- The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi
Over the last two decades, Alexander Stille has emerged as America's most insightful observer of Italy and the Italians. Stille is today the San Paolo Professor of Journalism at Columbia University's School of Journalism and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books. In addition, he is also the author of well-received works such as Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families [End Page 187] Under Fascism; Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic; and The Future of the Past. His latest book, The Sack of Rome, is an eye-opening work, and most readers not familiar with contemporary Italy will surely be amazed by the events and developments Stille describes because the subject of his investigation attained highest political office despite (or perhaps because of) ties to the Mafia and corrupt politicians.
Stille argues that in 1993, in the wake of the disintegration of the political system caused by the revelation of a massive bribery network, commonly referred to as "Tangentopoli" and involving a multitude of elected officials, Berlusconi decided to enter politics. In a stroke of political genius, Berlusconi appropriated the language and symbols of Italian soccer (i.e., "Forza Italia!") as his campaign slogan while borrowing the colors of the national team for his party. In the vacuum created by the collapse of both the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, Berlusconi carved a political niche that appealed to many Italians. When asked why they would vote for the country's richest man for prime minister, Italians invariably answered that he was too rich to be in politics for the money and therefore was immune from the temptations of corruption. In truth, as Stille documents, prior to entering politics Berlusconi established his fortune through murky business deals with shady characters tied to the Mafia and through the covert patronage of the country's political elite. He entered the politica arena because, as Stille explains, with the dissolution in the early 1990s of the Christians Democrats and especially Bettino Craxi's Italian Socialist Party (two of Berlusconi's most important patrons), it became clear that Berlusconi's empire was a frail house of cards that an inquisitive magistrate could easily undo. Once the decision to enter politics had been made, all the resources of the Berlusconi empire were utilized as part of the electoral campaign: newspapers, publicity firms, real estate, glossy magazines, and, most critically, television.
During his two stints as prime minister the concepts of 'conflict of interest' and 'blind trust' were foreign to Berlusconi. Moreover, Stille shows how Berlusconi drafted members of his own vast financial, publicity and media empires to run for Parliament so that, once safely ensconced in power, these men and women could draft and approve legislation that retroactively cleared their employer of crimes and that precluded future inquiries into his affairs. This permitted Berlusconi to rail against the "red robes," supposedly 'communist' judges and magistrates who courageously tried to shed light on the purposely concealed workings of his empire. [End Page 188]
Indeed, Berlusconi did not enter politics because of a selfless motive, notwithstanding the incessant barrage of information disseminated by his media outlets that depicted him as interested in public service, but rather to protect his vast financial empire. Once he became prime minister, Berlusconi gained control of the RAI's three public networks. His new influence was such that, as Stille writes: "[o]ne sensed that a terrible new power–mixing entertainment, sports, television and politics—had been born" (9).
Stille's writing is vivid and engaging, even when explaining the complicated webs of corruption involving his subject.
The Sack of Rome stands well with the work of Paul Ginsborg (Italy and Its Discontents. Silvio...