Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon and four-time prime minister who brushed off a litany of legal battles and sex scandals to dominate Italian public life for more than two decades, has died in Milan aged 86.
Italy‘s longest-serving prime minister since World War II, Berlusconi had been admitted to Milan’s San Raffaele hospital on Friday for what aides said were pre-planned tests related to leukemia. His admission came just three weeks after he was discharged following a six-week stay at San Raffaele hospital, during which time doctors revealed he had a rare type of blood cancer.
His death was announced on June 12 by Italian media.
Long the country’s richest man, Berlusconi made his fortune in real estate before going on to build Italy’s biggest media empire, Mediaset, which he later enlisted to facilitate his swashbuckling entry into politics.
The scandal-plagued tycoon infamous for the debauchery of his “bunga bunga” parties transformed and monopolised Italian politics at the turn of the century, introducing a skewed left-right divide that pitted his conservative camp against the centre-left anti-Berlusconi front.
Known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight), among many other nicknames, he was admired and reviled in equal measure at home – but was mostly derided abroad. After a decade in power, The Economist magazine famously ran a cover story on his record in office with the headline, “The man who screwed an entire country”.
Despite the mockery, his unbounded bravado, unique brand of politics and tumultuous career became a playbook for ambitious politicians around the world, making him a precursor to contemporary populism.
Long before the likes of Donald Trump played the “anti-system” card, Berlusconi had successfully cast himself as the b?te noire of a declining and discredited political class. Accused of being as narcissistic, sexist and self-serving as the billionaire former US president, Berlusconi also played an equally piteous victim, railing against the judiciary and once claiming he was “the most persecuted person in the history of the world and the history of man”.
He also played a more inveterate jester than Britain’s Boris Johnson, entertaining Italy as much as he ran it; a more polished macho than his friend Vladimir Putin, adding an affable, cultured touch to his personality cult; and a subtler strategist than Matteo Salvini, the loudmouthed nationalist who briefly supplanted him as leader of the country’s right-wing camp – only to be overtaken in turn by the far right‘s Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s current prime minister and once a junior minister under Berlusconi.
The most talked-about Italian politician since Benito Mussolini, Berlusconi was once described as a “disease that can only be cured through vaccination” by the country’s most respected postwar journalist, the late Indro Montanelli. The vaccine, Montanelli argued on the eve of the 2001 general election, involved “a healthy injection of Berlusconi in the prime minister’s seat, Berlusconi in the president’s seat, Berlusconi in the pope’s seat or wherever else he may want. Only after that will we be immune.”
Montanelli was wrong about immunity, and so were the many other pundits who wrote off the Cavaliere, time and time again, even as his political career – and popularity – powered on.
The dream of America
Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, the first of three children raised in a middle-class family in Milan, Italy’s financial capital. Like many of his generation, he was evacuated during World War II and lived with his mother in a village some distance from the city.
The handsome and genial youth made his first money selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and occasionally singing in nightclubs and cruise ships with his friend Fedele Confalonieri, who would remain his loyal business partner to the very end.
After graduating in law in 1961, Berlusconi began a career in construction, establishing himself as a residential housing developer in the Milan area. He got his big break at the start of the 1970s with the construction of Milano 2, a self-contained town his Edilnord company built in the suburbs, soon to be followed by its twin, Milano 3.
With their artificial lakes, sports facilities, churches and shopping malls, Berlusconi’s model towns were designed as the Italian version of American suburbia – functional environments dedicated to work, leisure and watching television.
“I’m in favour of all things American before even knowing what they are,” Berlusconi once told Britain’s Times newspaper. His next challenge was to ensure his fellow Italians felt likewise, embracing American popular culture through soap operas, commercials and chat shows.
Milano 2 is where the Cavaliere built his media empire, Mediaset, launching Italy’s first private channels with the help of his politician friends, chief of whom was the powerful Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, a former prime minister whose name would later become synonymous with corruption.
The leafy suburb is also where Berlusconi’s own four-decade-long battle with the judiciary began in the late 1970s, with the first investigations into Edilnord’s shady funding. The cases were soon shelved, though it later emerged that the investigators had been given senior positions in Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding.
In the following years, several former mafia bosses were quoted as saying that Edilnord had received generous funding from criminal organisations based in Sicily, via Berlusconi’s close friend Marcello Dell’Utri, who was later convicted of collusion with the mafia in a separate case.
Berlusconi himself began feeling the heat in the early ’90s when a sweeping corruption investigation destroyed Italy’s Christian Democracy party, which had ruled the country since the war, along with his friend and protector Craxi. But instead of hiding in the shadows, the Cavaliere sensed an opportunity.
In 1992, at the height of the “Clean Hands” corruption inquiries, the media tycoon was asked whether he would consider running for mayor in his hometown of Milan, where a Berlusconi-owned football club won its 12th league title that year. His answer was an accurate forecast of the years to come.
“Do you know that every day I receive 400 letters from housewives thanking me for freeing them from their daily boredom with my television programmes?” Berlusconi replied. “If I entered politics with this electoral base, I wouldn’t go for mayor. I’d build a party like Reagan’s, win the elections and become prime minister.”
