excesses committed by police officers at the 2001 G-8 summit in Genoa have never been prosecuted, and some have even received promotions. In November, a militant group of neo-fascists, masked and some of them armed with sticks, stormed a production center operated by RAI, the national public service broadcaster, to protest a television program. It was an unusual scene for postwar Europe, and yet none of the intruders was prosecuted.

"I believe that there is zero risk of authoritarian development," says Ferrara. "Our country's culture doesn't permit the total abuse of power." He talks about the government-owned companies and administrations, a system of self-sustaining subsystems apparently reminiscent of the late Soviet Union, its sole purpose being to stifle change. "In 15 years, Berlusconi has not managed to bring about judicial reform. Sarkozy is far more powerful than Berlusconi."

In Italy, the prime minister doesn't even have the power to dismiss a cabinet minister. Referendums on reforms that no one doubts are necessary routinely fail. A bit of majority representation? A little more taxing authority for the regions? Both were reasonable proposals, and both were rejected by voters in 2006 and 2009 referendums.

Part 4: Chianti in Siena

Berlusconi blames his bad reputation on the "catastrophism" of the leftist press and its Campari-sipping collaborators, the foreign correspondents. Indeed, there is a certain propensity toward schadenfreude in the press.

The country moans ecstatically when international rating agencies warn against an "Argentine risk" for Italy, amid doubts that the government can service its own debts.

No other European Union country is as hopelessly in debt as Italy, nor does any other EU state spend as much on its retirees and as little on its young academics. "Numbers don't tell the whole story about the country," says Marco Morelli. He must be right, because if they did, Italy would be finished by now.

Morelli is the chief financial officer of a bank that has been around since the days when Christopher Columbus was looking for venture capital. The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472, is the world's oldest financial institution still in business.

From the tower of the bank's medieval headquarters in the Palazzo Salimbeni building, in the old section of Siena, there is a view of the Chianti hills, the cathedral, the city's tiled roofs and, across the street, a pastry shop owned by the family of singer Gianna Nannini. Siena is the capital of the Tuscany faction.

Morelli finds the local folklore unpleasant. He could just as well be sitting in an office in London, and he has a penchant for puffing up his sentences with Anglicisms.

"The debt ratio is higher than elsewhere? Okay. But half of the public bonds are in the pockets of our citizens." Eighty percent of Italians own a piece of real estate, and half even own two. "Italy," says Morelli, "is richer than the statistics suggest."

A Small Business Backbone

The country's backbone consists of small businesses, hounded by the tax authorities, driven to despair by bureaucrats, disdained by the banks and not uncommonly terrorized by the Mafia. There are 40,000 small and very small companies in Italy, almost all with fewer than 15 employees. Many are family businesses, with the owner's daughter standing at the cash register and the son-in-law managing the warehouse. They tend to be more elegant in northern Italy, while handbag makers in Naples are tucked away in basement workshops in the city's older neighborhoods.

Some pay taxes, while others can't afford to. But all of these small businesses operate on the basis of similar principles: Those who hope to survive must be more hardworking than the competition, shrewder and more creative -- and sometimes more audacious. "More Berlusconi-esque," as Giuliano Ferrara would say.

Italy's banks are also behind the times, focusing as they do largely on local business. "Only two years ago," says banker Morelli, "this would have been a sign of total backwardness. Today, in the financial crisis, our economic structure is more flexible, like a shock absorber. Our inability to diversify has proven to be a blessing. And, believe me, there are plenty of managers here who are good with numbers and audacious to boot."

A case in point is Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, with his rescue plan for German automaker Opel. Even the Italian luxury brands -- Armani, Ferrari, Luxottica -- seem unfazed by the crisis. Cutlery maker Sambonet has just acquired the insolvent German porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal.

