Is there a link between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's hold on political power inside Italy and his hold over the wider scandal-craved collective imagination of our contemporary culture? Clues to that question may be found in a series of blurry photographs that have wound up on the front page of the respected Spanish daily El País.
The five photos show scenes of poolside nudity and seminudity inside the walls of the Prime Minister's private villa on the island of Sardinia, as well as images of a (fully clothed) Berlusconi walking in the company of several different women. Though all faces but the 72-year-old leader's are pixelated, the images in themselves show nothing scandalous; the scenes are no different from those one might see in countless other private villas around the Mediterranean. (See Berlusconi's worst gaffes.)
But context is everything, which could help explain why this bit of high-stakes paparazzi work was acquired by Spain's top paper and is now making an Internet world tour. The Italian PM has endured weeks of public and media speculation over his private life following his wife's decision to file for divorce, saying she could no longer stay married to someone who "frequents underage females." Berlusconi has vigorously denied the accusation, though he has left unanswered key specific questions about the nature of his relationship with a Neapolitan blonde who recently turned 18. (See pictures of future Berlusconi appointees at LIFE.com.)
Italian papers have reported that the teenager, Noemi Letizia, whom Berlusconi said he saw only in the company of her parents, was among a contingent of young women invited for a New Year's Eve party at the Sardinia villa. Last week, news arrived of a series of potentially compromising long-range photos of the inside of the villa taken by veteran photographer Antonello Zappadu, who two years ago photographed the Prime Minister surrounded by young women at Berlusconi's Sardinia estate, known as Villa Certosa.
Last week, Berlusconi's lawyers succeeded in blocking publication of the photographs in Italy, arguing before a judge that publication of the photographs would constitute an invasion of privacy. That's where El País stepped in. The Spanish daily is one of several European newspapers citing the control the PM has over large swaths of the Italian media trying to keep the heat on Berlusconi. Giovanni De Mauro, editor of the Rome-based Internazionale weekly, says El País' decision to publish the photos is similar to British papers' printing of the details of parliamentary expenditures on porn films and home furnishings, revelations that have recently led to several high-profile resignations in the U.K. "It doesn't have to be criminally punishable. When you choose to be a politician, you must accept full transparency," De Mauro said. "If you're the Italian Prime Minister, your behavior gets seen and evaluated and absorbed by millions of people in Italy, and now in Berlusconi's case, around the whole world." (See pictures of Berlusconi's women at LIFE.com.)
El País knew full well that the pictures would quickly make their way onto millions of computer screens in Italy and elsewhere. But in an editorial, its editors argued that "the publication of the photographs of [Belusconi's] private parties is not an attempt to judge his morality as an ordinary citizen, rather it aims to show how, as Prime Minister, he is trying to turn the realm of democratic politics into a simple continuation of his friendships and entertainment." The paper noted that prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the alleged use of the Prime Minister's official airplane to bring guests to private parties at Villa Certosa (allegations that Berlusconi has denied).
Berlusconi's lawyer quickly announced that the Prime Minister would sue the Spanish paper for violation of privacy, and Berlusconi called the publication of the photos a "scandalous aggression."
The latest episode of this public soap opera came as Europeans voted in parliamentary elections. Some pundits predict that all the hot gossip will hurt Berlusconi, especially among Catholic voters, while others say voters might see him as a victim of rumor-mongering. But there is another, perhaps more far-reaching possibility that could mark the definitive victory of Berlusconi, who has made billions bringing private, sometimes low-brow television to Italy. Italians are growing increasingly immune to it all, resigned to the mingling of serious state affairs with an appetite for gossip. But still they like us can't stop watching.