What are we to make of Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire variously operating as media magnate, financier, real estate tycoon, owner of A. C. Milan, miscellaneous entrepreneur, frequent Prime Minister and probable future President (once he gets the rules changed, Putin-style) of the Italian Republic?
For the more incurious sort of British observer, it’s safe to embrace Sr Berlusconi as the basically satisfying punchline to the long-running joke that is, at least to those whose working model of international relations runs entirely off lazy national stereotypes, Italian postwar politics. On the more thoughtful Left, Sr Berlusconi is regarded with exactly the sort of enjoyable, companionable terror with which older children exchange grand guignol tales of serial killers — ‘the eagle of fascism soars‘, apparently, although it must be said that eagles are, by nature, rather more conspicuously monogamous than Sr Berlusconi. And on the Right, Sr Berlusconi gives pleasure through the consistency with which he stops Communists from winning elections, the temptations that he offered David Mills and — it’s an admirable trait which he shares with Lady Thatcher and shared with Ronald Reagan, but one that few these days even attempt to pull off — his ability to upset, to the point of hysterical derangement, the more plangently excitable left-of-centre commentariat.
Meanwhile, the sort of troublemakers who want an end to politics as we know it (hello there, Guido) often love Sr Berlusconi for his spectacular catastrophic failures of political correctness, his erstwhile proximity to Tony Blair, the transparent shameless gleefulness with which he wields power (one’s reminded of Leo X: ‘God has given us the papacy — let us enjoy it’), and indeed the paradoxes thrown up by his basic existence. What one intelligent commentator regards as problematic, the troublemakers rather enjoy:
‘Berlusconi embodies perhaps the deepest irony in the postwar history of any Western society. The First Republic collapsed amid public outrage at the exposure of stratospheric levels of political corruption, only to give birth to a Second Republic dominated by a yet more flamboyant monument of illegality and corruption.’
Enthusiasts for the MPs’ expenses scandal, looking forward to a brave new world in which politics is cleansed and transfigured through the altruistic exertions of the Barclay brothers, please take note.
All of which brings us to the so-called Cristo ritrovato — a small statue of the crucified Christ (the cross long since detached and vanished), 41 cm tall, constructed out of pieces of lime wood glued together, acquired by the Florentine art dealer Giancarlo Gallino a couple of decades ago, controversially atttributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, sold to the Italian Ministry of Culture for £2.5 million last year — a price, incidentally, that suggests the attribution didn’t carry much weight with the art market, export bans notwithstanding — and displayed in Rome where it was greeted with enthusiasm if not credulity by Pope Benedict XVI and a stready stream of senior government officials, before being sent off on a tour that has already taken in Milan, Trapani, Palermo and Naples, where it remains at present, having been admired by something like 600,000 souls along its way.
That’s not all, though. Apparently, once its national tour, optimistically titled Michelangelo giovane, il crocifisso ritrovato, is complete, the little statue will be despatched to the United States ‘to pay tribute to the new American President Barak [sic] Obama’, rather as poor Mona Lisa was made to pay a courtesy call on President and Mrs Kennedy in 1963 — with the minor differences, of course, that no one really questions the attribution of Mona Lisa to Leonardo da Vinci, and that, instead of the image of a famously beautiful woman being sent as tribute to a famously beautiful woman (and her presidental husband), we have the image of our crucified Saviour laid at the feet of President Obama. See what I mean about Sr Berlusconi? If this is history’s tragic burden reprised for us as farce, it’s hard to deny that the farce is, at least, a reasonably witty one.
Back, though, to our Rediscovered Christ. Since it appears that very few ‘experts’ indeed feel confident about the attribution to Michelangelo — not surprisingly, as his fairly well-documented oeuvre is not known to have contained any wooden figures of this sort, the one wooden sculpture sometimes given to him (itself not a very secure attribution) looks nothing like the Rediscovered Christ, while the Rediscovered Christ doesn’t look much like anything by Michelangelo but looks quite a lot like plenty of other crucifixion figures produced in Tuscany at the end of the Quattrocentro — we might pause to wonder why, at a time of worldwide economic contraction reflected in much slashing of culture-related budgets in Italy as elsewhere, the decision was taken to purchase this reasonably attractive, if somewhat unremarkable work of art.
Could it have something to do with politics, perhaps? This would make sense, as Sr Berlusconi’s intense yet turbulent relationship with the Roman Catholic church — recently critical of aspects of the prime minister’s outreach amongst the young — is very nearly as problematic as that of his Fascist predecessor. Now and then, this most worldly, amoral and postmodern of contemporary conservative politicians is reminded that much of his electorate still, to a striking extent, draws its moral guidance from traditional Catholic social teachings, its security from the consolations of the Catholic liturgy, and its political allegiances from the Catholic hierarchy. What could be simpler, this being the case, than to Rediscover Christ (as it were) in a conveniently secularist-friendly, easily marketable High Art form, stage a public rite of reconciliation with Him, then send Him touring around the country, in a mostra of conservative and Christian, if spectacularly blatant self-advertisement? It’s the shamelessness, more than anything else, that somehow appeals.
No, like him or loathe him, you have to hand it to Sr Berlusconi — if only because, as we’re reminded today, there are plenty of far more repulsive and less responsible ways in which an anxious and unprincipled right-of-centre politician can pander to what he believes to be the prevailing public mood.