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Intracultural Awareness in Legal Language—Silvio Berlusconi’s Iconography of Law


Against the assumption that legal and normative systems are coextensive with geopolitical units and national spaces, the article advocates for the need to study how different legal and normative semiospheres, within the same geopolitical unit and national space, often give rise to ‘normolects’ that are transversal to socio-economic classes, ethnicities, and cultural lifestyles. The concept of legal and normative ‘imaginaries’ is useful to come to terms with the legal and normative semiotic ideology of such normolects, including their non-verbal dimension and legal-normative semiotic ideologies. More generally, the article prompts legal scholars, and particularly semioticians of law, not to focus exclusively on inter-cultural awareness in legal-normative language but to concentrate also on intra-cultural awareness. As a case study, the article analyses a drawing through which the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visualized and advertised for a bill of reform of the Italian judicial system by his Minister of Justice, Angelino Alfano. The semiotic analysis of this visual artifact casts new light on the controversial political and judicial figure of Mr Berlusconi. The drawing is read as a visual embodiment of the conflict between two different legal and normative ideologies within the present-day Italian political and judicial arena. The paradoxes that underpin this iconography of law and mar a rational confrontation of legal-normative arguments in contemporary Italy are uncovered.

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  1. At least since Weber, the idea that different Christian denominations promote discrepant conceptions of the role of believers in society, including their relation with law, is a common tenet of the mainstream intellectual discourse. That does not mean that Weber’s or similar hypotheses should not be discussed. It means, on the contrary, that the segmentation of legal discourse along lines that are not those of religion or ethnicity is probably likely to produce more novel insights on the presence of different legal conceptions in the same social or national context.

  2. The semiotics of law primarily is an academic and theoretical approach to thinking about the way law and the social world interact in a given socio-cultural context; however, the author of the present article contends (and has advocated for on several occasions) that such academic and theoretical insights should give rise to attempts at legal innovation; the semiotic theory of law should be prodromal to the development of a semiotic therapy of law.

  3. Milan, September 29, 1936. Bibliography on Silvio Berlusconi is extensive but often does not meet academic standards. An updated bibliography in Italian is available at; in English, among the most recent contribution cfr [32, 34, 44].

  4. Agrigento, October 31, 1970.

  5. Accessed February 4, 2012.


  7. Un updated list is available at accessed February 4, 2012.

  8. One might argue that there is no paradox here, just an application of the metaphor outside its usual domain. The intelligibility of the image indicates that the metaphor is sufficiently robust to be employed in this way. However, the metaphor and the image as a whole are not simply ideological or misleading, but convey a visual representation of justice that is profoundly at odds with the concept itself of equilibrium. By weighing the scales, Mr Berlusconi’s drawing produces a vicious circle that deconstructs the very idea of judicial power, making it accountable to an external agency and, therefore, disrupting its self-sufficiency. From this point of view, a strictly logical one, the drawing brings about a paradoxical evaluation of the judicial system, a balance weighed by another balance; cfr [38], esp. 281–287: “The logos of justice: budgets, caseloads, scales, and buildings”.

  9. “Nessuno mi può giudicare” [Nobody can judge me] is a song sung by Caterina Caselli, one of the most famous 1960s Italian performers. Published by CGD in 1966, the song was extremely successful. It is maybe not a coincidence that the refrain (the title of the song) became so popular in pre-1968 Italy, when traditional instances of judgment, including families, universities, and courts, were going to be systematically attacked and deconstructed in their hierarchical supremacy; the song has no political undertone, but it sounds nevertheless like a hymn of liberation from judgment in general. Incidentally, some Italian intellectuals (Peppino Ortoleva, Mario Perniola) have frequently underlined the tie between the Italian 1968 and Mr Berlusconi’s ideology (Perniola provocatively claiming that Mr Berlusconi was the one who actually concretized the ideals of the Italian 1968, especially as regards the disruption of traditional intellectual establishments).

  10. This remark should not imply any prejudice against images. Images, like words, can be well-constructed to make arguments (although Lotman and other semioticians would claim that their potential of signification is always derivative and secondary in relation to verbal language; but this is not the right occasion to deal with this complicate issue); words, like images, can be propagandistic and oversimplifying. Politics in the age of images (and in particular, televised images) is simplified and debased, but this is due more so to the way in which those images and media have been deployed rather than to the nature of images per se. As regards Berlusconi, most critical commentators would contend that his use of verbal language has not been less demagogical and mystifying than his use of images. Nevertheless, the extraordinary contamination of the political and the televisual discourse that Mr Berlusconi, a TV tycoon, generated in the Italian public arena was somehow unprecedented, and led many to a surplus of mistrust toward strictly non-verbal communication. It is not a coincidence that the first quality attributed to Mario Monti, Mr Berlusconi’s successor as Italian Prime Minister, was the “sobriety”, of his almost ‘iconoclastic’ communicative style.

    This conclusion was written a few days before Mr Berlusconi’s resignation, on November 12, 2011. Under the pressure of a rampant financial and economic crisis, Italians seem to have subsequently regained a certain socio-political unity under the guidance of the new ‘technical’ Prime Minister, Mario Monti, and his ‘emergency’ government, strongly supported by the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano. However, as the present article is submitted to the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, one of the most important proceedings against Mr Berluconi, the so called ‘Mills trial’ (a case of corruption of judges) is about to end, either with the prescription of Mr Berlusconi or with his final conviction, in a photo finish battle of legal tactics and counter-tactics between the prosecutors and Mr Berlusconi’s defense lawyers. Either ending is likely to reintroduce the thorny issue of Mr Berlusconi’s relation with the Italian judicial system (and power) in the Italian public arena, thus creating new tensions that will probably affect the current ‘emergency’ government too. We shall see.


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I thank the two anonymous reviewers of the article for their excellent suggestions.

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Leone, M. Intracultural Awareness in Legal Language—Silvio Berlusconi’s Iconography of Law. Int J Semiot Law 26, 579–595 (2013).

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  • Legal and normative systems
  • Legal and normative ideologies
  • Normolects
  • Legal and normative imaginaries
  • Intercultural awareness
  • Intracultural awareness
  • Silvio Berlusconi
  • Contemporary Italy
  • Iconography of law
  • Judicial reform