As in politics, it seems clear that, on the country's streets, expensive cars are readily accepted as symbols of power, without envy or protest. A luxury vehicle is treated mainly as cause for admiration. No one complains when a powerful man parks his Porsche Cayenne on a crosswalk. The inconvenienced pedestrian is left to believe that the offender must have his reasons, or at least the right connections.

A Thirst for Exposés

Why is it that the stories coming out of Italy these days are unlikely to have come from any other European country, not even Monaco or Albania?

Here's an example: The district attorney's office in Bari, a city in southern Italy, taps the phone of a businessman suspected of fraud. The operation reveals that the man has an excellent relationship with the prime minister and regularly provides him with call girls. It also reveals that one of the girls was placed on an electoral list to fulfill the required female quota. The woman's pillow talk with the premier appears in the morning papers and on the Internet. He says: "I'm going to take a shower, too. If you finish before me, wait for me on the big bed." She replies: "Which bed? Putin's?" He says: "Exactly, the one from Putin." This incident allegedly transpired during the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

Where do these reports come from, these accounts that make it so difficult for Germans to indulge their love affair with Italy?

The first explanation is that the press could be to blame, especially with its fondness for scandal, its thirst for exposés and its lack of inhibition when it comes to publishing the transcripts of wiretapped conversations.

The second explanation points to the judiciary, which has a tendency to publicize every suspicion to boost its standing. This, at any rate, is the view taken by the current prime minister, who characterizes the judiciary as a "cancer." Finally, the third explanation is that every citizen of this country knows from experience that many scandals will likely turn out to be the result of harmless old-boy networks, nepotism and favoritism, without which a complex society could not function.

All three explanations are correct, says Emilio Giannelli, one of the most powerful people in Italy -- even more powerful than potentate Berlusconi. Every morning, Giannelli's cartoons appear on the cover page of the country's most influential daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

According to Giannelli, "the power of the populist is only as great as the populus, the people, allow it to be. Most important, he cannot allow himself to become a laughing stock."

Pope Benedict XVI once said that the only reason he reads Corriere is because of the Giannelli's drawings.

Giannelli, who resembles Picasso in his later years, lives in a house surrounded by a jasmine-scented garden in the hills of Siena, complete with an abandoned 12th-century chapel.

In Giannelli's drawings, Berlusconi is depicted as a short man with thick soles on his shoes, a Zampano, the buffo-duce with a giant ego. "Berlusconi falls into a rage when he sees my cartoons. Corriere is the paper of his hometown of Milan. Everyone reads it. He has repeatedly tried to acquire a stake in the company, but he has always failed."

Giannelli is a former attorney who spent much of his professional career working for Banca Monte dei Paschi in Siena. He sympathizes with some of his favorite subject's reform projects. "The judiciary is urgently in need of reform," says Giannelli. "I was involved in a lawsuit from the first to the last day of my employment. Thirty years! Imagine that. It had to do with some sort of rights to candy production."

According to a report by the World Bank, Italy was ranked 156th out of 181 nations in terms of the efficiency of its court system -- behind Angola, Gabon and Guinea-Bissau. This comes at an estimated annual cost to the economy of €2.3 billion ($3.3 billion).

"Berlusconi is an illusionist," says Giannelli. "He always seizes upon a valid problem, but he does so purely out of self-interest. His tricks are based on distracting the public."

Part 5: Amore on the Via Cassia

The Via Cassia, a road built by the Romans, leads from Siena to Rome, passing through Tuscany along the way. The mother of all political showgirls -- thevelinas, or minor starlets -- lives just outside Rome in the penthouse of a castle-like residential development. Ilona Staller was already undressing for the world when Noemi Letizia, an 18-year-old girl from Naples at the center of a recent Berlusconi scandal, was still in diapers. As "La Cicciolina," she was as legendary in the porno industry as she would later become as the founder of Italy's first green party, the Lista del Sole, in 1979. She campaigned, bare-breasted, in Rome and became a member of the Italian parliament for four years.

