Italy bids farewell to Berlusconi on contested day of mourning

Decision by government to have a national day of mourning sparks protest from opposition politicians

Italy held a state funeral on Wednesday for Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon turned scandal-tainted prime minister, who has proved as polarising in death as he was in life.

More than 2,000 people – family, friends, political and business allies and rivals – packed Milan’s gothic Duomo to honour the man called Il Cavaliere (the knight), a nickname that stuck although Berlusconi offered to renounce the knighthood – awarded to him in 1997 for entrepreneurship – after his conviction for tax fraud in 2013.

Giant screens, usually reserved for World Cup finals, were put up outside in the main piazza in Milan, Berlusconi’s hometown, where thousands of people braved searing heat to witness the funeral, some shouting “Silvio, Silvio” and other football-stadium chants to honour their hero.

The funeral was also attended by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad.


“Through lights and shadows, he’s shaped the history of our country throughout my entire life,” said Chiara Ghiorso, a 40-year-old marketing professional who came to pay her respects. “He was the first person I voted for as an 18 year old; he represented the moderate-liberal camp that had never existed in postwar Italy.”

Berlusconi, whose centre-right party Forza Italia is part of prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s governing coalition, died on Monday aged 86, after battling leukaemia. His afterlife had long been planned, as he commissioned a prominent sculptor in the 1990s to build a marble mausoleum in the garden of his villa, with 32 burial slots for himself, family and closest friends.

Yet the politician, credited with “Americanising” Italian politics, was active until the end, making a failed bid for presidency and scheming to topple former prime minister Mario Draghi’s government last year – and playing an essential role in bringing Meloni’s right-wing coalition to life.

Before the funeral, Meloni paid homage to the leader who first gave her a ministerial post in 2008.

“Berlusconi prevented the post-communists from taking power in Italy just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she wrote in Corriere della Sera newspaper. “He was a formidable defender of our national interest and our productive and social system.”

But her government’s announcement of a day of national mourning provoked criticism and anger, given his chequered history.

“This is only happening because he was the enabler of those who are in power today,” said Rosy Bindi, a former centre-left minister.

In life, Berlusconi was the subject of more than 30 criminal investigations, many of which he defeated either by changing laws or dragging out proceedings beyond statute of limitations.

He was forced out of office in 2011 at the peak of the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, amid scandals over “bunga bunga parties” involving under-age girls, though he was recently cleared of criminal wrongdoing in connection with those festivities.

Many Italians are still dismayed by Berlusconi’s corrosion of public morals. Prospero Giuliani, a 60-year-old Milan resident, called it “shocking” that someone who “completely lacked moral stature, scorned women and was convicted for tax fraud” was given a state funeral.

Outside the cathedral, though, admirers and flag-waving fans of AC Milan – the football team he owned for years – expressed nostalgia for the ebullient politician known for his irrepressible self-belief and off-colour jokes.

Anna Rigoni, 80, a long-time Forza Italia activist wearing a grey T-shirt covered in party pins, said she wanted to “show all her gratitude” to Berlusconi, calling him “the victim of a witch hunt”.

Michelangelo Gerardi, 37, a former carabiniere now confined to a wheelchair, waited for hours in the heat for a glimpse of the coffin. “He was a great man who cared about the not-so-lucky ones like me,” he said.

Alex Di Bella, 37, born in the year Berlusconi bought AC Milan, said his love for the club turned him into a Forza Italia voter. “My family are left-wing voters but how could I ever let down my club’s owner?” Di Bella added, wearing a club jersey.

Elsewhere, young people who had never known a time without Berlusconi looming over the public stage were more disparaging of his legacy.

At a bar in Rome’s trendy Appio Latino neighbourhood, teacher Livia Montalesi, 28, said “women like my grandmother saw him as a sex symbol” but that she was less impressed. - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023