Remembering Silvio Berlusconi

Scandal. Iraq. Vladimir Putin. Immigration. Young women. Bunga Bunga!

None of that first came to mind upon learning of the passing of Silvio Berlusconi this Monday, June 12. The three-time Prime Minister of Italy, media tycoon, and self-made billionaire, who for better or worse revolutionized the way Italians (and not only Italians) think of politics and show business, made headlines around the world throughout his political career for his uniquely inappropriate behavior and various political scandals. And yet the first thing that came to mind while reading an Italian newspaper announcing “The End of an Era,” featuring a recent picture of Silvio, wasn’t anything political, or anything specifically to do with him. It was a sudden wave of nostalgia as I recalled what it felt like having dinner in the kitchen as my dad came home from work on an average weekday in my early teens. 

At 8 pm on Canale 5 on Mediaset, the network Berlusconi founded in 1987, the Telegiornale would start, la sigla roll, and before the first commercial break the anchor would announce at least one upcoming segment about The Man. And even when they didn’t, you were watching his network, and you could always somehow feel his looming presence. You could rest assured that neither the TV correspondent nor the studio anchor were going to say a single, explicitly negative word about him, or his party, Forza Italia.

Go Italy. That’s the name that Berlusconi chose in December 1993 for the center-right populist party that ended up dominating Italian politics for the most part of the last 30 years. What better name could he have chosen? As the President of AC Milan – the club with which he conquered the summit of the European stage with some of the greatest teams in football history – Berlusconi was, after all, as much of a fan of the Rossoneri as of il Tricolore.

The way in which Berlusconi always smiled somewhat unnaturally for the cameras during certain moments in his appearances, or the scandals, made it hard for some to believe in his proclaimed love for the country. Yet Berlusconi also had a way of seeming genuine and spontaneous which ultimately made him very hard to dislike. He was very funny, intentionally or not. You couldn’t deny it. When he told one of his jokes, a barzelletta, or acted like the Milanese he was during one of his diplomatic trips or summits with world leaders in which he (usually) ended up causing international controversies with one of his infamous gestures, or utterances, he almost always stole the show. The infamous two-fingered cuckold gesture at Spanish foreign minister Josep Piqué in 2002 during a group photo… or during the 2009 G20 Summit, when he managed to make even the late Queen Elizabeth burst with annoyance: “Why does he always have to be so loud?”

Yet Berlusconi also knew when to keep quiet. Perhaps the most human moment in his political career occurred when he traveled to Abruzzo in 2009, during his 3rd term as Prime Minister, and in the wake of the devastating earthquake which cost the lives of 309 Italians and left thousands homeless. As the firefighters, still searching for survivors under the ruins, walked him through Aquila, Berlusconi stood the entire time silent, listening with a serious, concerned look on his face. A silence that was perfectly captured in the last scene of Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro, a partly fictional biopic about the late stage of Berlusconi’s life, directed by the same man who directed The Great Beauty, also a film which was described by some critics as an attempt to capture the essence of the Berlusconi-era like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita tried to capture the seductive, nihilistic hedonism of the years that followed World War II.

And to be sure, Berlusconi was hedonistic. He loved Il Bel Pease, especially its women. “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.” This is partly what caused his reputation to decline on the international stage over the years, but it’s also why Italians who voted for him loved him, and forgave him, scandal after scandal, broken marriage after broken marriage, because his biggest sin was to be incapable of resisting what most of them knew they also desired and likely couldn’t resist: luxury, fun, youth, class, power. And he never really tried to hide it. “I am not a saint, you’ve all understood that.”

“I didn’t even like him much, and I especially never liked how he spoke about us women. But when I saw his video in the hospital telling us he was proud to have put his shirt and jacket back on, then he died, I saw him for what he really was: an inspiring man,” said to me a woman friend of mine from Milan, speaking about the promotional video for Forza Italia for the upcoming local elections, Berlusconi’s last recorded appearance. “I thank you all, I hug you all, I hope to be out of here soon, and please, make sure to vote,” closes Berlusconi with a fragile voice and the usual, yet somehow more genuine-than-ever smile on his face. Then the clip ends, and you know he’s gone, but still you’re wanting more: another moment in which he could, like no other, make you feel simultaneously both embarrassed and so proud of being Italian. 

“I wish I could live for 150 years so I could put this country back on its feet,” Berlusconi once told his friend Don Verzè. Alas, he died this week at age 86 surrounded by his family and his closest friends. He leaves a legacy behind him like no other Italian in recent history and more than anyone defined what it meant to be Italian for millions around the world.

Mark Granza is the founding editor and publisher of IM—1776.

Scroll to top