Berlusconi Is Back
Cruise-ship crooner, media mogul, soccer-club owner, prime minister, convicted fraudster, and now... kingmaker?
At 81, Silvio Berlusconi has defied rivals, prosecutors and sex scandals through a series of comebacks. And as Italians prepare to vote on March 4, the four-time premier is once again center-stage with his coalition set to be the biggest bloc in the new legislature.
“Berlusconi’s strength is extraordinary, he has an amazing capacity to take knocks and yet resist,” says Giovanni Orsina, author of Berlusconism and Italy: A Historical Interpretation. “It’s as if he believes that if he isn’t in the spotlight, he’s dead.”
Or as Berlusconi himself put it: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
As he prepares to write one more chapter, here are seven snapshots from the Berlusconi saga.
Berlusconi was born into a banker’s family in Milan, though he describes himself as “a war child” because his family fled to the countryside to escape wartime bombing. His first taste of work was at the age of eight, when he learned to milk cows.
He was paid in cheese.
After studying law, the young Berlusconi worked as a singer on cruise-ships and in night clubs, improvising songs about people in the audience. “I’ve always enjoyed finding the right rhyme,” he told Canale 5 television in November. Eventually, filial duty brought an end to his musical career. “My father pulled my ears and told me I couldn’t be a singer all my life,” he recalled.
Building an Empire
After making his first fortune in real estate, the purchase of a Milan cable channel in 1978 was Berlusconi’s first venture into television. Offering a diet of soap operas and variety shows, often with scantily-clad women, Berlusconi seized on the opening up of Italian broadcasting to build a private empire rivaling the state network RAI.
Influential friends gave him a helping hand too. After authorities in three Italian cities used a ban on private broadcasting to block his networks in 1984, Socialist premier Bettino Craxi, a close friend, passed a new law rescuing them.
Today, his Milan-based investment firm, Fininvest SpA, has stakes in media, biotechnology and finance, including his two largest holdings, Banca Mediolanum SpA and broadcaster Mediaset SpA. Berlusconi’s net worth is about $8.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, up 2.5 percent this year.
Tears in the Shower
Berlusconi agonized for months over whether to go into politics, worried that political foes would attack him over his business interests. “What should I do? Sometimes I even start crying when I’m in the shower,” he confessed to his adviser Ezio Cartotto in 1993.
Fittingly for a media mogul, it was with a taped, nine-minute TV message that Berlusconi announced his decision the following year to launch his party Forza Italia—its name borrowed from a soccer chant. Among the co-founders was Antonio Tajani, now head of the European Parliament and Berlusconi’s pick for the premiership.
In the March 1994 election, Forza Italia came first with 21 percent of the vote and Berlusconi became premier for the first time at the head of a center-right coalition.
Berlusconi said he entered politics “because the heirs of the communists were about to seize power after demolishing democracy with the political use of justice.” His critics say it was to save his businesses.
Weddings and Divorces
Virtually every Monday, Berlusconi lunches with his children at his 18th century villa near Milan. He has two children by his first marriage—Marina and Pier Silvio, and three by his second—Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.
Berlusconi and his second wife Veronica Lario, a former actress, divorced in 2014, but they are still locked in a judicial battle. Lario is appealing against a Milan appeals court ruling that Berlusconi need no longer pay her 1.4 million euros a month.
His separation coincided with a scandal over allegedly sexual “bunga bunga” parties, which he called “elegant dinners.” Berlusconi denied paying for sex, adding: “I never understood where the satisfaction is when you’re missing the pleasure of conquest.” His current girlfriend is 49 years his junior.
My Friend Vladimir
Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin first met at the 2001 summit of Group of Eight nations in Genoa, Italy. Since then they’ve shared birthdays and holidays at Berlusconi’s villa on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast and at Putin’s dacha on the Black Sea.
Berlusconi calls Putin “the world’s number one leader” and in 2015, with sanctions still in force, he visited Crimea with the Russian leader, sampling a 240-year-old sherry from a Ukrainian cellar taken over by Russia after the annexation. For Putin’s 65th birthday last year, Berlusconi gave his friend a duvet cover with a giant photograph of them shaking hands.
Winding People Up
Berlusconi has accumulated gaffes throughout his premierships. During the family photo at the 2002 summit of European Union leaders in Caceres, Spain, Berlusconi made the sign of the horns behind the head of Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique—in southern Europe, the gesture for a man whose wife has been unfaithful.
At the 2009 NATO summit in Baden-Baden, he left German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting on the red carpet as he chatted on his cellphone. Merkel’s smile of welcome slowly wore off, before she gave up on him, turned her back and walked away. Berlusconi was on the phone with Turkey’s then-premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to resolve a diplomatic spat.
That December Berlusconi was physically attacked at a rally in Milan when a man threw a metal souvenir model of the city’s cathedral at him. He broke his nose and two teeth. The aggressor was eventually released without charge because of mental health problems.
In 2013, the self-described “most persecuted man in the entire history of the world and the history of man” was convicted of tax fraud and stripped of his seat in the Senate—after almost two decades in parliament.
Berlusconi was ordered to do community service, helping out in an old people’s home. “I’m pleased: there are elderly people who eat only if I’m the one who feeds them,” Berlusconi remarked. “I converted a communist,” he added.
But Berlusconi always finds a silver lining.
“From every evil you must know how to draw goodness,” he said in an interview with RAI television last year. “Or, as my father would say, you must always carry the sun in your pocket to offer it to all the people you meet.”
Now one more, spectacular, comeback may be just within reach.