Images first replaced arguments in Italian politics when Cicciolina exposed her breasts. Given her background, she tends to take a tolerant approach to issues of morality. "What's so shocking about an aging politician surrounding himself with young girls?" she asks. "He wants to forget death. The powerful man is strong, but his flesh is weak."

Her marriage to the American pop artist Jeff Koons ended in divorce and endless custody battles over their son, Ludwig, who Koons once described as a "biological sculpture."

'No Kisses, No Sex, No Love'

Today, Cicciolina is sitting on a sofa, surrounded by pink Teddy bears, trying to train her now 16-year-old son's dog. "Sit, Sheila, Sit!" she commands. "I did everything in bed. But I didn't use it to get ahead. Berlusconi had me flown to a Greek island -- sit, Sheila! -- in 1974. He already had that unbelievable vitality back then. And all his hair. We had dinner together, and he talked. But no kisses, no sex, no love. I know, no one believes me …"

Berlusconi was an entrepreneurial wizard at the time, skilled at ferreting out business opportunities and sufficiently unscrupulous to take advantage of every opportunity -- first in real estate, and later in the private television and advertising market.

How far can a pasha go? "The limit is reached when a girl is placed on the electoral list purely because of her ass. At least I," says Ilona Staller, "had already founded a party at the time." But she doesn't hold it against these girls. "Their only weapons are their faces and bodies. That's the way the world works."

Unfortunately. According to a recent survey, teenage Italian girls most often cite becoming a "velina" as their greatest ambition. While the country gossips about the virility of its prime minister, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks its education system as one the worst in Europe. Indeed, the OECD report offered a more telling insight into the condition of Italian teenagers today than the "velina" survey.

Part 6: The Palazzi of Rome

Italy's elite is a caste of the elderly. Nowhere in Europe are politicians as old, and it seems likely that more young academics leave Italy for better opportunities abroad than in most other European countries. In the 1960s, the biggest trade union was the union of farm laborers. Then the metalworkers' union rose to prominence. Today, the union representing retirees is Italy's biggest.

The gallery next to the main chamber of the Italian parliament is called the "Transatlantico," but if there is a place where clear and transparent conditions are to be established, this isn't it. The room, with its potted palms, red leather seating areas, liveried waiters and muted lighting emanating from the high, coffered ceiling, resembles the lobby of a fin-de-siècle grand hotel, a place of whispers, murmurs and intrigues. The Transatlantico is a room where members of parliament discreetly touch each other on the sleeve, take each other by the arm and assume significant poses as they casually mouth the words "Si, Presìdente" into their mobile phones, a place where smiles are as bright as they are fleeting.

It all makes for grand theater, and it helps to explain why Italian members of parliament are the highest-paid in Europe.

Here, at the center of parliamentary power, Laura Garavini, the 42-year-old representative of Italians living abroad, has been in office for a little over a year. "The first few days were sometimes humiliating. Whenever a female MP would speak, the men from the majority would mimic what she had to say, and the newspapers were only interested in how high our heels were."

A Country Where Women Hold Little Sway

Perhaps men are Italy's real problem. Nowhere else is so much time spent talking about women, and nowhere else do women hold such a small share of power.

Garavini is the anti-velina. She worked for an Italian trade union in Berlin, where she accomplished the feat of winning over the generally conservative Italian diaspora. She has been the Democratic Party's parliamentary leader in the anti-Mafia committee since November.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of Italians staged demonstrations across the country to protest their politicians' excessively comfortable lifestyles. Their middle fingers raised and incited by comedian Beppe Grillo, the protestors shouted: "Vaffanculo! Fuck you!"

Garavini sees little humor in the political situation in Italy. Naturally, she says, Berlusconi is a threat to democracy. "He has no tolerance for dissent. If he doesn't like something, he immediately tries to amend the constitution. This would be inconceivable in any other country."

