Four days after being attacked at a political rally, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was whisked away from a Milan hospital with his face covered in bandages, an unusual sight from a politician and media mogul long obsessed with controlling his image.
The grim-looking Berlusconi waved weakly to photographers as he entered his car Thursday, a stark contrast to the premier's usually ebullient appearances filled with broad smiles and autograph signings.
During one such foray into a crowd Sunday, a man with a history of psychological problems hurled a souvenir statue of Milan's cathedral into the premier's face, breaking Berlusconi's nose and two teeth.
The 73-year-old leader, who has used plastic surgery and hair transplants to keep a fresh look on his perma-tanned visage, sported a large bandage that covered part of the left side of his face and his nose as he left the San Raffaele hospital.
His attacker, identified as 42-year-old Massimo Tartaglia, remains in a Milan prison.
Berlusconi, who is fending off a sex scandal and legal troubles, had previously lamented that he was the target of a "climate of hatred." His injuries stirred public sympathy but groups praising Tartaglia mushroomed on Facebook after the attack.
Berlusconi said in a statement released by his office that he would go on "with more strength and determination than before.
"I will remember two things about these days: the hatred of a few and the love of many, many Italians," the statement said.
Though different in character, Berlusconi's brief appearance outside the hospital still felt staged to project an image of dignity and martyrdom, said Maria Laura Rodota, a political and social commentator for daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"He remains a great stage man," Rodota said. "This Berlusconi who leaves the hospital looking like the Shroud of Turin is a well-calculated scene."
The bloodied and bandaged Berlusconi was already becoming a household image for Italians, and not just through the media. At the historic street market in Naples that sells handmade figurines for nativity scenes, the latest addition was a statuette depicting the injured premier.
Known for his seemingly boundless energy, Berlusconi was ordered by his doctors to cancel or reduce public appearances through the Christmas season.
A Cabinet meeting in Rome was held without the premier's presence. Berlusconi was also skipping the last days of the climate change conference in Copenhagen.
"This could be hard for a man who gets revved up with thousands of activities," Rodota said. "It could damage his morale."
On the other hand, it could be a chance to work on his appearance and emerge as good as new, she said.
On Thursday, the conservative leader spent several hours visiting a dentist in Milan before heading to his villa in Arcore, on the outskirts of the city, an aide said on customary condition of anonymity.
A Swiss media report quoted the mayor of the southern Swiss town of Gravesano as saying Berlusconi was expected in coming days at a posh clinic in the town.
The mayor did not immediately return calls and a member of the premier's staff declined to comment. The Swiss clinic would not comment on the report in Le Matin tabloid.