By COLLEEN BARRY and VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — Thanks to two Marios, Italy's image as the fun-loving land of the bunga bunga party but unreliable partner in Europe is under reconstruction — sparking cultural shifts at home.
Premier Mario Monti, an economics professor who succeeded Silvio Berlusconi, is creating renewed confidence in Italy — among investors, political partners and crucially Italians themselves. Mario Draghi, as head of the European Central Bank, basks in acclaim leading an institution that holds sway over the EU economy.
The two Marios, both in their roles since November, have the seal of approval from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key figure in Europe's drive to save itself from ruin.
"If you want to hear something positive about Italo-German cooperation, I can say this: I highly appreciate the work of Mario Draghi, and it goes without saying that I appreciate that of Mario Monti," Merkel told reporters last week after meeting with Monti in Rome.
That's a sea change in Italy's image among its key European allies.
One of the last times Merkel was in Italy, she was greeted by then-premier Berlusconi who popped out from behind a pillar calling "cuckoo!"
Berlusconi enthralled Italy with his charisma and success, and humiliated it with an endless stream of sleaze that included tales of trysts with underage prostitutes, shameless cronyism and rampant corruption that fostered an entire culture of cheating.
Monti, a sober former EU competition commissioner who heads a government of experts, is challenging Italians through his policies to become better citizens. In Italy, being "furbo" or clever, but also carrying a pejorative sense of gaining an underhand advantage, has sometimes been more prized than hard work.
Berlusconi was seen as an exemplar of that kind of Italy.
Monti is putting the spotlight on another side of his nation — one of quality, precision and world class intellectual achievement. As the former head of prestigious Bocconi University, Monti embodies this spirit — as does Draghi with his background at MIT, where he earned his economics Ph.D.
Monti says he wants to instill a culture of merit, doing away with privilege that has made economic mobility in Italy among the lowest in Europe.
Tax evasion, long tolerated on many levels despite costing Italy between €120 billion to €150 billion a year, has become a priority from senior politicians to the baker next door. In recent weeks, raids on posh resorts and ordinary businesses have led evening newscasts.
In an unprecedented show of transparency, Monti and his Cabinet ministers have published their tax returns and financial and real-estate holdings on their ministry websites.
Monti also has set out to vanquish the image of women as sex objects that Berlusconi did much to foster, appointing three accomplished women to ministerial posts with substantial portfolios.
Berlusconi also had women in his Cabinet but few doubted they were selected more for their sex appeal than for political qualifications.
The changes are being seen in all walks of life — even the sex symbol-spawning fashion world.
Giorgio Armani, at his recent womenswear fashion preview for his Emporio line, put his models in flat shoes, saying Italians had grown tired of vampish women that became the prevalent archetype under Berlusconi. And the recent San Remo musical festival, usually a freewheeling affair, showed how discredited the sex symbol has become, as commentators and politicians criticized an Argentine-born starlet for allowing TV cameras a peek at an intimately placed tattoo.
Tough economic choices have been central to Italy's new image.
In tandem, the two Marios have worked to lower Italy's borrowing costs, which shot above the perilous 7-percent mark for benchmark 10-year bonds last year, endangering Italy's ability to manage its public debt, the highest in the eurozone. Yields this week were at a safe 4.77 percent.
Monti has passed austerity measures and an emergency package to shake open competition, and is working on loosening labor regulations — all of which have helped restore confidence in Italy.