Silvio Berlusconi was certainly no angel and never considered himself to be one. Suffice to say, a Wikipedia page on a lifetime of legal cases against him runs to 18,000 words. But news of Berlusconi’s death on Monday shook the country and moved millions of Italians. His career was tainted by sex scandals, countless allegations of corruption and a tax fraud conviction, yet many paid their respects to one of the dominant figures in Italy’s postwar republic.
Even the Milan prosecutor’s office, to which Berlusconi gave so much work, paid its tribute a few hours after his death, citing “a man who marked the history of Italy”.
Berlusconi was accused of false accounting, bribing tax officials and magistrates, and even of being involved in the mafia bomb attacks of 1992 and 1993. Yet, despite these very serious allegations, he continued to be successful in politics and to be seen as a charismatic and likable figure.
One of the first messages of condolence was delivered by arguably his most bitter political rival, the former Italian PM and European Commission president Romano Prodi.
“We represented different and opposing worlds but our rivalry never turned into sentiments of animosity on a personal level, and the debate remained within the sphere of mutual respect,” Prodi said.
From 9.30am on Monday, nobody in Italy spoke of anything other than his death, with the newspapers working frantically to report the dozens of reactions arriving from around the world. Some of them came from the world of finance, where, a few minutes after the announcement of the tycoon’s passing, shares in Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, of which Berlusconi was the controlling shareholder, rose by over 5%.
There were also messages from both Karima El Mahroug, who had attended Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, and Pope Francis.
The Italian press spoke about the end of an era. The national newspaper La Repubblica, wrote: “It is now difficult to imagine an Italy without Berlusconi. In the last 50 years, there hasn’t been a day in which his name hasn’t been mentioned, on TV, in the newspapers, in parliament, in bars and at the stadium.’’
“Everything about him was excessive,” added the paper in its editorial. “At one point, his popularity was such as to be identified as a symbol of the Italian, around the world.”
But if the rightwing newspapers have praised Berlusconi, calling him a “visionary” and even a “builder of modern Italy”, other newspapers have underlined the other side of the coin: the judicial inquiries, shadows on his political career and questionable business dealings.
Il Fatto Quotidiano, one of the newspapers that most criticised and attacked Berlusconi and investigated the corruption allegations, wrote on its homepage: “Silvio Berlusconi is dead, first of the populists and record holder of investigations, from corruption to the mafia.”
“This was Berlusconi,” the former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said, “loved by many and hated by many.”
Internationally, Berlusconi embodied the stereotype of a certain type of Italian man: sexist, a womaniser, politically incorrect, lover of good food and football and known for his vitality, friendliness, sociability and sense of humour. He managed to win over not only Italians but numerous international leaders, first of all Vladimir Putin. The Russian president was among the first foreign heads of state to pay his respects, in a rare, lengthy letter – released late in the morning.
“For me, Silvio was a dear person, a true friend,” wrote Putin. “I have always sincerely admired his wisdom and his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions, even in the most difficult situations. During each of our meetings, I was literally charged with his incredible vitality, optimism and sense of humour. His death is an irreparable loss and great sorrow.”
Berlusconi had become so powerful and popular that despite his physical ailments, he was perceived in the eyes of many as an immortal figure, something he loved to joke about.
One joke the media tycoon told concerned his own death and his search for a tomb. The joke is that Berlusconi, after refusing to be buried among the popes in St Peter’s in Rome, began to think of buying the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the body of Jesus had been brought after the crucifixion. The problem, however, was the cost, because Berlusconi would have had to pay $2bn to be buried there. “Do I really have to pay so much? For what, to stay there for only three days?” Berlusconi said, jokingly comparing himself to Jesus.
The late Don Luigi Verzè, one of the founders of the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, revealed that Berlusconi had told him “that he wanted to live to be 150 to put Italy right”.
After Berlusconi’s death, the popular Taffo funeral services, a long-established Italian funeral home, which has developed a humorous and ironic approach to death posted on social media: “RIP Berlusconi. You were funnier than us.”
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
Published: 2023-06-12 16:08:13