MADRID AND ROME — For better and for worse, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has revolutionized Italy during the last 15 years, toppling walls between government and business, media and ideology, traditional parties and maverick movements.
As the uproar over Berlusconi's latest public battle with his wife demonstrated Monday, his personality-driven, loose-cannon style at times sweeps away the boundaries between serious politics and personal gossip as well.
On Sunday, Veronica Lario, 52, announced that she had decided to divorce Berlusconi, 72, after 19 years of marriage. She told La Repubblica newspaper that she was disgusted by his plans to run a slate of television "showgirls" for elections to the European Parliament. She expressed suspicion about his relationship with a business associate's daughter, whose 18th birthday party he recently attended. And she denounced her husband's seeming political impunity.
"Through a strange alchemy, the country concedes and justifies everything to its emperor," Lario said, according to the newspaper.
Berlusconi quickly returned fire Monday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper. He demanded an apology from his wife and said he might sue her for insinuating something "sordid" about his friendship with the teen.
The three female candidates running in the elections might be attractive, the prime minister said, but they had sterling credentials and only one had worked in television. He described his wife as the dupe of a plot by his opponents on the left.
"Veronica fell into a media trap," he declared. "It's the third time she's played a trick like this during an election campaign. It's really too much."
Italy has plunged raucously into the debate over the latest episode of a singular soap opera of a career. Berlusconi whirls from scandal to faux pas and back again, seeming to speak and act without reflection or remorse. A previous clash with his wife occurred two years ago when he told a television starlet whom he has since named minister of equal opportunity: "I'd go anywhere with you, even to a desert isle. If I weren't already married, I would marry you right away."
But such antics, analysts say, mask a masterful strategist. He created a robust center-right coalition that included, besides his own, two parties formerly opposed to the system, the National Alliance and the Northern League, leaving the opposition a shambles.
At the helm of his third government since 1994, Berlusconi retains remarkable popularity. His approval rating in polls rose to 56% recently after his handling of the deadly earthquake in the Abruzzo region. On Monday, pollsters predicted that the divorce spat was unlikely to hurt his dominance.
"He filled a political vacuum, the center of the political spectrum," said political scientist Franco Pavoncello, dean of John Cabot University in Rome. "This is a man of many aspects, and one of these aspects is a clownish attitude in a way. But at the end of the day, people weigh the pro and con and they will say: He is a strong man, he has a strong government, he can put together a strong coalition, something the left couldn't do.
"Yes, he makes jokes. But who cares?"
Critics say Berlusconi's issues go far beyond frivolity and gaffes, such as ignoring a greeting from German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit while he chatted away on a cellphone. His vast wealth and control of media, real estate and sports empires have made him dangerously powerful, weakening institutions and enabling him to survive major corruption scandals, opponents say.
In February, a Milan court convicted a British lawyer of bribery for accepting a $600,000 kickback in 1997 for concealing the details of offshore companies allegedly held by Berlusconi. The prime minister maintains his innocence and cannot be prosecuted as a result of that verdict thanks to a law granting him immunity that the legislature his coalition dominates passed last year. More recent legislative proposals include eliminating the use of wiretaps in corruption cases and expanding the powers of the prime minister.
The leader of the political opposition, Dario Franceschini, warned in an interview Monday that Berlusconi aspires to power comparable to authoritarian strongmen in the developing world.
"I would like to sound an alarm bell," Franceschini told Corriere della Sera. "We are well beyond conflicts of interest and control of television. . . . Berlusconi wants to take everything over. . . . Berlusconi's models are the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan -- countries in which the personal power of the leader interweaves with the power of the state and economic powers."
Asked about the divorce flap, Franceschini took the high road. He declined to comment and cited an Italian proverb: Tra moglie e marito, non mettere il dito. (Between a wife and husband, don't put your finger.)