Two decades before France’s Emmanuel Macron seemingly pulled a political party out of his hat and conjured an ?lys?e Palace victory, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political credentials, pulled the same trick in Italy – and in half the time. Staffed with marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italia (Go, Italy) was just five months old when its founder swept to power in the spring of 1994 on promises of lower taxes, less encroachment from the state and restored pride in the Italian nation.
Hailed by his followers as “the Lord’s anointed”, the media mogul said he felt compelled to enter politics in order to bar the post-Communist left from power. Critics, however, claimed Berlusconi was primarily motivated by his desire to protect his own businesses – a critique borne out by the many bespoke laws his successive governments would force through parliament over the years.
While his first, grossly inexperienced government soon collapsed, the tycoon politician would go on to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades, bouncing back with further electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2008. Despite leading an unwieldy coalition with southern-based post-fascists and far-right Northern League separatists, he became the only prime minister to serve through a full five-year legislature, between 2001 and 2006 – no small achievement in a country that has known 67 different governments since 1945.
It would take a combination of the eurozone’s debt crisis, the loss of his parliamentary majority following a party split, and lurid accounts of “bunga bunga” orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes at his private residence to finally push Berlusconi out of office – for the third and last time – in 2011, amid the jeers of protesters gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure.
Earlier that year, Berlusconi suffered a major blow when Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down part of a law granting him temporary immunity. After years of being cleared of multiple charges – often because the statute of limitations had expired or because his government had changed the law, for instance decriminalising the practise of false accounting – his run of luck came to an end in 2012 when he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud and barred from public office.
But because Berlusconi was over 75 at the time, he was instead handed community service, working four hours a week with elderly dementia patients at a Catholic care home near Milan.
The next year, he was also found guilty of paying for sex with underage prostitute Karima “Ruby” El Mahroug, 17, a guest at his “bunga bunga” parties, and then abusing his power to have her released from jail. The conviction was later overturned, though Berlusconi faced further charges for allegedly bribing a witness in the trial.
In the meantime, his second wife Veronica Lario, with whom he had three of his five children, decided to divorce him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model who referred to him as “Papi”.
Berlusconi’s enduring support
Despite his rapidly declining fortunes, Berlusconi made another comeback ahead of the 2013 general election, overturning a 15-point gap in the polls to come within a whisker of a stunning election win. Though he was barred from office, the result cemented his role as the central powerbroker in Italian
Reflecting on the tycoon’s enduring support, Maurizio Cotta, a professor of politics at the University of Siena, said Berlusconi understood certain aspects of the Italian psyche better than anyone else. Berlusconi spoke “alla pancia” (to the stomach) of Italians, Cotta said. “He knew their weak spots – their fear of discipline, of the state, of losing their homes, of being caught with their hands in the till.”
When the head of aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested ahead of the 2013 election for bribing Indian officials to secure a huge helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the magistrates for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked.
Never mind the repeated trials, the laws passed to protect himself and his businesses, the lurid campaign jokes about how often a girl would “come” or the fact that he personally intervened to have Mahroug released from custody – claiming he thought she was the niece of Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak – almost a quarter of Italian voters still chose his party, and nearly a third backed his coalition.
“Berlusconi might cause every possible disaster, but he speaks the language and knows the interests of his ‘social bloc’,” wrote Perangelo Battista in the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-known daily, referring to the tax-averse small and medium-sized businesses that formed the backbone of his support.
At 81 and just 18 months after undergoing open-heart surgery, the Cavaliere was somehow back on his horse for the 2018 general election, still cobbling together unlikely coalitions and promising Italians a rosy future with unshakeable optimism. His party did reasonably well, though it was overtaken on the right by Salvini’s eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Lega party.
The next year, with his ban on public office lifted, Berlusconi won himself a seat in the European Parliament – 18 years after he delivered one of his most infamous lines there in a slur aimed at German MEP Martin Schulz.
“I know that in Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps,” Berlusconi said as he took over the EU’s rotating presidency in June 2003. “I shall put you forward for the role of a kapo (prison guard) – you would be perfect.”
Berlusconi went on to win yet another general election in September 2022 – this time as an unlikely junior partner in Italy’s most right-wing ruling coalition since Mussolini. From the get-go, he proved to be a troublesome ally for the far right’s Meloni, bragging about vodka gifts from Putin and blaming Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for Russia’s unprovoked invasion of his country.
The man who claimed credit for “ending the Cold War” was in and out of hospital in his twilight years, battling a string of illnesses. His tenacity earned him another nickname – “the Immortal” – as well as the bipartisan respect that had eluded him throughout his career.
Three years before his final stay at Milan’s San Rafaele clinic, Berlusconi overcame a severe case of Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic. After testing positive for the deadly respiratory disease along with dozens of Sardinia jet-setters in August 2020, he responded with characteristic braggadocio.
“I’ve been diagnosed with one of the strongest viral loads in all of Italy,” he said in a phone call with supporters from his hospital bed in Milan. “It just goes to show I’m still the number one.”