Silvio Berlusconi: How the previous Italian Prime Minister Transformed Italy
The end of an era has arrived. It is difficult to picture Italy without Silvio Berlusconi, even as the country struggles to define itself in the post-Berlusconi period.
His shadow has grown huge over government, the media, football, and the average citizen for the past fifty years.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni commended his “courage and determination” in a video tribute on Monday, calling him one of the most prominent figures in the country’s history.
“With him, Italy learned that it must never allow itself to be limited, and that it must never give up,” she said.
Silvio Berlusconi might have passed for a pirate during the height of his power, wearing colorful bandanas on board boats in the Mediterranean.
He did, however, have a disproportionate impact on Italian society and politics, and he was the target of exceedingly complex civil and criminal investigations.
Allies believe Berlusconi’s death leaves a ‘big gap’.
Berlusconi: Italy’s comeback king who led the country four times.
As a cruise ship performer, he first experienced the excitement of being center stage, and that experience would define his adult life.
He changed Italian television as a media entrepreneur influenced by the glitz and glam of American networks. Scantily dressed women would define many of his programs, as well as his personal life.
This resulted in a cultural shift for Italians, who were suddenly able to watch TV shows with politically incorrect jokes and “veline,” an Italian phrase for “show girls.”
For decades, Italian television, led by the official broadcaster RAI, has been strict and serious. Berlusconi made the decision to prioritize audiences and is credited with inventing commercial television in Italy.
Even now, if you watch Italian television, you will surely see half-naked young women.
Berlusconi’s entry into politics was motivated more by a desire to defend his expanding commercial interests than by ideological enthusiasm.
He was elected Prime Minister four times and received support from a diverse group of electors. In stark contrast to the more reticent cerebral types who had previously defined Italy’s course, the former performer cut a colorful figure.
However, the man dubbed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) divided Italians, as much for his policies – particularly his contentious choice to join the US-led war of Iraq – as for his overall outlook on life.
When I interviewed him for the BBC in 2018, I witnessed this myself. We shook hands at the end of our talk, while the cameras were still rolling.
“Don’t shake hands so strongly!” he said as quickly as he could. Men will be afraid of you, and no one will marry you!” When I suggested that a hard handshake was a good thing, he laughed and remarked, “You’ve got to joke every once in a while.”
Berlusconi attempted to instruct me on how to shake hands.
This struck me as an example of why so many Italians despised him for his apparent sexism and disdain, while others liked him as a “man of the people.” Berlusconi’s qualities and flaws, as writer Curzio Malaparte put it, “are the qualities and flaws of all Italians.”
Indeed, many Italian publications credit him with popularizing populism in the country. Several right-wing leaders from the 2010s, including Donald Trump, have been compared to him.
Berlusconi was instrumental in bringing the far-right into mainstream politics. He formed agreements with the Northern League, a party that advocated for the independence of a chunk of northern Italy, and with the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale, from which the current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, descended.
Giorgia Meloni rose to prominence as a politician under Berlusconi’s tutelage, serving as a junior minister in his previous government.
Berlusconi wants to impress more than anything else. He turned his estate in Arcore into a Renaissance palace complete with Renaissance paintings, and his villa in Sardinia into a theme park complete with a false volcano that erupted lava.
Investigators were to uncover that these villas were frequently visited by showgirls and models, who received gifts and cash envelopes.
Berlusconi, belly dancing, and bunga bunga parties
It was his inability to manage as Italy’s debt reached unsustainable levels in 2011 that ultimately brought him down, not the “bunga bunga” parties.
His political demise occurred amid the financial crisis, when Italians blamed him for the country’s anemic economy.
Numerous criminal investigations for bribery and corruption, as well as the consequences from the famed bunga bunga sex parties, were also a constant distraction.
What is the political legacy of Berlusconi? He enacted minimal political reforms. He appeared to be more concerned with maintaining his own image than with leading a country.
His ups and downs, though, hypnotized a nation.