ROME - Even hospitalized and in pain, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can polarize Italians.
The bloody image of Berlusconi, reeling after being attacked as he signed autographs following a rally Sunday, has created sympathy and solidarity on one hand, while on the other generating praise for his attacker on Facebook and YouTube.
The strong reactions were similar to those Berlusconi has drawn during his 15 years in politics.
"The bloodied, stunned, scared face of Silvio Berlusconi will remain an icon in the history of this republic," said a national newspaper, La Stampa, which is not owned by Berlusconi's media company.
Berlusconi, 73, was rushed to the San Raffaele hospital in Milan after a man pushed through the crowd and hit him in the face with a souvenir statue of Milan's Duomo, the Gothic cathedral that is a symbol of the city.
The attacker, identified as 42-year-old Massimo Tartaglia, was arrested at the scene and remained in jail in Milan. Police and family members said he had no criminal record but a history of mental problems.
Italy's ANSA news agency reported late Monday that Tartaglia had written a letter to Berlusconi, saying he was sorry for his "superficial, cowardly and uncontrolled" act.
Berlusconi was in pain Tuesday, unable to eat or leave the hospital for at least another day, said his doctor, Alberto Zangrillo.
The attack left the premier with a fractured nose, two broken teeth and lip cuts. He was being given antibiotics and drugs for persistent pain, the hospital said in a midday bulletin. He will not need surgery, Zangrillo said.
The attack, which shocked Italians, came amid an increasingly tense political atmosphere.
Berlusconi has for months denounced a "climate of hatred" he says surrounds him as he fends off a sex scandal and judicial troubles.
His spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, said this feeling was stronger than ever in the hours that preceded the attack, even in the car ride toward the rally.
"He told me, 'You know, this climate of hatred and tension really leaves me worried,"' Bonaiuti said Monday. "'Don't you think something might happen to me?"'
Since he stepped into politics in the mid-1990s, Berlusconi has further polarized Italy - a society that has been split into fiercely opposed factions for centuries.
His critics charge that the media mogul-turned-politician assembles so much power that he is a threat to democracy, bending the law to his advantage. Admirers love his charisma, wealth, even his jokes. To them, he is what they would like to be. They praise his can-do persona and believe he is a reformist.
Despite legal woes and conflict-of-interest accusations, Berlusconi has been voted into office three times. His latest victory in 2006 signalled his triumphant return to power less that two years after his second term ran out and he narrowly lost elections to a centre-left coalition.
So strong are the sentiments that an aide years ago wrote a book collecting the insults that political adversaries had thrown at the conservative leader.
But even by the Italian standards of mudslinging, the climate has become increasingly tense in recent months, with Berlusconi becoming increasingly vitriolic in the face of rising protests.
Italy's largest newspaper, Corriere della Sera, said Monday that politics in Italy had come to resemble "civil war."
"The violent aggression on the premier is the result of this degeneration," said the newspaper, which is independent of Berlusconi's holdings.
Berlusconi is entangled in scandals over his purported fondness for young women and an alleged relationship with a prostitute. The premier's wife is divorcing him, but Berlusconi insists he has never paid for sex, nor had inappropriate relationships.
He has been buffeted by protests, with tens of thousands marching in Rome on Dec. 5 to demand his resignation. And a Mafia turncoat recently alleged that Berlusconi had ties to the underworld, an accusation the premier has forcefully dismissed.
Despite setbacks and some squabbling with his allies, his popularity has remained high. The attack might reinforce that. "True Italians are always with you," said a well-wishing banner posted on the walls of the hospital.
Berlusconi has fired back against his detractors, launching vehement attacks that have added to the poisonous climate.
He said the magistrates who put him on trial for corruption are politically motivated communists. Last week he denounced the "party of magistrates" as a threat to Italy's sovereignty, and he has also attacked the Supreme Court and the president of the republic.
Roberto Maroni, who as interior minister is in charge of police forces, said he counted some 300 groups on Facebook praising Berlusconi's assailant, and he was considering pulling them off the social network. He also mentioned YouTube videos showing the attack with comments inciting more violence.
Maroni presided over an emergency meeting in Milan that put the security surrounding the premier under scrutiny. The minister said he did not see any immediate faults, but added that a full review would take place.
Typically, about 30 secret service agents protect Berlusconi at his public appearances. But the premier, who considers himself a man of the people with a taste for showmanship, also likes to mingle with his supporters and shake hands.
"Berlusconi has the right to get close to his supporters because this is democracy, this is politics," said Maroni.
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