Italy held a state funeral on Wednesday for Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media magnate turned scandal-tainted prime minister who has proved as polarizing in death as in life.
More than 2,000 people – family, friends, political and business allies and rivals – filled Milan’s Gothic Duomo to honor the man who Il Cavaliere (the knight), a nickname that stuck even though Berlusconi offered to relinquish the knighthood – awarded to him in 1997 for entrepreneurship – following his conviction for tax fraud in 2013.
Giant screens, usually reserved for World Cup finals, were placed outside in the main square in Milan, Berlusconi’s birthplace, where thousands of people braved the scorching heat to witness the funeral, some chanting “Silvio, Silvio” and other chants the soccer stadium. honor their hero.
The funeral was also attended by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad.
“Through light and shadow, he has shaped our country’s history all my 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 post-war Italy.”
Berlusconi, whose center-right party Forza Italia is part of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s governing coalition, died on Monday at the age of 86 after battling leukemia. His afterlife was long planned, as in the 1990s he commissioned a prominent sculptor to build a marble mausoleum in the garden of his villa, with 32 burial places for himself, family and closest friends.
Yet the politician credited with the “Americanization” of Italian politics was active to the end, made a failed bid for the presidency and last year plotted to overthrow the government of former Prime Minister Mario Draghi – and played a vital role in bringing Meloni’s right-wing coalition to life.
Before the funeral, Meloni paid tribute to the leader who first gave her a ministerial post in 2008.
“Only a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Berlusconi prevented the post-communists from taking power in Italy,” she wrote in the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “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 drew criticism and anger given its checkered history.
“This only happens because he was the facilitator of those in power today,” said Rosy Bindi, a former centre-left minister.
During his lifetime, Berlusconi was the subject of more than 30 criminal investigations, many of which he deflected by amending laws or dragging proceedings past the statute of limitations.
He was forced to resign from office in 2011 at the height of the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, amid scandals over “bunga bunga parties” involving underage girls, though he was recently cleared of criminal misconduct related to those festivities .
Many Italians are still appalled by Berlusconi’s assault on public morals. Prospero Giuliani, a 60-year-old Milan resident, called it “shocking” that someone who had “a total lack of moral standing, despised women and was convicted of tax fraud” was given a state funeral.
But outside the cathedral, admirers and flag-waving fans of AC Milan – the football team he owned for many years – expressed nostalgia for the exuberant politician known for his irrepressible confidence and off-kilter jokes.
Anna Rigoni, 80, a longtime Forza Italia activist who wore a gray T-shirt with 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 wonderful man who cared about the not-so-lucky like me,” he said.
Alex Di Bella, 37, born the year Berlusconi bought AC Milan, said his love for the club made him a Forza Italia voter. “My family is a left-wing voter, but how could I ever fail the owner of my club,” added Di Bella, wearing a club jersey.
Elsewhere, young people who had never known a time without Berlusconi looming over the public stage were more contemptuous of his legacy.
At a bar in Rome’s trendy Appio Latino district, teacher Livia Montalesi, 28, said that “women like my grandmother saw him as a sex symbol,” but she was less than impressed.
“He treated the country like a business and served no one but himself,” she added. “He should have led by example, but he failed. He took everything he could without giving anything back.”
Simona De Falco, 26, an HR professional, said Berlusconi appealed to Italian men who admired his success in business and his dealings with women.
“Those who voted for him wanted to be like him,” De Falco said. “He was the classic toxic man, who made money, who got women. At that time, his machismo found fertile ground. Today it would be less so.”
Giorgio Bellobono, a 32-year-old IT consultant from Milan, complained that Berlusconi did little with his power to strengthen the Italian economy, leaving it in a sorry state, with few job opportunities for young people, even a decade after he took over. had left power.
“My generation will have a mixed – even harsh – memory of Berlusconi,” Bellobono said. “He was one of the main contributors to the uncertainty and precariousness we face.”