Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was honored Wednesday with a state funeral in Milan’s Duomo cathedral and a day of national mourning, as his legacy — positive or negative — was being hotly debated among Italians.
Thousands of people outside and within the Duomo erupted in applause as a sign of respect as Berlusconi’s flower-draped casket was hoisted out of the hearse and into the cathedral, where Italy’s business and political elite, including the president and three former premiers, gathered. His children and companion teared up as the casket was placed in front of the altar.
Most Italians identify Berlusconi, a media mogul, soccer entrepreneur and three-time former premier, as the most influential figure in Italy over recent decades. But they remain sharply divided on whether his influence was for the better or worse, extending to whether the three-time former premier merits all the fuss and ceremony.
Berlusconi died at the age of 86 on Monday in a Milan hospital where he was being treated for chronic leukemia. His family held a private wake Tuesday at one of Berlusconi’s villas near Milan, the city where he made his billions as the head of a media empire before entering politics in 1994.
Milan Archbishop Mario Delpini didn’t gloss over Berlusconi’s complicated legacy in his eulogy, saying he was a businessman who found success and failure, a politician who won and lost, and a notoriety-seeking personality who had admirers and detractors, “those who applaud him and those who detest him.”
“But in this moment of farewell and prayer, what can we say about Silvio Berlusconi? He has been a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy,” Delpini said. “He is a man and now he meets God.”
Political opponents are questioning not only the decisions of Premier Giorgia Meloni’s government to hold a state funeral — an honor that can be afforded all former premiers — but to also declare a national day of mourning, which is more rarely invoked. In the case of the latter, flags were flown at half-staff and all political events not involving charity were put on hold, but it is otherwise business as usual.
“Berlusconi split Italy, he insulted adversaries for 30 years, he criminalized the magistrates and he didn’t recognize laws. What are we talking about?” journalist Marco Travaglio, a long-time Berlusconi critic and co-founder of the il Fatto Quotidiano daily, told private La7 TV on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, thousands of Italians filled the piazza outside Milan’s Duomo to follow the funeral on two giant video screens while carabinieri in full ceremonial regalia stood guard, surrounded by floral wreaths. Family members, political allies and opponents took up the pews inside.
Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, were among the highest-ranking foreign dignitaries attending.
Meloni, who got her first government experience as a minister in a Berlusconi coalition, also attended, along with League leader Matteo Salvini, whose party has long been allied with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Italian President Sergio Mattarella and former Premiers Matteo Renzi, Paolo Gentiloni and Mario Draghi were on hand, as well as other politicians, in a show of respect for a political figure with whom many had sparred.
Barbara Cacellari, a Forza Italia councilwoman and one-time candidate for the European Parliament, said protests over how to officially mark Berlusconi’s death showed a lack of respect.
“The person must be respected per se. He is a person who represents the history of this country,” she said outside the cathedral, adding: “No one is without stains, I think.”
Berlusconi is widely recognized as a precursor to the type of populist politics that later would bring Donald Trump to power in the United States, both using their high profile as businessmen to springboard into the political arena, upending politics as usual along the way.
Supporters of Berlusconi’s legacy cite his success in unifying the Italian center-right after the collapse of the post-war political landscape with the 1990s “Clean Hands” corruption scandal. They also see his years as leader as periods of stabilization, after years of quickly rotating governments, while admiring his bold rule-breaking and irreverence, perhaps especially in the face of other global leaders.
Berlusconi’s detractors’ list of political damage is long, including conflicts of interest relating to his media empire, dozens of trials mostly for business dealings, revelations of sex-fueled bunga-bunga parties at his villa near Milan and questionable associations, including his enduring friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“He is not a leader who helped us grow,’’ said Beppe Severgnini, a long-time foreign correspondent and writer for Corriere della Sera. “He tapped all of our weaknesses: moral, fiscal, sexual, everything.”