ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyant behavior. He has also put his foot in his mouth publicly dozens of times, so Italians have come to expect a measure of extravagance from their billionaire politician.
Late Monday in Sardinia he shocked the nation once again, not with words this time, but with a pirate-like bandana bound tightly to his head.
The occasion was a sunset stroll through the luxurious seaside town of Porto Cervo with his overnight guests, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie.
What was billed as an “extremely private and personal visit between two friends” gave the public and press plenty to look at when Berlusconi showed up in an unbuttoned white linen shirt, and loose white pants, topped with a white bandana tied in the style of Steve Van Zandt — he of the Bruce Springsteen band and “The Sopranos” — or Axl Rose, the outrageous lead singer of Guns n' Roses.
Blairs grin and bear it
If the Blairs were embarrassed they did their best not to show it, but Mrs. Berlusconi may have been, for she did not join her swashbuckling husband for the “cocktail hour” promenade; she chose to stay on the family yacht.
And if the British PM’s staff reported insistence on keeping the visit low-profile is true, they must have been counting on Berlusconi to suppress his nature.
From the time Blairs' helicopter landed, it took less than three hours for Berlusconi to talk the British first couple into joining him for a quick dip into the crowds and cameras ashore.
Dinner was anything but quiet; accompanied by Neapolitan songs, it ended with a fireworks display in the colors of the Italian and British flags spelling “VV Tony,” standing for “Viva Tony” or “Long live Tony.”
The Blairs' trip to Berlusconi's luxury Sardinian estate has came under heavy fire in the London press, with editorialists accusing the British leader of seeking freebie holidays and questioning his friendship with the flamboyant Italian.
But if Berlusconi’s plan was to get his picture back on the front page, it definitely worked perfectly.
The “Knight,” as he’s known here in Italy, was all over the newsstands and his “new look” warranted a 10-slide layout on the website of the daily La Repubblica.
Reactions from across the Italian political spectrum were swift and varied.
Coalition member Daniela Santanche said, “He never ceases to stun and amaze. Nobody else has the courage be so daring with their image. Bravo.”
But opposition party leader Clemente Mastella disagreed, “Berlusconi wears that bandana like a 70-year-old woman wears a miniskirt.”
In fact, the Italian leader turns 68 at the end of September.
Radical Party member Daniele Capezzone was more diplomatic, “I would like to express all my sympathy to Tony Blair and his wife.”
Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.