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In the mid-1990s, Silvio Berlusconi began planning for the afterlife. On the land of his multimillion-dollar villa in Arcore, near Milan, he began to build a gigantic underground mausoleum where he planned to be buried surrounded by more than 30 other graves prepared for close friends, family and romantic partners.
The project was typically Berlusconi: sumptuous, flamboyant, hovering between the imperious and the absurd. Visitors were escorted past a 100-ton abstract sculpture representing the celestial vault, down an imposing staircase modeled on pre-Roman burial sites, through a narrow corridor decorated with the things you might need in the afterlife – fruit, bread, keys, a mobile phone – and in an imposing burial chamber in the center of which stood a pink marble and granite sarcophagus.
Asked by a reporter to instructions Berlusconi had given him, the Italian sculptor Pietro Cascella who built the mausoleum replied: « He told me not to make it look too sad. »
Nearly 30 years later, Berlusconi, who died on Monday at the age of 86, will soon make his last trip back to Arcore. His final resting place will serve as a monument to what was obvious to anyone who spent time with him: his overwhelming desire to be loved.
Berlusconi was many things. A real estate developer whose right-hand man was sentenced to seven years in prison for his Mafia ties. A media revolutionary who introduced commercial television to Italy, establishing a stranglehold on the country’s information ecosystem. The beaming owner of the Italian soccer club AC Milan. Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister. A business tycoon convicted of tax fraud. A disgraced politician dejected by reports of « bunga bunga » orgies and sex with an underage prostitute.
Berlusconi was above all 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 who smiled at Italians from television programs airing on channels he owned, Berlusconi was unabashedly focused on one thing: conquering whoever he was. before him. « Think of how many women there are out there who would like to sleep with me, but don’t know it, » he allegedly said in a book on his rise to power. “Life is a communication problem.”
One of the authors of this article attended a dinner in which Berlusconi entertained 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 paste set of pesto, tomato and cheese. Speaking in 2011, during his final months as prime minister and at the height of his sex scandals, Berlusconi did not deny hosting dinner parties with « beautiful girls », but insisted they were « remarkably correct ».
However, he did not shy away from bawdy, sometimes self-deprecating humor. One description of the dinner culminated in the Prime Minister holding up his little finger as he denied the possibility that a friend had engaged in lecherous behaviour. « Find [his] wiener at age 80, you should go on a treasure hunt,” he said. Presumably unofficially, news of the conversation leaked quickly, most likely from Berlusconi or a member of his entourage.
In his quest for adoration, Berlusconi was ready to cross any legal and ethical line. He built his television empire on a loophole in Italian law, circumventing the ban on establishing a national network by buying up a collection of local television stations and broadcasting them all with the same programmes. At a time when the state broadcaster RAI was taking the accounts seriously programming, Berlusconi exploded with licensed American television blockbusters like Dallas and Dynasty and wacky variety shows featuring half-naked showgirls.
His irruption into politics occurred following the implosion of the Italian political system in clean hands corruption scandal. With the field wide open after the collapse of the country’s main political parties, voters dragged Berlusconi into the prime minister’s office. For the rest of his career, he would be dogged by allegations that he entered politics to avoid prosecution for corruption – charges he dismissed as part of a « communist » witch hunt.
He at least faced trial 36 times, on charges ranging from false accounting to bribing judges, handing down several sentences after his government shortened statutes of limitations or otherwise changed the law. (Likewise, his mausoleum, illegal at the time of its construction because it was too « close to human habitation », was made lawful since changing his government in 2003 to a 200-year-old law.) Often accused in the press of having ties to the mafia, he has just as often denied it. The only remaining charge was a 2013 conviction for tax fraud, which saw him barred from office for six years. His conviction the same year for paying a 17-year-old girl for sex and abusing her office to cover for it was later overturned on appeal.
Although Berlusconi campaigned as a reformer and served three terms as prime minister, he left no legacy of effective legislation. A relentless self-promoter who was not above the game his campaign jingle looped in his office waiting room, his time at the helm of Italy was spent in petty political fights and battles with the press and the judiciary. In the run-up to his final ousting from power in 2011, the Economist magazine described it as « the man who fucked up a whole country ». But as a political figure, it cannot be denied that he has left his mark on Italy and indeed on the world. In his showman style, Berlusconi defied the scandals that would destroy most politicians, paving the way for a new form of media populism that would later draw comparisons to former US President Donald Trump , a man who mocked as « too arrogant ».
Internationally, Berlusconi has joined Libyan Muammar Gaddafi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As late as October, he still described Putin as a « friend » after sending him a bottle of wine on his birthday, according to an audio recording released in Italian media. At home, he forged new political ground by ruling in alliance with Italy’s right-wing, anti-immigrant populists on the rise, only to eventually be eclipsed first by Matteo Salvini’s Lega party and then the prime minister’s Brothers of Italy party. Italian Giorgia Meloni.
Berlusconi spent the decade following his fall from power in 2011 as a minor political figure, spending some time out of office due to his tax fraud conviction, followed by a few years as a member of the European Parliament before returning to the Senate in 2022. remained president of his Forza Italia party, which is currently in government, and attempted to be king, had become less of a powerful political player than an object of ridicule. At 86, Berlusconi was already a frail man, often caught on camera as he was assisted to walk. Maurizio Crozza, one of Italy’s most famous comedians and a constant television presence, loved to portray him as he suddenly falls asleep while he is talking.
As Italy prepares to bury one of its most memorable politicians, the jury is still out on whether he will be remembered with love. But there is no doubt that it will be remembered.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misreported the value of Berlusconi’s villa. It’s worth millions of euros.