Somehow Saint Peacock is late on one of the great diplomatic signals of our age.
Silvio Berlusconi, former cruise ship singer, composer of AC Milan’s stirring anthem and three time prime minister of Italy has got the scent of political office in his nostrils again.
One would expect Signor Berlusconi to be quite the connoisseur of fragrances, with an aftershave cabinet to rival that of Ron Burgundy and the sixth sense to match every occasion with the appropriate flask.
For Vladimir Putin’s birthday recently, however, he decided a different type of sensation would be more appropriate.
As winningly described by the New York Times, “Mr. Berlusconi thinks of the Kremlin boss as a close friend. He regularly flies to Russia, mysteriously, only to reappear in full arctic gear, beneath huge fur hats.”
On the occasion of friend Vladimir’s 65th then, in early October, Mr Berlusconi set himself to puzzling what the right present would be.
Inspiration struck, reported The Times, when Berlusconi recalled the occasion when “Mr Putin gave him the double bed in which Patrizia D’Addario, a prostitute, claimed to have had sex with the disgraced Italian in 2008.”
And here’s the result – a friendship duvet!
Happy Birthday Mr President Vladimir Putin !! Grazie Presidente Berlusconi ❤!!!! #lenzuolissimi #silvioberlusconi #love #vladimirputin #happybirthday #regalo #copripiumino #madeinitaly #lelenzuoladelpotere #300fili #happy #dreams #grazieditutto #special #amicizia #bestfriends #italia #instagood #instalike #instalove #bestmoment #follow
But as all observers of international relations are keenly aware, no gift is just a “little something”, but comes coded with all sorts of meaning, most emblematically in the Chinese use of “panda diplomacy” during the authentic communist years.
It is said that the best gifts of all are those which only the giver can give, and as only China had pandas, the gifting of them was exclusive to the Chinese, creating a superbly passive-aggressive situation that was virtually impossible to counter.
Not to mention a daily reminder of the gift that cannot be topped in the National Zoo.
Pressed on the significance of the bedding, the Tass news agency claimed ignorance of what the Russian president’s feelings were.
“I know nothing about the president’s reaction to the duvet cover from Berlusconi,” stonewalled Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
History says we would be amiss to take these linens at face value, however.
As an example of how perilous ignoring the subtexts of international gifts can be, one only needs to think of the Trojan Horse, a trick repeated by the Soviet Union in 1945, when they gave US Ambassador Averell Harriman a replica of the great seal, accurate in every respect apart from the listening device planted in it.
The gift of customised bed linen, however, seems to have no immediate interpretation in the diplomat’s phrase book.
That being the case, let Saint Peacock join the dots.
Berlusconi wishes to return to office in elections early next year.
Recent reforms to Italian electoral law make this a possibility.
Reports in the press today, however, indicate a setback, namely Italian magistrates opening a fourth investigation into his possible involvement in mafia bombings in the early nineties.
So in spite of decades of experience of manipulating the levers of power in Italy, Berlusconi could still use a helping hand from someone skilled at swaying elections even beyond his own borders.
And who has shown himself to be quite the overseas organ grinder in the American presidentials?
But why a duvet, and not say, an alabaster figurine, or one of the many other items from the World Leader Catalogue of Approved Gifts, and which used to double as the supplier of prizes to Bullseye?
Precisely because it refers to the bed originally gifted by Putin, and in the language of signs, in which Italian bosses have no peers, this says “We are men, and we can do whatever we please.”
There are, however, a couple of less opaque messages to take from this particular episode of black Euro-comedy.
Firstly, that the Post-Weinstein period of reflection and self-criticism for public figures has yet to make itself felt in Italo-Russian relations.
And secondly, let’s not forget the true legacy of Berlusconi: the grooming mistakes that he made so you don’t have to.
Cuprinol is not a moisturiser.
No man’s head has ever been improved by a bandana.
And the wink and the gun as a greeting for women is over.