Silvio Berlusconi, bruised, leaves hospital and vows to get back to work

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi left the hospital on Thursday, four days after an assault left him bloody and bruised. The aftermath of the incident has revealed a rising level of rancor in Italian politics.

Giampiero Sposito/Reuters
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (c.) leaves the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Thursday.

Bruised and bandaged, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was discharged from hospital on Thursday, four days after a lone protester smashed a souvenir statuette into his face.

The 73-year-old media mogul had a large bandage stuck to the left side of his face and over his nose, which was broken in the attack in central Milan on Sunday, as he mingled in a crowd of supporters following a political rally.

The assault has widened a deep rift between Italy’s feuding political parties and further divided an already sharply polarized society.

In a country in which the flamboyant prime minister is loved and loathed in almost equal measure, passions have run high on the street, in parliament in Rome, and on the Internet, with the Left and Right blaming each other for rhetoric that made the prime minister a target for violence.

The country has been plunged into a frenzy of recrimination and accusation since Massimo Tartaglia, an electronics engineer with a history of mental problems, hurled a replica of Milan’s famous cathedral at "Il Cavaliere," as the three-time prime minister is known.

Tartaglia, a loner who lived with his parents, is being held in prison and faces up to five years in jail for aggravated assault.

The prime minister’s spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti said that despite his injuries, his boss was keen to get back to running the country.

"He's a work machine: he gets up at 7 a.m. and he keeps going until two in the morning. To try to stop him is like trying to block a panzer tank; you'd risk getting run over," Mr Bonaiuti said.

While Mr. Berlusconi is expected to spend a few days recuperating in a luxury villa he owns outside Milan, there were also reports that he would seek to have the scars from the attack removed with plastic surgery.

In a statement, Mr Berlusconi said that despite the physical trauma he had suffered as a result of the attack, the messages of goodwill he had received from Italy’s center-left opposition meant that some good might come out of the incident.

"I will remember two things about these days: the hatred of a few and the love of many, many Italians,” he said. “If what happened leads to a greater awareness of the need for more civil and honest language in political dialogue, then this pain will not have been in vain.”

Political vitriol

But it will take more than bland entreaties for cross-party harmony to quench the vitriolic tone of political discourse that has erupted in the days since the assault.
Italians well remember the so-called “years of lead” of the 1970s and 1980s, when factions from the extreme left and right carried out a tit-for-tat series of shootings and bombings.

While there was as yet “no comparison” to be made with that era, parliament was in danger of “going up in flames” as a result of the increasingly toxic political debate, said La Stampa newspaper, a respected Turin-based daily.

Ferdinando Adornato, the president of a think tank, said: “Italy is a country which has lived through a civil war, albeit only a verbal one, for years. The comparison with the 1970s is out of place, but there is a risk that this verbal civil war could evolve from words to actions.”

Mr Berlusconi’s supporters in his People of Freedom bloc have blamed the Left-wing opposition for creating a “climate of hate” which encouraged the attack. Some of his aids have called for new restrictions on online speech, saying Facebook and blogs helped whip up violent anger against Berlusconi.

The left has countered by saying Berlusconi made himself a legitimate target of popular anger by trying to change the law to avoid a pair of corruption trials and by labeling Italian judges and magistrates “communists,” alleging that they are conducting a vendetta against him.

Italians’ widely differing response to the assault was summed up by two opposing images.

Outside the hospital in Milan where Berlusconi spent much of the week, a middle-aged man held up a hand-written placard which read: “Berlusconi, you are a legend. You will go down in history. Thank you for what you have done for our country.”

But in nearby Turin, opponents of the premier scrawled on a wall: “Una medaglia per Tartaglia” – A medal for Tartaglia.

The Interior minister, Roberto Maroni, angrily denounced the sprouting of Facebook pages in support of Tartaglia. Other social networking groups sprung up in support of Berlusconi. Mr. Maroni said they amounted to a “growing personal campaign” against Berlusconi that risked provoking “a spiral of emulation.”

Renato Schifani, a close Berlusconi ally and the speaker of the Senate, said tensions had reached a dangerous pitch. "I am very worried by this escalation of hatred against a single person.”

As Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, appealed for calm, the Vatican’s semi-official mouthpiece, the Osservatore Romano newspaper, said the incident was an "alarm bell" that should compel politicians to tone down the bitterness of their rhetoric.

Falling popularity

In an opinion poll published at the weekend, Berlusconi’s popularity fell four percentage points, to just over 50 percent, from a high of around 65 percent when he was elected last year.

But images of him looking dazed and shocked after the attack could give him a much-needed boost at a time when he is fending off accusations of sleeping with a prostitute, colluding with the mafia in order to launch his political career 15 years ago, and engaging in corrupt business practices.

While Berlusconi has shown in the past that he is vain about his appearance, famously disguising a hair transplant by wearing a bandanna on holiday in Sardinia a few years ago, he was likely to be more open in showing off the consequences of the attack in order to elicit further sympathy, analysts said.

Doing so would allow him to continue to claim that he is a victim of a leftist vendetta, as he has done so for much of his political career, despite being one of Europe’s richest and most powerful men.

Several commentators pointed out that dictator Benito Mussolini was able to consolidate his personality cult and push Italy down the road to fascism after being shot at by an Irish woman named Violet Gibson in a politically motivated attack in 1926.

“My guess is that he will wear his scars with pride,” said James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome.

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