Intercepted telephone conversations have lifted the lid for the first time on Silvio Berlusconi's so-called 'bunga bunga' parties, revealing that even the women who took part in erotic games and stripteases were shocked by what they witnessed.
Topless women dressed in nurse and police costumes stripped for the prime minister and his friends in his palatial residence outside Milan, which was described by one participant as "a whorehouse", according to calls intercepted by investigators.
"It's unbelievable, you have no idea," one young woman was recorded as telling another showgirl. "All of them call him 'love' or 'darling'. You can't begin to imagine what goes on there. The papers don't tell the half of it even when they're massacring him. You're either ready to do anything or you take a taxi and leave."
The evidence is contained in a 389-page dossier presented to Italy's parliament by prosecutors in Milan who want to bring Mr Berlusconi to trial on charges of having sexual intercourse with an underage prostitute. Of all the claims levelled against him in the past two years, this is the most dangerous for his political survival.
The woman concerned, Karima El Mahroug, says Mr Berlusconi gave her €7,000 at the end of one of the parties, but denies that it was in exchange for sexual favours. She denies having worked as an escort.
In another taped conversation, Carlo Ferrigno, a former head of police intelligence, described a party at Mr Berlusconi's mansion at which he and two associates who are under investigation for complicity in prostitution mingled with 28 young women.
"There were orgies in there, not with drugs as far as I know. But they were all drinking, half undressed. By the end the girls had no bras on and were wearing only those tight knickers," said Mr Ferrigno, a former anti-racketeering commissioner who is not under investigation.
He said one of the women was Nicole Minetti (25), an anglo-Italian former showgirl turned dental hygienist who was propelled into politics by Mr Berlusconi.
"She had her breasts out and she was kissing Berlusconi continuously; what a whorehouse." He said a "half-Arab" woman named Maria performed a belly dance for the men, after which Mr Berlusconi gave her a bracelet and a ring.
During another intercepted call, Ms El Mahroug said that she started seeing Mr Berlusconi when she was 16, contradicting her public statements that she attended only one or two parties last year and that she was 17 at the time.
"I've been going to his home since I was 16, but I've always denied everything," she said. She had been trying to "protect" Mr Berlusconi (74), but later allegedly demanded €5m from him to keep quiet.
An influential Catholic newspaper described the investigation as a "devastating tornado" that was damaging Italy's international image. 'Avvenire', said in a front-page editorial that "the mere idea that a man who sits atop Italian institutions is implicated in stories of prostitution -- worse yet, prostitution of a minor -- is offensive and unsettling."
In their own words: extracts from the phone intercepts . . .
"There were orgies in there, not with drugs as far as I know. But they were all drinking, half undressed. Berlusconi started singing and telling jokes.
"Three of them and 28 girls. By the end the girls had no bras on and were wearing only those tight knickers."
-- Carlo Ferrigno, a former head of a police intelligence service
"(Berlusconi) called me and said 'Ruby, I'll give you whatever amount you want. I'll pay you. I'll cover you in gold, but the important thing is to keep everything under wraps. Don't say a thing to anyone'."
-- Karima El Mahroug, Ruby the Heartstealer, to former boyfriend, Sergio Corsaro
"It's unbelievable. You don't know. All of them call him 'love' or 'darling'. You can't begin to imagine what goes on there. The papers don't tell the half of it even when they're massacring him".
-- Two unnamed party guests
"I thought he'd put on weight, he looked uglier. Last year he was looking fitter, now he's looking over the hill. And he's ugly with it. He's just got to cough up. Let's hope he's more generous."
-- Showgirl Imma De Vivo talking to her twin sister, Eleonora, about Mr Berlusconi, in September 2010 (© Daily Telegraph, London)