October 1, 2021

In the late summer of 2003, I interviewed the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at his Sardinian palace, along with the then editor of The Spectator, Boris Johnson. Over the course of our talk, we got the media tycoon to say that Mussolini never killed his opponents but only sent them on holiday, and that Italy’s judges were insane because they were “anthropologically different” from normal people.

The interview, understandably, caused pandemonium after it was published — as Italian media piled into Berlusconi, the fascist vilifier of the country’s heroic justice warriors. Il Cavaliere — The Knight, as Berlusconi is known — responded by telling the world that the signori inglesi had got him drunk on champagne; in reality, he had forced us to drink ice-cold lemon tea.

Berlusconi has always been a crazy and colourful figure, but outrageous as his pronouncements and behaviour have been over the years, no one would ever have accused him of being actually mad. Until now. In the latest development afflicting Italian politics, judges in Milan have ordered the four-times prime minister to undergo psychiatric tests to prove that he is not mad.

It is a move so bizarre that even many of his Left-wing critics are outraged. Writing in the Left-wing daily, Il Riformista, editor Piero Sansonetti described the ruling against Berlusconi as proof that Italy is not a democracy but a “judicial dictatorship”. Even former centre-Left prime minister Romano Prodi sided with the man who for so many years was his principal political enemy, and pronounced that it was “yet another example of Italian madness”.

The court order demanding that Berlusconi’s sanity be tested came during his ongoing trial in Milan, already in its seventh year with feasibly another five to run — by which time he will be 90. The multi-billionaire is accused of bribing a string of young women with €10 million (£8.6 million) in cash, plus cars and flats, in return for their false testimony at a previous trial on what took place at his famous “Bunga Bunga” parties in 2010; which his accusers said were sex-fuelled romps but which, according to him, were elegant dinner parties.

But, last month, after Berlusconi successfully postponed several hearings on the grounds that he was medically unfit, the prosecuting judges sought a court order to force him to undergo a medical examination, as well as a perizia psichiatrica illimitata (unlimited psychiatric assessment).

It is no secret that the one remaining political ambition of Il Cavaliere, who turned 85 this Wednesday, is to become Italy’s next president when the incumbent Sergio Mattarella’s mandate expires in January. All he needs is the majority of parliamentarians to vote for him.

Sansonetti, editor of Il Riformista, is a former member of the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) — the largest communist party in Europe outside the Soviet Bloc — and no friend of the free-marketeer Berlusconi. Yet even he wrote that the aim of the decision was to prevent Berlusconi from becoming head of state: “The judges said to themselves: with a psychiatric examination we block everything. Either he does not accept it, and then we win the trial, or he accepts it, we get him declared mad and his dream of the Quirinale [the presidential palace] is dead.”

In particular, he urged fellow Italian Left-wingers to stop their traditional applause for the judges’s crusade against Berlusconi, which has lasted nearly three decades and which Sansonetti describes as an “authoritarian assault” on democracy.

At the heart of the current trial lie allegations of bribery to cover up what Berlusconi allegedly got up to with then 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug, known as Ruby Rubacuori (“Ruby the Heart Stealer”). Along with other young recipients of Berlusconi’s generosity, she claims that any money, cars or flats he handed over were “gifts”.

In Italy the age of consent is 14 — but it is a criminal offence to pay for sex with a girl under the age of 18. Nevertheless, at the first Ruby trial in 2014 Berlusconi was acquitted on appeal of paying for sex with a minor, on the grounds that he did not know that she was under 18. Berlusconi was also acquitted of abuse of office.

Ever since Berlusconi became a politician in 1994 — to “save Italy from Communism”, as he put it — the country’s prosecuting judges have pursued him without respite. He insists that he is no saint but nor is he a criminal, and that he is the victim of Left-wing judges whose nickname is Toghe Rosse (Red Cloaks), determined to use their extensive powers for political ends.

Italian judges are not like English judges. They are part of the Magistratura, a state institution that is separate from the legal profession. They train as judges, not lawyers; they investigate, prosecute and sit in judgement. And like every institution in Italy, theirs is highly politicised.

Over the course of his political career, Berlusconi claims he has had to face thousands of court hearings. But such a judicial blitzkrieg has not had a lethal effect on his political career, because so many Italians believe that he has been the innocent victim of a judicial witch hunt. It also failed because Berlusconi has only been convicted once — in 2013 — for tax fraud involving his media empire, for which he was not legally responsible at the time of the offence. He received a four-year prison sentence, but this was commuted to one year’s community service, which was mainly spent playing the piano in an old people’s home.

So even though forced to resign as prime minister in 2011, and even though Forza Italia these days is a mere shadow of its former glory, and he’s been banned from public life for five years, Berlusconi really does have an outside chance of becoming Italy’s next head of state, despite his age and poor health. As for the judicial campaign against him, this has only helped his cause — but not if court-appointed psychiatrists get the chance to declare him insane.

That’s why, rather than risk the psychiatrists, knowing “only too well what the outcome of this unjust trial will be”, he has taken what would be regarded as a suicidal or insane decision in most civilised countries: to be tried in his absence. This means that he is likely now to be found guilty, but given his age he will not go to jail — and a conviction will turn him once again into a martyr.

Alessandro Sallusti, editor of the Right-wing daily Libero, wrote that without doubt Berlusconi has been persecuted by the judiciary, but added: “There is no need for an assessment to establish if Berlusconi is mad. Berlusconi is mad, anyone who has achieved what he has achieved cannot be anything else.”

Ironically one of Berlusconi’s favourite books is Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1511) which he used as a manifesto of sorts when he first burst onto the political scene in early 1994 with his new party — Forza Italia — and became prime minister after its shock election victory just a few months later.

At Forza Italia’s first party conference, just before the election, Berlusconi spoke at length about how this book should inspire the new party. In the preface to an Italian edition, he wrote: “What fascinated me about the work of Erasmus was in particular the central thesis of madness as a vital creative force: the more his inspiration springs from the depths of the irrational the more original is the innovator. Revolutionary intuition always makes itself felt when it manifests itself as void of common sense and truly absurd… True and genuine wisdom is thus not found in rational behaviour, which is necessarily complicit with the normal and thus by definition sterile, but in in far-sighted, visionary ‘madness’.”

With that in mind, it is probably just as well that Silvio il Magnifico — as his sympathisers once called him — decided not to subject himself to the psychiatrist’s couch.