“When an enormous . . . power establishes itself in a country, the court system is born,” writes Viroli. And that, he maintains, is exactly what Silvio Berlusconi has created in Italy. Viroli’s is a gripping and at times funny, if overall depressing, exposé of how the prime minister and media mogul has hollowed out the country’s democracy. Surrounding Berlusconi in parliament and everywhere else, he writes, is a modern-day court populated by thick ranks of flatterers, and, of course, beautiful, busty women who resemble the courtesans of a bygone era.
Anecdotes illustrating the servile mentality that glorifies Berlusconi abound. A Rome city councillor proposed dedicating a square or street to Berlusconi’s mother. An elderly woman, one of the survivors of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, which killed 309, excused herself in front of TV cameras for appearing toothless just as the prime minister was on an official visit to the quake-stricken town. Cheering crowds in port cities welcomed the Azzurra, the luxury ocean liner fitted with an on-board auditorium for up to 5,000 people with which Berlusconi toured Italy during an electoral campaign.
The book is filled with references to Italian literature and philosophy—from Machiavelli to the less well-known Torquato Tasso, a 16th-century poet, to the 19th-century patriots who fought for the unification of Italy—constant reminders of the high-minded ideals and uniquely rich artistic heritage Italy also produced.
Viroli, however, is far too lenient on the Italian opposition. The centre-left, he writes, had no idea that Berlusconi “might deal a fatal blow to republican political liberty. If there had been such an understanding, the opposition might well have been more intransigent.” It’s a flattering portrayal of a political force that doesn’t seem to be able to beat Berlusconi even as his approval ratings have plunged.