Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Italy knows there is more to the Mediterranean peninsula than sunshine, opera and olive groves. Italy's reputation as a hot-spot tourist destination often eclipses the shadier sides of its social and political dealings - but in this case out of sight is most certainly not out of mind.
The news that Roberto Saviano, Italy's best-known anti-mafia activist, has been presented with an award for his courage in speaking out against the feared Camorra mafia is an important step in recognising the problem of organised crime in the country. The 32-year-old journalist, who has been under 24-hour police surveillance since writing his book Gomorrah in 2006, has received death threats from the Neapolitan mafia for his expose of their methods and tactics.
They're Watching You
But one fugitive writer is not enough to tackle the power and influence of mafia bosses in the country. Even as a child growing up in Italy's prosperous Po valley, north of Florence, I was acutely aware of the long arm of Cosa Nostra and Camorra - and there were frequent whispers in the town square about one neighbour or other having ties to the mob.
Is it any wonder, then, that Mr Saviano has also claimed that Silvio Berlusconi's government is being systematically courted by Mafiosi? Or, indeed, why many suspect the Italian Prime Minister to have direct ties to the mob? Given the fact that very few perpetrators of organised crime are ever held to account for their actions, it would seem natural to question the nature of the relationship between the government and mafia bosses.
Italy's justice system notoriously makes allowances for "pentiti" - "repentent" members of the mafia who act as informers to implicate others in order to receive preferential treatment from the authorities - and public faith in the legal system is minimal to none. Court cases can drag on for years, fizzle out due to statute limitations, or enact an unprecedented reversal of justice, as in the recent acquittal of Amanda Knox. There is no one standard to which Italians can aspire, since the truth is always hidden under innumerable layers of mystery, intrigue and speculation.
The notion that Mafia bosses may be throwing their weight around behind the scene of Italian politics, though as yet not concretely proven, no doubt comes as little surprise to a nation that is used to dealing more with myth and rumour than with any tangible facts.
Berlusconi clings to power
Despite being dogged by allegations of corruption and licentiousness - to name but two - Berlusconi remains, incredibly, a popular figure for the majority of Italians. In this land of shadows, very little is ever as it seems, and it is high time for Italy to stand up to those elite and dangerous individuals who enjoy an almost complete monopoly over the country (and I'm not just talking about mafia). Given the recent kerfuffle surrounding Berlusconi's penchant for underage girls and "bunga bunga", however, such a prospect seems increasingly unlikely. The boys, it seems, will continue to play with their toys - leaving the rest of us to pay the price