Garavini, who holds a German passport, fights against worker exploitation and the erosion of protections against wrongful dismissal, as well as to relax the wiretapping laws in Mafia cases. "People who only watch TV here in Italy don't even realize how much this man is ridiculed in other countries," she says. Italy wants to be taken seriously by its fellow EU members, and yet it votes a prime minister into office who systematically ignores European standards for the benefit of his broadcast empire.

"This man uses more than just images to exert control," says Garavini. "There are thousands of people, hundreds of thousands, who are directly dependent on him. In his companies, his broadcast stations, his parties, his administration."

But hasn't Italy, throughout its history, dealt with greater threats to democracy than a 72-year-old egomaniac?

F., a senior constitutional judge who is not unfamiliar with the dark side of power, is sitting in a backroom in Rome. "We don't live in a dictatorship, of course. But…," the judge says, reiterating his wish to remain anonymous, "I am afraid of a dictatorship of the majority."

And then he says: "Let me tell you something, and believe me, it comes from the experience of a long life in Italian politics: The most effective guarantee of our freedom is our lack of efficiency."

Part 7: Fellini in Bari

The motorway from Rome to Bari crosses the Apennines, the part of Italy that was struck by April's massive earthquake. Tremblors have always been moments of truth throughout Italian history. Whenever an earthquake occurred, the country -- usually horrified -- promptly looked into the mirror. Relief funds quickly disappeared into the pockets of the cement cartels and corrupt local politicians. The real disasters usually occurred after the actual earthquake.

Perhaps the fate of the Berlusconi government will be decided at the scene of the 2009 earthquake. The Cavaliere flew to L'Aquila 14 times in the first two months. Tent cities were erected within hours. He brought the G-8 summit to L'Aquila, eager to show the world that he was handling the situation more effectively than anyone else before him.

This too is populism. Nevertheless, what people will remember about the 2009 Italian earthquake, at least in Germany, is Berlusconi's foolish remark that the residents made homeless by the quake "should see it like a weekend of camping."

"His days are numbered." From the office of the governor of the Apulia region, there is a view, past the piers, of the ferries to Montenegro, Greece and Croatia anchored in the shimmering light. "When Berlusconi arrived in Bari on his ship in 1994, 100,000 people came out to greet him, shouting his name, cheering and crying, as if they had spotted the Messiah. It was like a Fellini film." The governor, Nichi Vendola, is standing on the olive wood parquet floor of his office. He wrote his dissertation about Pier Paolo Pasolini, and he is probably one of the last communists in power in Europe. "This movement drew millions out of anonymity and caused them to question the word freedom. Communism has something to do with morality, while Berlusconism replaces community with audacity, empathy with cynicism. The judiciary and the parliament are ridiculed and demeaned, and the shark becomes the dominant social figure."

The Anti-Berlusconi

Vendola is the kind of person who, by all rights, shouldn't exist: A gay, devoutly Catholic, poetry-writing communist who, in the middle of southern Italy, has picked a fight with the Mafia.

Vendola is an anti-Berlusconi, one of the few bright spots in Italian politics. He has transformed the region in the four years of his term in office by introducing competition for government positions, dedicating high-tech zones and establishing a building authority based on rules instead of thick envelopes of cash. This communist is putting into action many of the things Berlusconi constantly promises: efficiency, the removal of bureaucracy, the establishment of rules.

The governor, standing at his window, says: "We were on the road to a new dictatorship. But he became bogged down. The crisis got to him. His promises can't do him any good now. He is a storyteller, but no one believes his fairy tales anymore."

The landscape in the south is covered with scars and wounds: the piers of bridges that were never completed, unregulated building developments and concrete skeletons across the hills of Calabria, and the contaminated pastures of mozzarella buffalos in the countryside near Naples.

Italy boasts the highest consumption of reinforced concrete in Europe. The cement mafia has an iron grip on southern Italy.

