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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Party's rise puts Berlusconi's mansion back in spotlight

Villa Certosa was Italy's seat of power under former premier and infamous for his 'bunga bunga' parties

A partial view of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's Villa Certosa in Porto Rotondo, Sardinia. Antonio Satta / AP Photo
A partial view of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's Villa Certosa in Porto Rotondo, Sardinia. Antonio Satta / AP Photo

The main attraction of Villa Certosa is the “Cave of the Stars” where an artificial night sky replicates the beauty of the shining stars in its dark rock walls. Few in Italy are unaware of this evocative place in Sardinia, as it is the holiday resort and second home of former prime minister and billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. The 126-room, 4,500 square metre mansion also has a small amphitheatre and a kitschy Hollywood-inspired volcano that burps lava and trembles at night.

From 1994, during Mr Berlusconi’s political reign of about 15 years, nine of them as prime minister, the estate that spans more than 250 acres among Mediterranean maquis on the Costa Smeralda served as the real seat of power in Italy. It was here that Mr Berlusconi, at the peak of his popularity, hosted foreign heads of state and dignitaries, practically running the country from this enchanting place, much like the emperor Tiberius, 2,000 years earlier, ruled over the Roman Empire from the island of Capri.

At Villa Certosa, there is another, secret cave, excavated to give boats and submarines direct access from the sea, which Russian president Vladimir Putin is said to have made use of during the many visits he made to see his “friend Silvio”. Other leaders, such as Tony Blair, have also been guests at Villa Certosa, with Mr Berlusconi famously pictured wearing a white bandanna on his head during the stay of the former British prime minister and his wife, Cherie.

Yet, the villa is better known perhaps for reasons of infamy, as it is also where Mr Berlusconi’s many "bunga bunga" parties were held. Villa Certosa ultimately became a symbol of the dangerous personification of Italian politics with the “king” moving away from the location of the country’s institutions, evoking ominous periods of history such as when Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France, moved his residence to Versailles, secluding himself from the people, in the 17th century.

The fall then was perhaps inevitable. In 2012, soon after Mr Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister and with Italy on the verge of a debt crisis, Villa Certosa was first put up for sale with a price tag of 475 million euros (Dh2.17 billion). It was once again offered on the market two years later, with “King Silvio" ousted from politics following a conviction for tax fraud. A number of wealthy buyers were said to have been interested, from Russian billionaires to Arabian Gulf investors, without any deal actually being concluded.

Then Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, wearing a bandanna, with his guests Tony Blair, then British prime minister, and his wife Cherie Blair at Villa Certosa on August 16, 2004. AP Photo
Then Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, wearing a bandanna, with his guests Tony Blair, then British prime minister, and his wife Cherie Blair at Villa Certosa on August 16, 2004. AP Photo

Last summer, in what had become an annual occurrence, reports surfaced once again that Villa Certosa was up for sale, but then something unexpected happened: in October, against all odds, Mr Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia swept to a victory in regional elections in Sicily.

That was a turning point for the 81-year-old Mr Berlusconi — and, seemingly, Villa Certosa — as he once again believed he could lead Italy, 24 years after his first premiership.

Mr Berlusconi’s “return to power must be taken seriously, not just because of himself, but because his voters do”, says Giovanni Orsina, a professor of history at LUISS University in Rome. Villa Certosa has also regained some of its old gravitas in the wake of this newfound ambition, serving as the location of a summit of top-ranking Forza Italia representatives. During that weekend in November, they hammered out a strategy for next month’s general elections.

In anticipation of Mr Berlusconi’s bloc winning, or taking a significant amount of votes nationwide, it seems that Villa Certosa is being prepared to retake its place in the political landscape. Idra Immobiliare, the real estate holding company which owns and manages all the Berlusconi empire’s properties, has issued an 80-million-euro bond, believed to be for the financing of recent acquisitions of nearby villas, to be added to the main estate, and for further renovation work.

However, it may not be that straightforward, according to Francesco Specchia, a political analyst and writer for the newspaper Libero, which reported that Villa Certosa was up for sale last summer.

"Villa Certosa was the core location for the Berlusconi playboy and bon viveur era: that time is over," he says.

There are two possible scenarios now, Specchia says. First, that there is a great Berlusconi political comeback — although he may not be premier again because of the tax fraud conviction — which would actually lead to the sale of Villa Certosa. Another spectacular estate, in the Milan countryside, called Villa San Martino, would become Berlusconi’s new political headquarters in that case, says Mr Specchia. “So he may divide himself between Milan and Rome," he says.

In the second scenario, in which Mr Berlusconi flops in the elections, he would "then move to Sardinia, in his Buen Retiro to spend his days" at Villa Certosa. As the general elections in Italy approach and the polls show Mr Berlusconi’s party’s popularity skyrocketing, it appears at last that the man and his castle may soon be parted.

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