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Is it any of our business what Silvio Berlusconi, the priapic Prime Minister of Italy, gets up to in bed? His daughter Marina, who runs part of his media empire, thinks not: "Journalists are free, Berlusconi is also. Berlusconi, like everyone else, is free to have a private life." The Berlusconi clan is not alone in using fair means and foul to silence those who try to investigate or criticise. This is also the aim, as Nick Cohen argues, of an unholy alliance of judges, politicians and celebrities in Britain. 

Yet, as Mara Delius reports from Rome, Italians are paying a high price for preserving the privacy of their libertine leader, who is increasingly shunned by his EU colleagues. After a joint press conference at which Berlusconi boasted that he had never needed to pay for his sexual conquests, his Spanish counterpart José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero could scarcely conceal his disgust. No statesman would willingly risk sharing a platform with a figure who complains about press intrusion while washing his dirty linen in public.

What is this preoccupation with the privacy of celebrity really about? In a word: faith. Not long ago, the nation now personified by this ageing Lothario was the most Catholic in the world. Italians still worshipped the God brought to them by Saints Peter and Paul, both of whom they first martyred and then commemorated with the greatest basilicas in Christendom. The public and the private spheres both had their poets — Dante and Boccaccio respectively — and the contradictions between the two made for lively satire. The private life of Italian church and society was laid bare, yet it preserved an equilibrium because it was based on the assumption that God was both all-knowing and all-forgiving. But the decline of traditional Italian society, chronicled in Lampedusa's The Leopard, began a process in which the Catholic faith was partially eclipsed, first by the cult of the Duce and now by the cult of celebrity.

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