Crime is a reality, and no one suffers as much as a result of it or is as ashamed of it as the inhabitants of southern Italy. "They tell us that it's a disease, a genetic defect that we have," says the manager of an auto parts warehouse. "But that's not true. The Mafia is in places where there is poverty and bad policy." Since World War II, politicians in the south have believed that they were cleverer than the Mafia and could use it to their advantage. They were routinely proven wrong.

Everywhere along the roads of the region, known as the Mezzogiorno, there are twisted and rusty signposts perforated with bullet holes and spray-painted with football slogans. Anyone driving through the region and hoping to glean some information from the signs must stop to inspect them carefully. Perhaps the signs are a metaphor for the condition of the entire country.

Part 8: Truth in Naples

The journey through Berlusconistan ends where every Grand Tour ends, on the Gulf of Naples, where Mt. Vesuvius towers threateningly over Italy's most impossible city, and where the islands of Capri and Ischia can barely be made out in the hazy light above the waves.

When we meet Peter Kammerer, he is wearing a light-colored linen suit. In the 1970s, he and Ekkerhart Krippendorf wrote the bible of the Tuscany faction, the "Travel Guide to Italy," published by Germany's Rotbuch Verlag. A first generation of Germans, Kammerer's book in hand, hitchhiked down to the utopia on the other side of the Brenner Pass, to red Bologna and Unità. Once across the border, they discovered all the things that didn't exist in the typical middle-class German city: class-conscious workers, cooperatives, anti-psychiatrists, cheap wine and free drugs.

Kammerer is a sociologist who wears his hair closely cropped and roams the sociotopes of Italy while conversing in his lively southern German accent. He is currently staging a performance with Neapolitan youth that draws heavily on Pasolini and German dramatist Heiner Müller.

"In the 1980s, the Italian left saw Germany as a fascist country. Everyone said that authoritarian structures were unthinkable in Italy. Well, today, Italy has become sinister for us Germans," Kammerer says cheerfully. "Back in the 1980s, I abandoned the notion that everything could be better here."

Italy, the Political Laboratory

Today, Kammerer still commutes between homes in Umbria, Naples and Berlin. Italy, he says, is like a giant Alexander Calder mobile: Everything is moving, and its dynamics are unpredictable, but in the end the structure is very secure -- provided, that is, that no individual part is too large. Questions of style, says Kammerer, are very important in Italy, and the things Berlusconi gets away with today could cost him his head tomorrow.

Italy has always been a political laboratory. Hitler studied Mussolini, leftists admired Euro-communism, and Germany's Red Army Faction terrorist group looked up to Italy's Red Brigades. According to Kammerer, Germany could have its own Berlusconi in 10 years. The symptoms are already recognizable: the SPD's plunge in popularity, the lack of substance in all political platforms, the arbitrariness of discourse and the mediocrity of politicians.

For this reason, says Kammerer, it is important to study Italy, to visit people like Sandra Canes and Nichi Vendola, and to listen to what Giuliano Ferrara and auto parts dealers have to say.

Berlusconi is not Italy's sickness. Italians look at him as if they were looking into an omnipresent mirror, sometimes horrified, not always willingly and constantly concerned about what could be hiding behind it.

It is precisely because of its outrages and impertinences that Italy still holds a fascination for Kammerer. "Nothing here is unambiguous," he says. "For example, I am in favor of corruption. If rules are too rigid, one has to step across boundaries, or else vitality quickly falls by the wayside. Corruption prevents standards from being enforced."

And standardization, Kammerer believes, spells a loss of charm. In this sense, Europe needs this country more than ever -- as an imposition and a laboratory, as a challenge and a rehearsal stage where things are presented in grotesquely exaggerated form. It's good to know that something else exists only an hour's flight away. Italy is still an exciting country, says Kammerer, and it's worth careful observation.

"What do I love about Italy? That's easy," says Kammerer. "You can't depend on anything in this country." Not even the truth. And not even the country's demise."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.