Silvio Berlusconi (1936-2023) (Photo: Getty Images)
IN 2003, LOCALS put paid to Silvio Berlusconi’s plans to add a 10th-century Tuscan castle to his portfolio of private villas. A senior bureaucrat had exploded: “This is not a normal country. Tuscany is like a black hole in Western democracy—anti-government, anti-globalisation, anti-America, anti-everything.” Tuscany may have been the birthplace of the Renaissance but in the Italian republic it built itself a reputation for being anti-establishment, harking back to an older character trait that made the Tuscan stand apart from the Italian. Curzio Malaparte—the fascist who was thrown out of the party by Mussolini’s henchmen, and later leaned communist before turning Catholic and disowning his second masterpiece The Skin (1949), which was on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—wrote a book-length essay called Maledetti toscani, or ‘Those Cursed Tuscans’, which extolled the Tuscan’s unwillingness to suffer stupidity: “In the presence of a stupid person the Tuscan shivers with revulsion, since no one can ever be certain what a stupid person will do.”
What good Berlusconi, who died in hospital in Milan on June 12 at 86, did to Italy will be debated—except the axiomatic fact of rescuing AC Milan by buying the club in 1986—but that he was a big piece of the post-war political pie will not. He personified the passion play of Italian life and politics— controversial jokes, alleged links with the mafia, numerous court cases and convictions, charges of fraud, tax evasion, etc, right up to bequeathing “bunga bunga” (courtesy his friend Muammar Gaddafi) to the global lexicon. And then, as recently as this year, being cleared of bribing witnesses in the Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby the Heart Stealer aka Karima El Mahroug) affair.
The man who retorted—when convicted (later overturned) of paying an underage prostitute (Karima) for sex—that paying for sex missed “the pleasure of conquest”, could, unsurprisingly, ‘teach’ a BBC journalist how to shake hands—never so firmly since that would scare men away and no one would marry her—and get away with it at home where it was mostly seen as down-to-earth humour while the rest of the Western world decided between shock and disgust. But then Berlusconi had called Barack Obama “handsome, young and also suntanned”. And yet, he changed more than Italian TV taste with the parade of scantily clad young women that eclipsed the statist conservatism of RAI. Tony Blair struck an honest note when he said: “For me, he was a leader whom I found capable, shrewd and, most important, true to his word.” Not as elaborate as Vladimir Putin’s tribute (“Silvio was a dear person, a true friend. I have always sincerely admired his wisdom, his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations”), but pointing to the fact that Berlusconi gave Italians something that made him the republic’s longest-serving prime minister and he brought something to European leadership that earned him a grudging respect.
Perhaps it was hope—the agnostic dream of getting rich without needing to believe in anything that’s often a byproduct of populism. Till it went bust in the eurozone debt crisis in 2011 when Italy’s borrowing costs moved beyond manageable and Berlusconi was forced to quit as prime minister for the last time. That his Forza Italia, resurrected from the People of Freedom’s ashes, still counts as Georgia Meloni’s coalition partner speaks for how Berlusconi had remade one half of Italian politics after the self-immolation of the old right in the early-1990s. But at his death, he couldn’t have been unaware of how a moderate avatar of the far-right he had legitimised is inheriting his political legacy.
Berlusconi, not unlike Malaparte, is a figure who will continue to divide passions at home and opinions abroad. Call it Renaissance kitsch but candid Florentines (“While other Italians wear masks, Florentines are faces from head to toe,” said Malaparte) would agree. All the more so as they are worlds apart from the Milanese. But in Milan they get money. And, as the most important Milanese of the last 40 years once justified himself, “If in taking care of everyone’s interests, I also take care of my own, one can’t talk about a conflict of interest.” No one, after all, erased so gleefully the lines between business and politics, between public and private. An empire-builder, who began as a cruise ship crooner before selling vacuum cleaners. Stupid, he wasn’t. That show is over now.