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Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial and plain-spoken media tycoon and populist politician, who led three Italian governments between 1994 and 2011, has died, aged 86.

Berlusconi, who was known for more than 30 years in and out of the political arena for his lewd and often xenophobic, comments on matters aesthetic and cultural, was an early champion of the “culture war” rhetoric on national heritage, contemporary art and architecture which has since taken flight internationally in the age of social media.

The “Berlusconification” of Italian politics, where Berlusconi openly maintained control of Italy’s largest commercial television company while serving as prime minister, in some ways foreshadowed and modelled the Trumpification of US politics since 2016.

Berlusconi, with his links to notorious “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, gave media companies, including his own, content that “amused” and drew audience attention while distracting from the political and personal conflicts of having a near monopolist media baron as head of a Western democracy. Like Donald Trump in 2016, Berlusconi came to power in 1994 with no previous political experience.

A typical Berlusconi cultural “furore” revolved around his comments in 2008 on the design of a new office building, by the celebrated US architect Daniel Liebeskind, for the Fiera Milano development, home to Milan’s trade fairs. Berlusconi, towards the beginning of his third term as prime minister, threatened to withdraw planning permission for a Libeskind design after the architect described him as a “xenophobe” and called his policies “repulsive”.

In the lead-up to the general election of April 2008, which brought Berlusconi back to power, he had made an off-the-cuff remark about Libeskind’s dramatically curving design. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that Berlusconi objected to Libeskind’s design because it was not manly enough and communicated “a sense of impotence”. In the ensuing row, the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco was asked to comment on the tower, he said: “Milan is full of people with crooked members,” Eco said, “there will simply be one more in need of Viagra.”

Interviewed by Corriere, Libeskind responded: “In Fascist Italy, everything that was not ‘straight’ was considered ‘perverse art’… my tower is inspired by the work of Leonardo da Vinci and great Italian culture. [Berlusconi] does not have the time or intellect to study these. As an American and Jew brought up in Poland, I find Berlusconi abominable. His concept of nationalism, of closing borders and denying what’s different, is repugnant. He hates foreigners.”

Berlusconi was apparently so offended by these remarks that he let it be known that he would block the development unless Libeskind apologised. A spokeswoman for the Fiera Milano developers said at the time that the project was still “on track”. It was duly completed in 2017 as the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Tower.

A child of Milan

Berlusconi was born in Milan in 1936, grew up in a middle-class family, attending Sant’Ambrogio, one of its leading schools. He studied law at the University of Milan before embarking on early, lucrative ventures in property in the suburbs of Milan, and setting up Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster. The breakthrough in Berlusconi’s fortunes as a media mogul was a change in the law in 1984 that removed the state broadcaster RAI’s monopoly on national broadcasting. This opened the door for Berlusconi to create the first and only national commercial television network in Italy. He remained closely tied to his home city and was for years owner of one its great football teams, AC Milan.

In 1993, after his political patron Bettino Craxi had gone into voluntary exile in Tunisia after being convicted of corruption and the illicit funding of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Berlusconi founded the centre-right party Forza Italia. He used his television stations to promote his candidacy and won election as prime minister in 1994.

Berlusconi, who was known as the “knight” or kingmaker of Italian politics, was convicted of tax fraud in 2012, and in consequence lost his seat in the Italian Senate the following year. A four-year prison sentence was reduced to nearly a year of community service at an old people’s home in Milan. He made a comeback after his ban on holding public office was lifted in 2018, becoming an MEP in 2019; his Forza Italia party is a junior partner in the right-wing government formed by Giorgia Meloni last year.

Berlusconi’s long-standing friendship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was seen to be behind the strengthening of cultural ties—founded on historic good relations between the Italian Communist Party and the Soviet Union—between Russia and Italy in the early 2020s, with a growing programme of loans for historic artworks between the State Hermitage Museum, and Italian institutions.

The figure who best represented the mixed approach to the arts, and Italian heritage, in the Berlusconi years, was his under-secretary of culture, the art historian Vittorio Sgarbi. Sgarbi once told Le Monde that he was not politically correct enough for Berlusconi to serve as minister for culture himself, but Sgarbi none the less appeared on Berlusconi’s network opining on topics of the day in Sgarbi Quotidiani.

However, as under-secretary, Sgarbi was a champion of national heritage who led an attempt in 2001 to acquire the fabled Torlonia marbles—the greatest collection of classical art in private hands, housed in the Palazzo Torlonia, in Rome—for the Italian state during Berlusconi’s second term in office. (The marbles have since been exhibited in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, and 20 years on from the 2001 initiative, are again at the heart of the national heritage debate.) During Berlusconi’s third term, Sgarbi curated an Italian pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, featuring 200 artists, a council of advisors from across the arts, and seen as a deliberate poke in the eye to the white-cube purists of the art world.

Villa San Martino, Arcore, north of Milan, where Berlusconi housed his collection of Old Masters and built a mausoleum designed by Pietro Cascella

A taste for botany and Old Masters

At Villa Certosa, in Sardinia—the villa where he hosted Putin, the British prime minister Tony Blair, as well as the “Bunga Bunga” parties—Berlusconi turned the gardens into a botanical wonder. He was not known for his taste in interior decoration but built up a collection of Old Masters at Villa San Martino, his favourite home, in Arcore, north of Milan, the most recent acquisition being a 1533 Titian portrait of of Ippolito dei Medici that joined a collection including a copy of Parmigianino’s 1525 Antea, and a 1969 portrait, by Pietro Annigoni, of the Marchesa Anna Casati Stampa.

Writing in our sister newspaper Il Giornale Dell’Arte, Franco Fanelli highlighted the lack of Berlusconi’s personal cultural patronage, despite his immense wealth, noting the exception of the family mausoleum commissioned from the sculptor Pietro Cascella. “On the other hand,” Fanelli commented, “he provided inspiration to street artists, to the neo-Pop painter Domenico Veneziano [born 1970] and to the most brilliant Italian cartoonist, Altan, careful to underline his large ears (Berlusconi did not like being filmed in profile) and the heels designed to remedy his shortness of stature.”

The Cascella-designed mausoleum, at Villa San Martino, was erected in the 1990s, soon after the death of Berlusconi’s father. It is built in white marble from the Apuane alps, with an abstract sculpture outside it and a staircase leading up to a white marble sarcophagus. When Berlusconi’s mother died she was nonetheless buried with her late husband, rather than in the mausoleum, and a change in Italian law on burial on private property near to a residence may preclude Berlusconi from being interred there himself.

Slivio Berlusconi; born Milan 29 September 1936; president, Forza Italia 1994-2023; prime minister of Italy 1994-95, 2001-06, 2008-11; married 1965 Carla Dall’Oglio (one daughter, one son; marriage dissolved 1985), 1990 Veronica Lario (two daughters, one son; marriage dissolved 2010); died Milan 12 June 2023.

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