Milan, Italy: 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 character, who once compared himself to Jesus, was Italy’s longest serving premier but was also plagued by scandal.
Despite being diagnosed with leukaemia, he was active in politics to the end as a senator and partner in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing government.
Berlusconi also wielded huge influence through his television and newspaper interests — he effectively invented commercial TV in Italy — his ownership of AC Milan football club, and his sheer wealth, as Italy’s richest person for a decade.
Long before Donald Trump parlayed his business success into a White House bid, Berlusconi charmed millions of Italians by presenting himself as a self-made man who enjoyed life and spoke his mind, even to the extent of insulting fellow leaders.
To his critics, however, the right-winger was a tax-evading playboy who used his vast media empire to further his political career, and then exploited his power to protect his business interests.
He spent much of his life embroiled in legal action, and the cases around his notorious “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, attended by young girls including underage escorts, were only wrapped up in February 2023.
Despite remaining president of his Forza Italia party, a junior partner in Meloni’s coalition, he had largely retired from public view in recent months.
He suffered increasing health problems — although he maintained his pride in his appearance, always smartly dressed, his slicked-back hair never showing the slightest trace of grey.
Berlusconi was hospitalised for 11 days in September 2020 after contracting coronavirus, describing it as “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life”.
In April 2023, doctors revealed he was in intensive care suffering from leukaemia and a lung infection.
‘Contract with Italians’
Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s, after building up a media and real estate business, where he was viewed as a breath of fresh air after a period of corruption and scandal.
Pitching himself as a modern Italian success story, and backed by his TV stations and newspapers, he secured his first election victory in 1994 with his new movement, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), named after a football chant.
He lasted as prime minister for only nine months, but bounced back with another election win in 2001 after a populist campaign promising jobs and economic growth, signing a “Contract with Italians” live on television.
He served until 2006, and returned again as prime minister between 2008 and 2011, making him the longest-serving premier in Italy’s post-war history.
He was forced to quit as debt-laden Italy — the eurozone’s third largest economy — came under intense pressure during the financial crisis.
The tenure of the man dubbed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) divided Italians, as much as over his policies — including his controversial decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq — as his entire approach to life.
Throughout his time in office, prosecutors snapped at his heels, even as his supporters in parliament passed laws to shield him and his allies.
Despite multiple court cases — he claimed in 2021 he had gone through 86 trials — he never spent any time behind bars and successfully appealed convictions for fraud and corruption early in his political career.
In 2013, Berlusconi received a definitive conviction for tax fraud, which saw him carry out community service in a care home for sufferers of Alzheimer’s.
He was also long suspected of links to the mafia, but strongly denied it.
‘Bunga Bunga’ disgrace
On the world stage, Berlusconi was known for his friendships with the likes of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi and Russian President Vladimir Putin — the latter of whom he controversially defended following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
He had no time for traditional diplomacy, once likening a German European MP to a Nazi and describing US President Barack Obama as “suntanned”.
His image was further tarnished when lurid details emerged of his sex parties at his villa near Milan with its private disco, 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 Heart Stealer” — but this was later overturned after the judge said there was reasonable doubt that he knew she was underage.
He then stood accused of bribing witnesses to lie about his parties, which he always insisted were elegant dinners. He was acquitted in three related trials.
A relationship with another teenager led to the end of his second marriage with former actress Veronica Lario, who left him in 2009 over his “cavorting with minors”.
In March 2022, he held a bizarre fake wedding with his girlfriend Marta Fascina, then 32.
Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan to a bank employee father and a housewife mother. He went on to father five children, all involved in the running of his business empire.
As a young man, he was quick to realise his talents as an entertainer.
A huge 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 cruise ship singer before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector in his 20s, which delivered his first fortune.
These funds were used to build a vast conglomerate spanning shops, cinemas, publishers, newspapers and cable television, where he broke new ground with commercial programmes filled with scantily clad women.
Crucially for his public persona, his empire also included football, one of Italy’s great passions.
As well as providing money for AC Milan, he regularly delivered dressing room and training ground pep talks during a period in which the club became one of the world’s most celebrated and trophied success stories.
Five of AC Milan’s seven European Cup/Champions League triumphs were achieved under Berlusconi’s 31-year ownership.
He sold the club in 2017 after years of lacklustre performances, and in 2018 bought Monza, then in Italy’s third tier.