PORTO ROTONDO, Sardinia - Perhaps it was the setting - one of Italy's most romantic resorts. Or the company - standing next to Italy's famously flirtatious prime minister.
But the normally stern Vladimir Putin showed the world another side of his character yesterday, laughing off questions about an extramarital affair with a champion gymnast. While Putin denied the rumors, he seemed to delight in projecting a new image to the world: ladies' man.
The news conference that followed meetings at Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi's lavish Sardinian villa started off with standard political fare: toasts to bilateral ties, talk of business deals.
Things took a racy turn when a Kremlin journalist asked the Russian president about tabloid reports he had divorced his wife and intended to marry a gymnast less than half his age.
While Putin's denial was categorical - "Not a single word of truth" - he proceeded to embark on a gushing paean to the fairer sex.
"In other publications of the same type, the names of other successful, beautiful young women from Russia are mentioned," Putin began. "I think it won't be unexpected if I say that I like them all, just as I like all Russian women."
Russian women, he declared, are "the most talented and beautiful" in the world.
"If anyone can compete, it may be only Italian women," Putin said. Berlusconi laughed and raised his eyebrows in approval.
Putin, using the earthy language that has become his trademark, scolded the press for intruding on his private life.
The Italian prime minister, who triumphed again in elections this week, has long been a friend and political ally of Putin - and he was quick to show his loyalty. He mockingly pretended to mow down the offending reporter with a machine gun, then jokingly proposed swapping the Russian press with the Italian press.
Berlusconi likes to play the ladies man himself, and last year he was publicly rebuked by his wife for his flirtatious behavior with other women. He quickly responded with a love letter that was also published in a newspaper.
The tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin, 55, divorced his wife, Lyudmila, two months ago and planned to marry Alina Kabayeva, 24, a former champion rhythmic gymnast. His wife did not accompany him to Sardinia.
Kabayeva, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Games, is now a member of the lower house of Russia's Parliament from the pro-Kremlin party.
The website of Moskovsky Korrespondent was taken offline yesterday.
Putin, while not often cast as a Casanova, has never shied away from presenting a virile image.
He's been photographed practicing judo, in the cockpit of a fighter jet, and skiing down Alpine slopes. Last August, he caused a stir by stripping off his shirt for the cameras while on holiday with Prince Albert II of Monaco in the Siberian mountains. However, womanizing has not been part of his public persona.