He’s been counted down-and-out prematurely before, so those predicting that a decision on a tax-fraud conviction — slated to come from Italy’s Supreme Court as early as Thursday — will finally spell the end for the resilient Silvio Berlusconi may want to hold back. But even if the former prime minister really is temporarily banned from holding public office — as this conviction, in theory, requires him to be — those who fear that the Italian political scene will grow too boring (or too functional) without him need not worry: there’s another Berlusconi waiting in the wings to carry on the family name.
Reports say Il Cavaliere is eyeing eldest daughter Marina Berlusconi to take over leadership of his center-right People of Liberty party — perhaps as part of a larger rebranding of the party slated for this fall, when Berlusconi plans to change its name back to the original “Forza Italia” and “focus on young people.”
Marina, 46, is seen as better equipped to challenge Florence’s dynamic 38-year-old mayor Matteo Renzi, a likely leader of the center-left in Italy’s next elections.
So far, Marina maintains she doesn’t want to succeed her father, professing that her heart is in business. But even without holding elected office, as head of the Berlusconi family holding company, Fininvest, and its publishing arm, Mondadori, Marina has become one of the most powerful people in a country where hardly any women have real clout in the realms of politics and business. Does that make the daughter of the man who brought Bunga Bunga into our vocabulary a lean in-style feminist?
Marina is the daughter of Silvio and his first wife, Carla Elvira Dall’Oglio. She was inducted early into the Berlusconi family’s media empire and she rose fast — becoming a vice-chair when she was just 30 and chairwoman fewer than 10 years later. She’s described in some reports as a “determined manager . . . both feared and respected.” The Italian Huffington Post called her an “iron sergeant” who “did not hesitate” to freeze out her half-sister Barbara when the latter began expressing an interest in the publishing business. The hardworking Marina reportedly puts in long hours at the office, from dawn until late at night, only taking breaks for trips to the gym. (She’s also a mother of two, married to a former dancer with La Scala opera.)
Marina’s famous father, of course, has contributed to her professional success. But her lofty position was by no means guaranteed — many in male-dominated Italy once believed that Silvio Berlusconi would be succeeded as head of Fininvest by Marina’s brother, Pier Silvio.
“In Italy, where women usually ‘sit in the second row’, this is a huge leap forward,” wrote the Financial Times Deutschland in 2005, when Marina was tapped to lead Fininvest.
Indeed, Italy remains one of the most gender-unequal countries in Europe — a place where many women are encouraged to stay at home rather than pursue careers. One survey found that 81 percent of Italians believe that children will suffer when the mother works, compared to the European average of 55 percent. Italian women have complained that they are either seen as sexy veline (scantily-clad showgirls) or housewives; Marina Berlusconi is a prominent and powerful Italian woman who doesn’t fit neatly into either category.
And yet Marina Berlusconi the career woman is also Marina Berlusconi, Italian tabloid magazine staple; one publication, Chi magazine, which just happens to be published by Mondadori, featured (notably flattering) photos of her topless in a 2010 special report on the Berlusconi family that included rapturous descriptions of her beauty: “She reminds us of Galatea, the most beautiful among the Nereids, with her milk white skin,” one man is quoted as saying. (In 2010, Vogue Italy said Marina had “a penchant for plastic surgery” — like father, like daughter?) Britain’s Daily Mail published these (notably less flattering) pictures of a “swaying and staggering” Marina who appears close to having a wardrobe malfunction.
It also happens that the media empire she sits atop is often held to be complicit in perpetuating the very stereotypes she manages to break through herself: the Berlusconi media brand is inextricably linked to the perky, giggling presenters in tiny dresses who populate its programming (and were controversially selected by Silvio after their showgirl careers were over to run for positions in European parliament.) And of course, there’s her father, whom she has consistently defended — often forcefully — and who many argue has done as much as anyone to hold back women’s progress in Italy, with his steady stream of sexist jokes and his distinct tendency to value beauty over brains.
So would putting Marina in power mean progress for Italian women? Or reverting to an era that some hoped they’d finally seen the last of? Could Italy’s most important feminist turn out to be … a Berlusconi?
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is a writer for Foreign Policy.