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Silvio Berlusconi, the man who defined modern Italy, dies at 86

The Milan-born businessman, who also owned Serie A soccer team AC Milan from 1986 to 2017, died on Monday due to a series of heart complications

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the political show 'Porta a Porta' at RAIÕs broadcast studios, on November 16, 2017 in Rome, Italy.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the political show 'Porta a Porta' at RAIÕs broadcast studios, on November 16, 2017 in Rome, Italy.Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis (Corbis via Getty Images)

Silvio Berlusconi, who served three terms as prime minister of Italy and owned the Mediaset media empire, who revolutionized telecommunications and bounced back from hundreds of legal and personal scandals, died on Monday due to a series of heart complications. The 86-year-old Milan-born businessman, who also owned Serie A soccer team AC Milan from 1986 to 2017, had been hospitalized several times in recent years. On this occasion, though, he was unable to overcome the chronic leukemia he had been suffering from and therefore maintain the myth spread by his family doctor that he was immortal: one more of the legends that surrounded one of the architects of the popular Italy of the late 1990s and the turn of the 21st century.

Berlusconi was one of the most influential figures of the last quarter of a century in Italy. To achieve this position, he was always aware that he had to exert his control over the news and entertainment channels where he would reach the large growing middle-class that would dominate the country’s consumption. He was the businessman who revolutionized communications and oversaw the modernization, for better or worse, of television. He founded the first political party/company based more on the laws of the market than on the old ideologies and established a culture of promotion and success, of cronyism and nepotism, that permeated so deeply in Italy that even filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino portrayed it in a diptych that pointed the finger at those who were unable to resist the temptation to put themselves at its service in exchange for something: at an entire country.

Berlusconi combined politics, sports, and advertising in his magnetic cocktail shaker, creating a successful brand that paved the way for so many phenomena that would follow almost two decades later, such as Trumpism. Berlusconi’s image was that of the wealthy, self-made man, capable of extending his formula for success to the management of the common good, even if it was a lie. Along the way, he was accused on numerous occasions of the prostitution of minors and illegal wiretapping and of having ties to the mafia — the origins of his fortune were investigated for years. He unabashedly flaunted his friendships with dictators, encouraged the changing of affiliation that he turned into a modus vivendi of parliamentarians, told jokes that were unacceptable in the context of political correctness and twisted the Constitution and Italian laws as he saw fit at any given moment.

In the end, however, he was convicted only of tax fraud, a sentence that led to him being barred from politics and marked the beginning of his decline. But up until the final day of his life, unable to anoint a successor in a party doomed to become extinct with him, he still influenced political transformations such as the recent rise of Mario Draghi to the position of prime minister, and his subsequent downfall.

Silvio Berlusconi celebrates with AC Milan players and coach Carlo Ancelotti after the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest.
Silvio Berlusconi celebrates with AC Milan players and coach Carlo Ancelotti after the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest. Peter Robinson (PA Images / Getty Images)

Berlusconi, the son of a middle-class family from Milan, always carried the banner of the self-made businessman: his mother was a housewife and his father an employee of Banca Rasini. Intelligent, outgoing, and possessing enormous oratory and social skills that allowed him to make a name for himself as a singer on cruise ships in the 1950s alongside his friend Fedele Confalonieri, the current president of Mediaset, and later as a skilled cold-door apartment salesman. Calling at the homes of Italians and identifying their aspirational frailties, he built his empire on the cement of large urban complexes in Milan.

Seductive and captivating, Berlusconi acquired the money to buy his first plot of land through a loan provided by the owner of the bank where his father worked, but the uncertain origin of that sum has been the subject of several investigations by anti-mafia prosecutors based on his proven links with Cosa Nostra (Vittorio Mangano, a notorious member of the Sicilian mafia, took care of Berlusconi’s horses at his Arcore mansion for many years). Leading anti-mafia magistrates such as Nino Di Matteo never doubted Berlusconi’s ties to organized crime. “Berlusconi subsidized the mafia for years,” he told this newspaper in a recent interview.

As Berlusconi’s construction empire expanded with his Milan Due development on the outskirts of the city, he began his foray into the media world with the acquisition of Il Giornale, the newspaper founded by the legendary journalist Indro Montanelli, which was experiencing financial difficulties. At a time when Italy was liberalizing the television market, he set up TeleMilano, a local channel that helped him begin to put together a laborious puzzle based on the acquisition of small stations which, thanks to state broadcasting licenses, would eventually become Canale 5, Italy’s first national private television station and the basis of his cultural and political narrative.

At first, Berlusconi was mocked. Like many of the populist phenomena he would unwittingly inspire years later, his world had the appearance of a caricature. And that was the mistake of the left, which handed him a political highway to advance upon. Little by little, he created an astonishing network of media including publishing houses, such as Mondadori, and major newspapers, such as Il Corriere della Sera, without anyone being able to put their finger on what he was up to. Berlusconi’s revolution, contrary to what the poet Gil Scott-Heron had sung in 1974, was indeed going to be televised. It became a medium through which he consolidated power and maintained a cultural hegemony for 25 years.

