ROME - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addressed a cheering, flag-waving crowd at a lavishly choreographed celebration yesterday for the 10th anniversary of Forza Italia, the political party he sired.
"I'm here! I'm here!" the prime minister told the throng of supporters who packed a Fascist-era assembly hall here.
Those simple words had particular relevance and resonance because for much of the previous month, Berlusconi, 67, was nowhere to be seen, at least by anyone outside his inner circle.
His absence from public view spawned rumors and published reports that he had undergone cosmetic surgery.
His re-emergence last week seemed to support that speculation, which he and his aides have neither confirmed nor denied.
Thinner, tanner and tauter, the prime minister looked more like he had in 1994 than he did shortly before Christmas, when he left the public spotlight.
Whatever the explanation, the intensity of attention to his every pore and pouch of flesh suggested the degree to which his carefully managed image and brash personality have come to dominate public life and private conversation in Italy.
That tight focus on Berlusconi also highlighted the big question that hovered over the anniversary.
Was Forza Italia a political party with its own identity and future, or was it dependent entirely on Berlusconi for its face, voice and vigor?
Sandro Bondi, a member of the Italian Parliament and a senior party official, told reporters last week that while Forza Italia had clearly been born as Berlusconi's baby, "It is starting now, like a child, to walk with its own legs."
"It will become more and more autonomous," Bondi added.
But many political analysts, including supporters of Berlusconi, say there are serious doubts about that.
They say that though Forza Italia holds more seats in the Italian Parliament than any of the many other parties, it has no coherent ideological underpinning or direction.
Instead, they say, it has Berlusconi, a phenomenally wealthy media mogul with the ability to exert influence over much of what Italians see on television or read in magazines and books.
"Forza Italia has remained an unformed embryo," read a front-page article on Friday in Corriere della Sera, a Milan-based daily that is among Italy's most respected and politically measured newspapers.