Days after attacking him publicly for acting the emperor with a harem of young girls, Silvio Berlusconi's wife Veronica Lario has called time on her 16-year marriage and is seeking a divorce.
"I want to bring down the curtain," Ms Lario was quoted as saying in La Repubblica. "I am convinced that at this point it would not be dignified for me to stop here. The road of my marriage is marked, I cannot stay with a man who surrounds himself with minors."
She was referring to last week's revelation that the Italian prime minister had jetted down to the outskirts of Naples, a golden diamond-studded necklace in hand, to attend the 18th birthday party of a girl called Noemi Letizia. The nature of Mr Berlusconi's relationship with Noemi remains ambiguous. The prime minister's claim that he had made the family's acquaintance because the father had been the chauffeur of his old friend and political patron Bettino Craxi, was rejected by several sources.
Both Noemi and her mother Anna refer to Berlusconi as "Daddy", and La Stampa yesterday quoted Veronica as saying what all Italy has been thinking about the young woman whose chubby cheeks and small eyes are strikingly reminiscent of the prime minister's: "Perhaps she is his daughter."
Whether she is a love child or merely the latest "Berlusconi butterfly", Noemi was the last straw for Ms Lario, the "casus belli" for divorce. The announcement of divorce proceedings reduced the usually verbose Italian leader to a single, terse, sentence. "It is a personal issue that pains me, which is in the private sphere, and about which I feel it is my duty not to say anything," Mr Berlusconi said in a statement. Later he was seen getting into a car outside his Roman apartment, apparently headed for Milan where he and Ms Lario maintain separate homes. He declined to speak to waiting reporters.
Mr Berlusconi has often described the moment in 1980, when he first clapped eyes on the 24-year-old Ms Lario performing at a Milan theatre as love at first sight. "When we met, she made me lose my mind," he once told a women's magazine. The pair wed 10 years later and had three children, now all in their 20s.
Their marriage was long reported to be in trouble. In 2003 the Italian prime minister used a state visit by the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make reference to the rumours linking his wife to philosophy professor, Massimo Cacciari. "Rasmussen is the most handsome prime minister in Europe," Mr Berlusconi told a shocked press conference. "I'm thinking of introducing him to my wife, because he's much more handsome than Cacciari."
And last week's tirade in the Italian media – about Noemi and the Italian "showgirls" her husband was putting forward as candidates for the European elections – was not Ms Lario's first. In 2007, she wrote an open letter, criticising her husband for telling TV starlet Mara Cafagna: "If I weren't married, I would marry you immediately." Mr Berlusconi swiftly issued a public apology. "I beg you to forgive me," he grovelled.
But the hostile reaction from her husband's allies to her latest complaints, apparently accelerated Ms Lario's decision to sue for divorce. La Repubblica quoted her as telling her lawyer: "I want to speed things up and avoid the counter-attack of a man who is always very capable at reversing situations, capable of calling a press conference to announce that it was he who had taken the decision to divorce first, and not 'la signora'."
Last week Libero, a daily newspaper in the Berlusconi camp, splashed photos of a topless Ms Lario during her acting days under the headline "The Ungrateful Showgirl". In an accompanying editorial, it slammed her outburst against the starlet electoral list. "She herself comes from the world of show business, memorable for her topless exhibitions," wrote the newspaper's editor Vittorio Feltri. "If I were in the lady's trousers I would have acted differently, if only to avoid being forcibly consigned to a mental hospital."
Yesterday a leader of the main opposition party said the divorce was "a political matter" and an opportunity for the Democratic Party. Mr Berlusconi was a man "confused in his private life", said Mario Adinolfi, and "confused in his megalomaniac way of governing a country in a moral crisis. Can you imagine that Obama could withstand such a blow inflicted by Michelle, or Sarkozy by Carla Bruni?"
Starlets on parade
*The 33-year-old law graduate and former topless model is currently Minister of Equal Opportunities. In 2007, when she was a mere MP, Mr Berlusconi said on live TV that he would marry her "like a shot" if he was free.
*A strikingly pretty 28-year-old Science graduate, and one-time TV announcer, she was the only one of the "Berlusconi babes" to survive on a list of party candidates for the upcoming European elections after Veronica's outburst.
Virginia Sanjust di Teulada
*Mr Berlusconi allegedly wooed the 32-year-old presenter with flowers and expensive gifts and found her a plum job on state TV.