ROME (Reuters) - For a man who loved the adulation of the crowd, it was an ignominious end, the most humiliating of falls from grace.
As Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi left his sumptuous Rome residence on Saturday night to go to the presidential palace and resign, jeering crowds shouted “clown, clown, clown” and “go to jail, go to jail.”
In his limousine, a pale Berlusconi tried to look as if it was business as usual, his eyes fixed on a document in his hands. But the bitterness and shock in his face were clear to see.
When he reached the presidential Quirinale Palace atop the highest of the seven hills of Rome, it was only worse.
More than a thousand demonstrators waving banners mocking Berlusconi had flocked there to greet the motorcade.
They too shouted “clown, clown, clown” as he entered the grand estate that was the summer residence of the popes until 1870 and of the Italian royal family until the monarchy was abolished in 1946.
A small orchestra played the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the square in front of the palace. “We are here to rejoice,” one of the musicians said.
Berlusconi has always rejoiced in his ability to talk directly to ordinary Italians and his 17 years of political dominance were based on his rare communication skills and popularity with conservative voters.
But that power has evaporated over the last few weeks as Italy stared at an economic crisis that endangered the whole euro zone. Berlusconi spent Saturday hiding from the people instead of moving among them.
The crowd outside the presidential palace grew so unruly that Berlusconi was forced to leave secretly via a servants’ entrance on a side street near the estate’s elegant gardens to return to his private residence.
In the main square, cheers broke out when the crowd heard that Berlusconi had resigned. The mood changed from anger to jubilation. People sang, danced and some cracked open bottles of champagne.
Demonstrators chanting “resign, resign, resign” also gathered outside the prime minister’s office and parliament, heckling ministers as they walked between the two buildings.
After the resignation, hundreds shouting “Jail, Jail, Jail,” moved from the Quirinale palace to Berlusconi’s residence, noisily celebrating below his windows until 3 a.m.
A group of elderly people cheered as young couples on motor scooters rode around the streets near Berlusconi’s residence, blaring their horns as if Italy had just won the soccer World Cup.
Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, told aides he was deeply saddened by the demonstration of his unpopularity.
Some protesters threw coins at his limousine in a gesture reminiscent of the departure into exile in 1993 of disgraced Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, often seen as his mentor.
Newspapers said Berlusconi’s departure marked the end of an era and spoke of the irony of how a media magnate famed for his skills in communicating with the public was seen off by jeering crowds.
Turin’s La Stampa called it “a sad exit from the stage.”
Judging from the look on his face as he returned to residence on Saturday night, Berlusconi could only agree.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Barry Moody