How Silvio Berlusconi changed Italy, for better or worse
By Jason Horowitz
The death of Silvio Berlusconi on Monday brought to an end one of the longest, most consequential and colorful eras in Italian politics, with both ardent admirers and die-hard critics marking a life of outsized influence as something that split contemporary Italian history into the before and after.
From his origins as a real estate and media mogul, Berlusconi, who was 86 when he died, became the most dominant personality on the theatrical Italian landscape. He revolutionized not only Italian politics, but also its sport, daily life, image of itself and popular culture — all through his privately owned television channels — leaving an imprint, or a bruise, on almost everything he touched.
“Goodbye Silvio,” Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement about her coalition partner, calling him “one of the most influential men in Italian history.” He will receive a state funeral in Milan’s Duomo on Wednesday.
Even in death, Berlusconi had the power to potentially destabilize the political universe and Meloni’s governing coalition, of which his party, Forza Italia, is a small but critical linchpin.
Berlusconi, who had an enormous opinion of himself, seemed to believe, along with much of Italy, that he would live in perpetuity. He recently gave his “biological age” as in his 50s, and never anointed an heir to his center-right Forza Italia party.
As a result, political analysts believe that either one of his children will step up to hold the party, and potentially the coalition, together, or it will disintegrate without him, putting Meloni’s government, at the beginning of a five-year term, in doubt.
Such an outcome would be only the last tremor Berlusconi sent through the political system. While his health and political influence diminished in recent years, everything around him could be argued to be products of his making, shaped in support of, or opposition to, the man widely known as “The Knight.”
That included the political allies who eclipsed him, like Meloni; the Machiavellian political operators who tried to co-opt him; even the anti-establishment opposition that tried — but never fully succeeded — to get rid of him.
His fans, who for years sang, “Thank Goodness There’s Silvio,” say he was a force of nature that modernized Italian politics, matured its democracy and added capitalist dynamism to a creaky economy overly reliant on government.
His detractors saw him as the very personification of the country’s political and cultural decline, a crooked businessperson who entered politics to protect his business interests, a womanizing caricature of the Italian libertine who cozied up to despicable strongmen from Moammar Gadhafi of Libya to Vladimir Putin of Russia.
He embodied multitudes of contradictory personas: The reformer who promised to liberalize the country, but then governed like a populist. The family man whose long list of young companions, especially at so-called Bunga Bunga bacchanals, both scandalized the country and endeared him to aspiring Lotharios. The committed ally and lover of America who became an apologist for Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. The candidate who, in a clear conflict of interest, used his television channels as a political cudgel.
Whether he changed Italy for better or worse “was a very, very complicated question to answer,” said Giovanni Orsina, dean of the Luiss School of Government in Rome and the author of “Berlusconism and Italy: A Historical Interpretation.” It is likely to be debated for a period at least as long as the three decades that Berlusconi weighed on the Italian imagination. What is certain is that he changed Italy.
“The impact he had through television is much deeper than an electoral cycle,” said Christian Rocca, the editor of Linkiesta, an Italian news outlet. Rocca said Berlusconi transformed the staid Italian programming “that was in color but could have been in black and white,” bringing American sports, soap operas, movies and a new Italian style of variety show adorned with beautiful women.
That cultural shift to the spectacular and tawdry has not only remained on the airwaves, but critics have argued it has pervaded all of Italian society, transforming the way people look and the ambitions and dreams of a generation of Italians who hungered for the wealth and confidence that Berlusconi, transactional and aspirational and gaudy, stood for.
After the fall of Communism, which had been the chief dividing line for Italian politics for a half-century, Berlusconi capitalized on the collapse of the political establishment in a bribery scandal to “enter the field” of politics, as he famously put it. In doing so, Berlusconi became Italy’s new dividing line.
“This was his great innovation,” said Rocca, “you were in favor or against, you couldn’t be indifferent.”
Berlusconi’s polarizing style not only has remained in Italy, but it has become a global trend, seen most clearly in Donald Trump in the United States, who in many ways echoes his bombast.
Berlusconi “modernized the instruments of politics, that is to say, leadership, television, communication,” Orsina said. “He changed the political language.”
And he started doing that, said Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister and center-left opponent of Berlusconi, by changing “the Italians’ daily life with commercial television,” giving them greater choice. In return those viewers provided Berlusconi with “a huge reserve of votes.”
He also changed the way Italian politicians sounded. He projected optimism, capitalized on over-the-top demonization by his critics and perfected victimization. He painted all his critics red as Communists, ushering in a combative campaigning style and delegitimization of institutions that would be distilled to the poisonous messages that his enemies and acolytes flooded social media with in the last decade.
Rocca said that one story about Berlusconi summed him up.
When he was starting out as a real estate tycoon in Milan, he said, Berlusconi wanted to build a suburban-like housing complex and market it as an oasis of peace and quiet.
But planes flying in and out of the nearby airport made that a hard sell. To reroute the planes, Berlusconi built a hospital, over which they could not fly, greasing more than a few palms in the process. The hospital, San Raffaele, became a center of excellence, and it was where he died on Monday morning.
“That’s Berlusconi — entrepreneur, outlaw, politician,” he said. “But somehow in the end, it was a good thing.”