Silvio Berlusconi obituary: Brilliant at winning power, lethal at wielding it

He dominated the public life of his country in a way no Italian had done since Benito Mussolini

Born: September 29th, 1936

Died: June 12th, 2023

Silvio Berlusconi, who has died aged 86, dominated the public life of his country in a way no Italian had done since Benito Mussolini. He was the Italian republic’s longest-serving prime minister. But, while he was brilliant at winning and holding power, the use he made of it was disastrous.

Berlusconi’s influence extended far beyond politics and the economy. At the height of his career, he was Italy’s richest man and there was almost no area of Italian life untouched by his influence. His business empire encompassed property and insurance, debt financing and retail interests. He was the chairman of his country’s league-topping football side. He and the members of his immediate family held sway over a media empire whose potential for influence on public opinion had no parallel in Europe.


The importance Berlusconi attached to images was characteristic of a society that has invariably placed great stress on appearance. Always immaculately dressed, he sported a tan as unchanging as his smile. In 2004, he invited widespread ridicule outside Italy by having first a facelift and then a hair transplant.

Berlusconi’s career can be seen as one long exercise in getting around obstacles that, in a society less tolerant of rule-breaking, would have stopped him long before he reached government. He constructed a national commercial television network in a country where the possibility had been considered illegal. He entered politics despite a breathtaking assortment of conflicting interests. He survived repeated attempts to have him put in jail for offences including the bribing of judges. He was found guilty on several occasions. Some of his convictions were overturned on appeal. In the remaining cases, he was saved from the consequences of his dishonesty by a statute of limitations.

In a way that was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, he cut across class barriers to construct an ample majority for the right. But, unlike his fellow conservative, he was never fully a politician.

Berlusconi, who for the best part of 20 years was the undisputed leader of the Italian right, was born in a Milan suburb, the son of Luigi, a bank clerk, and his wife, Rosella (née Bossi). He went on to study law at university and paid for his tuition by selling vacuum cleaners, photographing social events and running a band that played on summer cruise ships.

After graduating in 1961, Berlusconi went straight into business. One of the enduring mysteries of Berlusconi’s career is how a young and largely untested property developer was able to get together the capital he needed. He refused to say. His adversaries suggested it came from the mafia. His supporters hinted that it was the undeclared savings of rich Milanese.

The roots of Berlusconi’s media empire lay in Milano 2 and a cable television station he set up for its residents, Telemilano. He became chairman of Milan football club and under his indulgent stewardship, it once again became one of the most triumphant sides in Europe.

The “Berlusconi decade” – he held power for eight of the years between 2001 and 2011 – will be remembered as a period in which the Italian economy virtually stood still. Foreigners asked how Italians could possibly elect as their leader – not once, not twice but three times – a man widely viewed outside Italy as a buffoon, or worse. His media power and financial resources certainly accounted for a large part of the answer. They were never the whole of it, though. Italians have always loved a winner and he was the embodiment of self-made success. He was a populist of genius; the first modern Italian politician to speak to voters in the language of the streets.

After his second wife, Veronica Lario, announced she was seeking a divorce and accused him of “consorting with minors”, it was one sex scandal after another: there were claims that he had used his official plane to fly young women to his estate, evidence of sex workers mingling with actresses and dancers at dinner parties in his Roman home and his relationship with a young Moroccan runaway, Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 at the time she attended so-called “bunga bunga” parties at his mansion near Milan.

In the summer of 2013, Berlusconi’s legal difficulties turned from an irritant into a nightmare. In June, he was convicted of paying a juvenile sex worker and then misusing his official position to try to cover up their relationship. He was later acquitted of both charges on appeal. But in August, his conviction in a less publicised trial involving his group’s trading activities was upheld. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud. Partly because of an earlier amnesty and partly because he was a first offender, he did not go to prison. He did, however, have to do community service in a home for elderly people.

It is profoundly ironic that with his last decisive political intervention, Berlusconi, the very embodiment of condescendingly patriarchal and sexist attitudes towards women, should have opened the way for Italy to acquire not only its first woman prime minister in Giorgia Meloni, but one whom he found intolerably bossy. Election to the European Parliament in 2019 led to little after his health was affected by Covid-19. When he went into hospital with a lung infection in April, he was found to have leukaemia.

He is survived by Marta and his children, Marina, Pier Silvio, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.