Silvio Berlusconi has been given the privilege of a state send-off at Milan’s imposing cathedral in a ceremony that drew thousands of mourners to a square outside but appalled critics of the scandal-tainted former Italian prime minister.
Supporters waved Italian flags with Forza Italia – the name of the party he founded in 1994 – written on them and, in reference to his long association with AC Milan football club, chanted: “There’s only one president.”
The arrival of his coffin was greeted with applause after it had been escorted by traffic police to the cathedral from Villa San Martino, Berlusconi’s home in Arcore 20 miles away.
Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing coalition government, of which Forza Italia is a junior member, also bestowed Berlusconi, who died of leukaemia on Monday at the age of 86, with a national day of mourning.
Milan Cathedral was closed off to tourists as 2,000 official guests including Meloni, whose rise to power was facilitated by Berlusconi, her predecessor Mario Draghi, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took to their pews.
The service was broadcast live on two huge screens on Piazza del Duomo by Mediaset, the television network owned by Berlusconi and the vehicle through which he was able to nurture the populist instincts of the electorate.
Standing among the crowd, Elisa Canclini, who worked for Berlusconi for 27 years, first at his holding company, Fininvest, and subsequently at Mediaset, described her former boss as a person who was “full of humanity and intelligence”, and had “great foresight and class”.
“He wasn’t like a boss, he was like one of us,” she said.
Canclini’s most abiding memory of Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since the second world war, was when he nicknamed her “the blond Gullit” – in reference to Ruud Gullit, the former Dutch international who played for AC Milan, which Berlusconi owned between 1986 and 2017.
“I had long curly hair,” she said, while showing an old photograph taken alongside Berlusconi and other colleagues. “It was one of the nicest moments when he gave me that nickname.”
Roberto Lotti, who previously worked for an AC Milan fans association, travelled from Tuscany to pay his respects. “I met Berlusconi when he bought the club,” Lotti said. “He was totally different from any of the previous owners – he captured the imagination, and then had a lot of success with the team.”
The death of Berlusconi, who despite being embroiled in countless trials and sex scandals, only received one conviction – for tax fraud – has divided Italy, leaving many disgusted by the state funeral and national day of mourning.
While it is not unusual for former prime ministers and other government ministers to be granted a state funeral, a national day of mourning is the choice of whoever is in power. Sessions in parliaments have been scrapped, while rightwing councils across the country have observed a minute of silence.
Simona Stante, who was in Milan for work, said she was “sick and tired” of all the “fawning” coverage given to Berlusconi by the mainstream press since his death, with the exception of La Repubblica, Il Fatto Quotidiano and Domani.
“He still manages to control all the information,” Stante said. “It’s crazy to give him a state funeral – as if he was a saint. Not even [the judges] Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone got one, and they fought against the mafia all their lives.”
Riccardo Magi, the secretary of the small leftwing party, Più Europa, described Berlusconi as a “failed statesman” who should not be “beatified”.
“I reiterate my condolences, but I think this ongoing beatification is wrong,” Magi said. “He foolishly managed public finances … and caused Italy to lose prestige and credibility at an international level. Not to mention justice, which he never managed to make reforms on.”
One person familiar with Berlusconi’s wrath is Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist who sparked controversy after running a front page of an issue in April 2001 headlined: “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy”. Berlusconi lost a defamation case against the publication in 2008.
Emmott said: “My first thought was that he was very lucky to die when there was a rightwing prime minister of a government of which he formed part. Would [former prime ministers] Paolo Gentiloni or Mario Draghi have [given such a funeral]? I doubt it. You could be respectful but you wouldn’t have to go this far.
“But for Meloni, it felt like the most prudent thing to do to honour the man who made it possible for her to be prime minister of Italy. Looking at comparisons with Falcone and Borsellino is morally correct but beside the point – this is an exercise of power.”
Berlusconi’s countless trials and tribulations, including the infamous “bunga bunga” sex parties, appeared to wash over his supporters.
“I don’t feel affected by bunga bunga,” said Giulia Marinoni, 25, who had travelled from Parma to Milan. “He [Berlusconi] always showed respect for women – and brought women into the party and to power – Italy’s first female prime minister is there thanks to him.”
Canclini said Berlusconi’s judicial challenges were down to “people who were jealous of him”, adding: “So they always put him in a bad light. Yes, he made a few errors, but we all make those.”
Critics have argued that Berlusconi, who was elected prime minister three times, exploited his vast wealth to seduce the poorer voters into voting for him. But Canclini disagrees. “I don’t see him as a manipulator, but as an extremely educated person. There will never be anyone like him – he was a genius,” she said.
Angela Giuffrida in Milan
Published: 2023-06-14 17:02:06