If the British press is to be believed, Italy has - thanks to the benign intervention of the IMF - been liberated from the clutches of a modern-day, watered-down form of dictatorship. True, in many ways. Silvio Berlusconi owns television channels, newspapers and publishing houses. He has presided over the longest-serving government in post-war Italian history. He is a billionaire with a portfolio of insurance and property companies. He has passed - and flaunted existing - laws to grant himself immunity and protect the interests of his Empire and his cronies.
Since announcing his imminent resignation, the British press has treated us to in-depth accounts of all the above. Even the tabloids have dedicated pages to the joie de vivre and sexual prowess of a sly old Satyr who - amongst other things - always seems to have run amok with a bottle of San Tropez tan.
Many people have asked the straightforward question: "How on earth did he last so long?" The answer is equally straightforward: Silvio Berlusconi epitomises all things Italian. He was admired - begrudgingly or otherwise - for his outrageous, self-promoting cheek. There is a word in Italian that is difficult to translate: 'furbo'. The closest approximation we have is 'crafty'. The English word's negative connotations conveniently slip away in the process of translation. To be 'furbo' is something vaguely admirable, a quality redolent of the badly-lit and marble corridors, stiletto- and poisoned-phial world of the Borgias.
Not that I am likening the Sardinian sex parties and dodgy property portfolios of our crooning capitalist to the gorgeously grandiloquent goings-on of that jewel-encrusted clan. Oh no. The worldview of Berlusconi, transmitted via satellite into every Italian household, was - and is - painfully squalid, heart-breakingly trashy. In fact, one of the most disturbing facets of Berlusconiland was its explicit, old-fashioned sexism.
When I first arrived in Italy, I was rendered speechless whenever placed in front of a television. The parade of perma-tanned, lecherous old men accompanied by busty, brain-dead blondes took me back to the 1970s, Benny Hill and Bruce Forsyth (and no, I do not consider the latter a 'national treasure'). My not-so-latent feminism was enraged by this overtly old-fashioned representation of the female body and gender. It was if The Second Sex and everything that ensued had never happened.
Yet again, Berlusconi's world view corresponds to the mores of Italian society. I am sorry to say that stereotypes are rooted in reality and, like the figures of commedia dell'arte, the roles of women in Italian society are fixed. There are two forms of femininity in Italy. At a certain point in woman's life, she has to decide whether to play the Angel in the House (beamy mother of his children, more often than not dressed in black) or the tart (boob jobs, botox and too much slap). Of course, one always simplifies. There are myriad nuances, but at 'alla fine dellafiera', these are the archetypes existing in a so-called 'modern' European democracy.
Many of Berlusconi's pretty lady friends have ended up in parliament. One was even endowed with a ministerial position. His octopus-like penetration of his country's sociological DNA has been transposed into its very political fibre, and it is with respect to this aspect of his pernicious influence that the irony and verbal banter begins to wear thin. As Europeans, we are all, in a way, represented on the world stage by the leaders of all its nations, and, over the last few months, I have found myself questioning the very nature and legitimacy of an entity (the European Union) that permits someone like that to influence the world in which I live. Add to this the all-pervading corruption, self-enriching habits and abuse of EU funds by Italian politicians at all levels, even the most fervent acolyte at the altar of pan-Europeanism begins to feel the onset of a crisis of faith.
It is a question that many of my Italian friends have asked themselves for years. But, as I have said - in brief - Berlusconi's success was founded upon his ability to epitomise all the bad things about the Italian state of mind: the fact that he played to the national psyche's follies and foibles enabled him to get away with murder.
It is a sobering thought to remember that, between his first and second terms as Presidente del Consiglio, the hotch-potch centrist/left-wing government could have easily passed laws to prevent him from gaining power again. Equally corrupt? No. The man was, and is, a criminal. Such laws would have been more than justified by the gargantuan dossier of evidence. They did not, and consequently lost: again. One wonders - but not for long - why.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Italian political class lacked the courage to challenge the embodiment of so many national defects. A few months ago, I jokingly said to a friend:
'Oh well. Italy is the only North African state not to have experienced a revolution.'
The irony is that it has, now. But whereas the oppressed masses of Tunisia, Egypt, et al rose up of their own mint tea-fuelled accord, the languid lotus eaters of the BelPaese did not. In the end, Berlusconi did not fall foul of a carefully-inserted stiletto-point emerging from behind a curtain of heavy damask, but more mundanely - merely one of a series of bail-out conditions laid down by a group of leaders of whom he considered himself a worthy part.