Pizza, Chianti and idyllic Tuscan landscapes: the dolce vita that typifies most people's image of Italy. That was until the perception of this proud nation became sullied by the actions of one man: former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Over the past decade the billionaire media mogul has become a household name throughout Europe for his unique brand of hapless PR blunders - the latest, praising fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Memorial Day - and economic mismanagement. But ahead of Italy's general election on 24 and 25 February, support for Berlusconi's centre-right coalition is hovering at 28 per cent in the polls, meaning his return to political power could be imminent.
Dark knight falls
During his three terms as Italy's prime minister between 1994 and 2011, il Cavaliere, or "the Knight" as Berlusconi is known to his supporters, oversaw his country's decline from being the fourth largest economy in the world, to the eighth. In the process, Italy also accumulated the ninth-highest level of sovereign debt of any nation on earth. Berlusconi's playboy antics, meanwhile, provided an endless stream of material for tabloid newspapers across the continent. Readers were more than slightly amused by the septuagenarian's predilection for Bunga Bunga parties and allegedly underaged prostitutes.
Then, in November 2011, Berlusconi did the unthinkable. Facing a mounting national debt crisis and increasing pressure from his party, the People of Freedom, Berlusconi resigned from his post of prime minister.
Former European Commissioner Mario Monti, a demure and straight-laced academic, was appointed to replace Berlusconi and lead a technocratic government to guide Italy through the economic crisis. While only ever an interim solution, Monti has provided some much-needed balm for Italy's financial woes by beginning to implement a series of economic reforms and austerity measures. Christened "Super Mario" by the Italian media, he received the backing of Italy's largest newspapers and has been able to find common ground with leaders on both sides of the country's political divide.
For more than a year, Italy was able to retreat from international headlines as Europe turned its attention to more pressing economic catastrophes in Greece and Spain. But in December 2012, Berlusconi's People of Freedom party withdrew its support for Monti, claiming that the prime minister had gone too far in his efforts to appease the EU. In the fall-out, Monti announced his resignation from government. His decision was pounced upon by Berlusconi, who immediately announced plans to run as the People of Freedom's candidate in the polls - despite having a raft of court cases and a possible prison sentence hanging over him.
So Italy finds itself back where it started, with little direction and a growing sense of hopelessness amongst its citizens, who are feeling the impact of the eurozone debt crisis. Three million Italians are out of work, while unemployment amongst the 15 to 24 age bracket now hovers at around 35 per cent. Facing further economic stagnation and an uncertain future, many young Italians are trying their luck overseas in France, Germany, the UK and other, more prosperous markets.
One of these is Silvio Apa, a 28-year-old law graduate living in the northern city of Genoa. After leaving university he began an apprenticeship in Milan, but soon after joining, the firm had to let him go. He now has his sights set on completing a masters in the UK.
"Monti has done many good things for our country: he has repaired our image amongst the rest of Europe," says Silvio. "But the job situation for young Italians is still very bad and a big problem. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the job infrastructure in our country, but who is going to do that now? Berlusconi?"
Silvio's scepticism towards another Berlusconi-led government is shared by much of his generation. A Facebook page named "An Italy without Berlusconi" has 116,000 likes and has a mocked-up photo of the former prime minister in a casket as its cover photo.
One of those liking the page is Sandro Sebastiani, an Italian archaeologist based at the University of Sheffield. "A Berlusconi re-election would be really dangerous for Italy," he says. "In terms of job prospects for young Italians, it would be a catastrophe; he doesn't know how to create new opportunities or invest in young people. Our skills aren't valued in Italy, so the only way to get a job is to go abroad."
For Silvio and Sandro's generation, the future is uncertain. The main players in the general election include a centre-left coalition spearheaded by the Democratic Party and its leader Pier Luigi Bersani, which is currently leading the polls, and a right-wing alliance between Berlusconi's People of Freedom party and the Northern League, which is a couple of percentage points behind. They're trailed by a centrist coalition led by Monti, who's attempting to safeguard his economic record and austerity programme by running as a campaigning politician, and several smaller political alliances, including the populist Five Star Movement. With only a couple of weeks before the elections, the race is still too close to call.
Many Italians are facing a conundrum: they know spending cuts and other reforms are needed to help repair the battered economy, but they're wary that these are likely to lead to significant increases in taxes and unemployment, as has been the case in Spain and Greece. Few of Monti's potential successors appear to possess the support and acumen needed to walk this political tightrope. For now, at least, the dream of the dolce vita remains a distant reality.