The Berlusconi Attack: Will Italy's Leader Gain Sympathy?

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Livio Anticoli / Italian Premier's Office / AP

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, after an attacker hurled a statuette at him, in Milan on Dec. 13, 2009

Moments after a Milan attacker hurled a rock-hard souvenir into Silvio Berlusconi's face, the dazed and bloodied Prime Minister stood up on the edge of his car so the crowd could get a good look. An aide would later say that Berlusconi, 73, instinctively wanted to assure everyone that he was all right. You might also imagine that the embattled leader was eager for the world to see that — thanks to his haters — he was in fact not all right.

Italian police have identified Massimo Tartaglia, 42, as the alleged attacker. Tartaglia's father told Italy's Sky News 24 that his son had a long history of mental illness and was not a political activist. Still, one could hardly describe the act as "isolated." The political climate in the country is edgier than ever, and Berlusconi's love-him-or-hate-him effect on the electorate has only grown stronger over the past eight months in the wake of a sex scandal and renewed legal battles. Last month, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni demanded that Facebook disable a user page called "Killing Berlusconi" that had attracted thousands of friends and fans in just a few weeks.

Just minutes before the attack — which took place on Sunday night at the end of a political rally — a group of young opponents had started heckling Berlusconi. The Prime Minister barked back and ultimately led his supporters in chants of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in response to the protesters. In that context, Berlusconi's decision to display his bloody wounds could well have been a further rhetorical flourish, a melodramatic "Look what you've contributed to."

Regardless of what drove Berlusconi to exhibit his battered face, the world would be left with sufficient images of both the attack and its chaotic aftermath. Professional media coverage and amateur footage is on YouTube, and Italians have clicked through the events of the night like a real-time, interactive Zapruder film. Meanwhile, photographs of Berlusconi's slashed and bruised visage will now forever be part of the way we see the perma-tanned and image-conscious billionaire.

Though not lethal, the point-blank hurling of a miniature replica of Milan's Duomo was a brutal and violent act that could have done even more damage than the broken nose, two cracked teeth and sliced lip the Prime Minister suffered. Doctors at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan have run repeated MRIs on Berlusconi; there have been no signs of neurological damage so far. Berlusconi told aides that only a miracle prevented him from being blinded in his left eye. Interior Minister Maroni said the attack could have been fatal.

This was not the first time an onlooker had launched a dangerous object at Berlusconi. Five years ago, Roberto Dal Bosco was visiting the historic Piazza Navona when he happened upon a small crowd gathered around the Prime Minister on an afternoon stroll. Dal Bosco threw his tripod at Berlusconi, who suffered minor shoulder injuries. But after receiving a letter of apology, Berlusconi publicly forgave his attacker.

Berlusconi is now the recipient of bipartisan sympathy. Democratic party leader Pierluigi Bersani visited Berlusconi at the hospital on Monday, while Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, which has been hounding Berlusconi even more than usual in recent months, declared in an editorial that there is no space to justify any act of violence: "First because it is so grave in itself, and also because it could lead to a tragic season that we have already experienced in the worst years of our life," a clear reference to the ideological terrorism that left hundreds dead in Italy in the 1970s and '80s. There was also widespread condemnation of the tactics of opposition politicians Rosy Bindi and Antonio Di Pietro, who have suggested that Berlusconi's scorched-earth approach to politics helped create a climate ripe for violence.

It is unclear how the Prime Minister will emerge from the attack. After his first night in the hospital, with at least one more night to go, the famously resilient Berlusconi was notably "passive," according to his doctor. "He is subdued, very gloomy," his personal doctor, Alberto Zangrillo, told RAI television. "He is reacting in a way that is not like him."