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In the mid-1990s, Silvio Berlusconi started planning for the afterlife. On the grounds of his multi-million euro villa in Arcore, near Milan, he began building a giant underground mausoleum where he planned to be laid surrounded by more than 30 other tombs made ready for close friends, family members and romantic partners.
The project was typically Berlusconi — lavish, flamboyant, treading the line between the imperious and the absurd. Visitors were escorted past a 100-ton abstract sculpture representing the vault of heaven, down an imposing stairway modeled on pre-Roman burial sites, through a narrow corridor decorated with the things he might need in the afterlife — fruit, bread, keys, a mobile phone — and into an imposing burial chamber at whose center stood a pink marble and granite sarcophagus.
Asked by a journalist what instructions Berlusconi had given him, the Italian sculptor Pietro Cascella who built the mausoleum answered: “He told me not to make it look too sad.”
Nearly 30 years later, Berlusconi, who died Monday aged 86, will soon be making his last journey back to Arcore. His final resting place will serve as a monument to what was obvious to anyone who spent any time with him: his overwhelming desire to be loved.
Berlusconi was a lot of things. A real-estate developer whose right-hand man was sentenced to seven years in prison for his ties to the mafia. A media revolutionary who introduced commercial television to Italy, establishing a stranglehold on the country’s information ecosystem. The beaming owner of the Italian football club A.C. Milan. Post-war Italy’s longest-serving prime minister. A business tycoon convicted for tax fraud. A disgraced politician brought down by reports of “bunga bunga” orgies and sex with an underage prostitute.
Above all, Berlusconi was a seducer. From his early days as an occasional cruise ship crooner to his time as a real-estate salesman to his decades as a politician smiling at Italians from television shows running on the channels he owned, Berlusconi was unabashedly focused on one thing: winning over whoever was in front him. “Think of how many women there are out there who would like to go to bed with me, but don’t know it,” he was quoted as saying in a book about his rise to power. “Life is a problem of communication.”
One of the authors of this article attended a dinner in which Berlusconi regaled members of the foreign press for three and a half hours over a meal based on the colors of the Italian flag: a plate of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil; a pasta tris of pesto, tomato and cheese. Speaking in 2011, during his last months as prime minister and at the height of his sex scandals, Berlusconi didn’t deny organizing dinners with “pretty girls” but insisted they were “extraordinarily correct.”
But he didn’t shy away from lewd, sometimes self-deprecating humor. One description of the dinner party culminated prime minister holding up his pinky finger as he denied the possibility that a friend had engaged in any libidinous behavior. “To find [his] wiener at age 80, you’d have to have a treasure hunt,” he said. Supposedly off the record, news of the conversation was quickly leaked, most likely by Berlusconi or a member of his entourage.
In his pursuit of adoration, Berlusconi was ready to cross any number of legal and ethical lines. He built his television empire on a loophole in Italian law, circumventing a ban on the creation of a national network by buying up a collection of local television stations and running them all with the same shows. At a time when the state broadcaster RAI was serving up staid programming, Berlusconi burst through with licensed American TV blockbusters like Dallas and Dynasty and variety-show extravaganzas featuring half-naked soubrettes.
His break into politics came following the implosion of the Italian political system in the mani pulite corruption scandal. With the field wide open after the collapse of the country’s major political parties, voters swept Berlusconi into the prime minister’s office. Through the rest of his career, he would be dogged by accusations that he had gone into politics to avoid prosecution for corruption — allegations he would dismiss as part of a “communist” witch hunt.
He faced trial at least 36 times, on charges ranging from false accounting to bribing judges, slipping several convictions after his government shortened the statute of limitations or otherwise changed the law. (Similarly, his mausoleum, illegal at the time of its construction for being too “close to human habitation,” was made lawful by his government’s 2003 modification to a 200-year-old law.) Often accused in the press of having connections to the mafia, he just as often denied it. The only charge that stuck was a 2013 conviction for tax fraud, which saw him barred from holding office for six years. His conviction the same year for paying a 17-year-old girl for sex and abusing his office to cover it up was later overturned on appeal.
Though Berlusconi campaigned as a reformer and served three stints as prime minister, he didn’t leave a legacy of effective legislation. A relentless self-promoter who wasn’t above playing his campaign jingle on a loop in his office waiting room, his time in charge of Italy was spent in petty political fights and battles with the press and the judiciary. Ahead of his final ejection from power in 2011, the Economist magazine described him as “the man who screwed an entire country.” But as a political figure, there’s little denying he left his mark on Italy — and indeed the world. With his showman’s style, Berlusconi brazened through scandals that would have destroyed most politicians, pioneering a new form of media-buzz populism that would later spark comparisons to former U.S. President Donald Trump — a man he derided as “too arrogant.”
Internationally, Berlusconi joined hands with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As recently as October, he was still describing Putin as a “friend,” having sent him a bottle of wine for his birthday, according to an audio recording published in Italian media. At home, he forged new political ground by governing in alliance with Italy’s rising right-wing, anti-immigrant populists — only to be ultimately eclipsed first by Matteo Salvini’s League party and then by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.
Berlusconi spent the decade following his fall from power in 2011 a diminished political figure, spending a period out of office because of his tax fraud conviction, followed by a few years as a member of the European Parliament before returning to the senate in 2022. Though he remained president of his Forza Italia party, which is currently in government, and made attempts at playing the kingmaker, he had become less a powerful political player than a subject of ridicule. At 86, Berlusconi was already a fragile man, often caught on camera being assisted to walk. Maurizio Crozza, one of Italy’s most famous comedians and a constant television presence, loved to portray him as suddenly falling asleep while he speaks.
As Italy prepares to bury one of its most memorable politicians, the jury is still out on whether he’ll be remembered with love. But there’s no doubting that he’ll be remembered.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the worth of Berlusconi’s villa. It is worth millions of euros.
Jacopo Barigazzi and Stephan Faris
Published: 2023-06-12 10:39:13