Berlusconi’s magnetic glow — the mirror in which thousands of Italians looked at themselves for years while handing a political blank check to a gambler who emerged from nowhere — came from the other great vehicle capable of seducing the masses. Berlusconi had been seeking to increase his influence through Italy’s great secular religion and bought soccer team AC Milan in 1986 after failing to take over his eternal rival, Inter Milan. AC Milan had been struggling after achieving some success in the past but during the period he presided over it — from 1986 to 2017 — Berlusconi built one of the best teams in Italian and continental history, one that won five European Cups and eight Serie A titles. But, above all, he built a model club and playing style, first through the Arrigo Sacchi and then Fabio Capello, that seduced the world. That bridge between the stadium and the political field was also one of the works that defined his legacy.

Berlusconi, whose net worth amounted to some €6 billion ($6.47 billion), was already a man a generation of Italians who were suddenly entering modernity looked up to. The knowledge he had acquired in the fields of advertising, sports, business and communication was too valuable for him not to channel into his definitive work: the one that would make him famous and would serve to safeguard everything he had built up to then. Forza Italia, a political party born from the song of support for the Italian national soccer team and consisting of a motley legion of Fininvest employees, opportunists, intelligentsia, old exponents of Christian Democracy party and cabaret artists and presenters from Canale 5, came into being in 1993 and won the general elections the following year. Berlusconi would serve as prime minister three times over the next 17 years, becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Italian history at 3,291 accumulated days, far ahead of Giulio Andreotti, the other key political figure of modern Italy.

(L-R) Matteo Salvini, leader of League, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, and Giorgia Meloni. leader of Brothers of Italy, attend the closing rally of the Center right coalition, on September 22, 2022 in Rome, Italy.
(L-R) Matteo Salvini, leader of League, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, and Giorgia Meloni. leader of Brothers of Italy, attend the closing rally of the Center right coalition, on September 22, 2022 in Rome, Italy. Alessandra Benedetti (Corbis via Getty Images)

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia revolution

Forza Italia’s revolution was unprecedented. Il Cavaliere’s party swept away Italy’s traditional politics and sowed the silent seed for that which would germinate years later: from Matteo Renzi to the Five Star Movement, passing through Matteo Salvini. All of them are ‘bastard’ children of Berlusconi’s way of understanding power, communication and parliamentarism in Italy. The success of his political project, however, ended in 2011 after a long history of excesses, outbursts against European leaders such as former German chancellor Angela Merkel and the disastrous management of the Italian economy, which was theoretically his forte, that sent the risk premium to a historical maximum of 574 points, extinguishing the patience of the troika. Berlusconi, who during that time had formed a deep friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was forced to resign and, subsequently, Forza Italia has progressively lost relevance, being reduced to a crude political instrument to protect his business interests and from which many of its leading figures have jumped ship.

Il Cavaliere was banned from holding public office after a conviction for tax fraud in 2012 and was unable to run in an election until January 2019. It presented an opportunity to appoint a successor but not even then, when it was crucial to replace his leadership with a younger face — “I have had more sardines than dolphins” he said of his possible heirs in 2018 — did he step aside. His face appeared on electoral ballots even if he was not eligible to run and his traditional court of sycophants was dissolving and moving in other directions. Forza Italia today is a moribund political animal that has not yet been ideologically replaced on the so-called liberal center-right by another party and which everyone is trying to devour. His last great political operation, in that standard mixture of armchair statesmanship and the service of his personal interests, was to facilitate the entry of almost the entire right wing into Mario Draghi’s government.

The administration of the former president of the European Central Bank (ECB) lasted exactly as long as it suited Berlusconi. When he saw that Draghi’s promotion, which he himself had favored, was no longer useful to him, he gave the green light for a parliamentary coup by the right that liquidated the legislature and left the field open for the triumphal march of Giorgia Meloni as leader of the new right-wing coalition. Another Berlusconi protégé — she was his Minister of Youth — Meloni turned out to be the protagonist of a new plot twist in Italian politics. And, perhaps without realizing it, the man who was at the head of almost all the inventions of the tidy Italian political laboratory had helped to create the first ultra right-wing government in a large European Union country and opened the way for the Italian experiment to be reproduced in neighboring states and even in the European Parliament, where his party is pushing to build an alliance with the conservative ECR group chaired by Meloni herself.

Berlusconi, who in recent times had reiterated his support for Putin, spent the last few years of his life surrounded by a court of sycophants and collaborators who hung around his mansion in Arcore. Weakened, according to those who know him, and disappointed for not having achieved the challenge of becoming president of Italy last year, his only real joy was to see AC Monza, a small Serie C team that he bought with his friend Adriano Galliani, reach the top flight and beat the biggest teams in Serie A. He wanted to prove to himself that he could repeat the feats of his glorious Milan. That he was still in form. And although most of the time when he went to the stadium he would fall asleep, he would go down to the locker room, talk with the players, display his catalog of dirty jokes (a few months ago he promised a bus full of prostitutes if they beat the big teams), and provide tactical lessons to the coach. The final challenge of an already somewhat bored man, who played at starting from scratch to try and feel young.

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