Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian public life for decades as a billionaire media mogul, businessman and prime minister, has died aged 86.
The larger-than-life figure, who once compared himself to Jesus, was Italy’s longest-serving prime minister but was also beset by scandal.
Despite being diagnosed with leukemia, he was active in politics until the end as a senator and partner in the right-wing government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Berlusconi also had enormous influence through his interests in television and newspapers – he effectively invented commercial television in Italy – his ownership of the AC Milan football club and his wealth, as the most successful person rich in Italy for a decade.
Long before Donald Trump turned his business success into a bid for the White House, Berlusconi had charmed millions of Italians by presenting himself as a self-made man who loved life and spoke his mind, even going to the point of insulting his fellow leaders.
To his critics, however, the right-winger was a fraudulent playboy who used his vast media empire to further his political career, then exploited his power to protect his business interests.
He spent much of his life embroiled in legal proceedings, and the cases surrounding his infamous “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, attended by young girls, including underage escorts, were not concluded until February 2023.
Although he remained president of his Forza Italia party, Meloni’s junior coalition partner, he has largely withdrawn from the public eye in recent months.
He suffered from increasing health problems, although he remained proud of his appearance, always smartly dressed, his slicked-back hair never showing the slightest trace of gray.
Berlusconi was hospitalized for 11 days in September 2020 after contracting the coronavirus, describing it as “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life.”
In April 2023, doctors revealed that he was in intensive care and suffering from leukemia and a lung infection.
Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s, after setting up a media and real estate business, where he was seen as a breath of fresh air after a period of corruption and scandals.
Presenting himself as a modern Italian success story and supported by his television networks and newspapers, he scored his first electoral victory in 1994 with his new movement, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), named after a football chant.
He was prime minister for only nine months, but bounced back with another election victory in 2001 after a populist campaign promising jobs and economic growth, signing a “Contract with the Italians” on live television.
He served until 2006, then returned as prime minister between 2008 and 2011, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Italy’s post-war history.
He was forced to resign as heavily indebted Italy – the euro zone’s third-largest economy – came under intense pressure during the financial crisis.
The tenure of the man nicknamed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) has divided Italians, as much over his policies – including his controversial decision to join the US invasion of Iraq – as over his approach to life.
Throughout his tenure, prosecutors dogged his heels, even as his supporters in Parliament passed laws to protect him and his allies.
Despite multiple trials – he claimed in 2021 to have undergone 86 trials – he never spent time behind bars and successfully appealed his fraud and corruption convictions early in his political career.
In 2013, Berlusconi was finally convicted of tax evasion, which resulted in him carrying out community service in a retirement home for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
He was also long suspected of ties to the mafia, but he strongly denied it.
The shame of “Bunga Bunga”
On the world stage, Berlusconi was known for his friendships with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Russian President Vladimir Putin – the latter of whom he controversially defended after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
He had no time for traditional diplomacy, once comparing a German MEP to a Nazi and calling US President Barack Obama “tan”.
His image was further tarnished when lurid details were revealed of his sex parties at his villa near Milan with his private nightclub, during a hugely embarrassing trial involving a 17-year-old nightclub dancer.
Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 for paying for sex with Karima El-Mahroug, known as “Ruby the Stealer of Hearts.”
He was later accused of bribing witnesses to lie about his parties, which he claimed were elegant dinners. He was acquitted in three related trials.
A relationship with another teenager led to the end of his second marriage to former actress Veronica Lario, who left him in 2009 because of his “antics with minors.”
In March 2022, he staged a bizarre fake wedding with his then-32-year-old girlfriend Marta Fascina.
Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan to a bank employee father and a housewife mother. He went on to have five children, all involved in running his business empire.
As a young man, he quickly realized his talents as an artist.
A big fan of Nat King Cole, he played double bass in a band and made club audiences laugh with jokes during breaks from his law studies at the University of Milan.
As a student, he worked briefly as a singer on a cruise ship before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction industry in his twenties, which brought him his first fortune.
These funds were used to build a vast conglomerate including stores, movie theaters, publishers, newspapers and cable television, where he innovated with commercial programs filled with scantily clad women.
His empire also included football, one of Italy’s great passions, which was crucial to his public persona.
As well as providing AC Milan with money, he regularly gave pep talks in the locker room and on the training ground during a period in which the club became one of the most famous and most awarded achievements in the world.
Five of AC Milan’s seven European Cup/Champions League triumphs came under Berlusconi’s 31-year tenure.
He sold the club in 2017 after years of poor performance, and in 2018 bought Monza, then in Italy’s third division.