Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi dies aged 86 after years of health issues

Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister has died aged 86, ITV News Europe Editor James Mates looks back at his long political career

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has died at San Raffaele hospital in Milan aged 86, according to Italian media reports.

Italian news agency LaPresse reported Berlusconi’s death after he was hospitalised on Friday for the second time in months for treatment of chronic leukaemia.

A state funeral will be held on Wednesday in Milan's Duomo cathedral, according to the Milan Archdiocese.

Berlusconi was hospitalised in Milan on April 5 with a lung infection stemming from the disease, said Dr Alberto Zangrillo, his personal physician.

He also suffered over the years from heart ailments, prostate cancer and was hospitalised for Covid-19 in 2020.

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Credit: AP

Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and loathing.

To his admirers, the three-time premier was a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage.

To his critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.

His Forza Italia political party was a coalition partner with current Premier Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader who came to power last year, although he held no position in the government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Credit: AP

His friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Meloni, a staunch supporter of Ukraine.

On his 86th birthday, while the war raged, Putin sent Berlusconi best wishes and vodka, and the Italian boasted he returned the favour by sending back Italian wine.

As Berlusconi aged, some mocked his perpetual tan, hair transplants, and live-in girlfriends who were decades younger.

AC Milan paid tribute to Berlusconi, their former owner, stating that he would 'always be with' the team.

The Milan-born former Italian PM saved the club from near-bankruptcy when he bought it in 1986.

They went on to lift the Serie A eight times and win five European cups during his time as club president.

In a statement on their Twitter account, AC Milan said: “Deeply saddened, AC Milan grieves the passing of the unforgettable Silvio Berlusconi and wishes to reach out to the family, associates, and most cherished friends to share our sympathies.

“Tomorrow, we will dream of new ambitions, create new challenges and seek new victories. Which will represent the good, the strong, and the true that lies inside us, in all of us who shared this adventure of binding our lives to a dream called Milan. Thank you, Mr President. Always with us.”

Berlusconi and his partner Marta Fascina. Credit: AP

Rishi Sunak's official spokesman offered a short tribute to the former Italian leader, saying: “Silvio Berlusconi made a huge impact on Italian politics over several decades and our thoughts are with the Italian people and his family.”

EU President Ursula Von Der Leyen stated she was "saddened" by the news that Berlusconi had died.

For many years, however, Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite the personal scandals.

Criminal cases were launched but ended in dismissals when statutes of limitations ran out in Italy's slow-moving justice system, or he was victorious on appeal.

Investigations targeted the tycoon's so-called “bunga bunga” parties involving young women and minors, or his businesses, which included the football team AC Milan, the country's three biggest private TV networks, magazines, a daily newspaper, and advertising and film companies.

Silvio Berlusconi lifting the Champions League trophy after his side AC Milan beat Liverpool 2-1 back in 2007. Credit: AP

Only one led to a conviction - a tax fraud case stemming from a sale of movie rights in his business empire.

The conviction was upheld in 2013 by Italy's top criminal court, but he was spared prison because of his age, 76, and was ordered to do community service by assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

He was stripped of his Senate seat and banned from running or holding public office for six years, under anti-corruption laws.

He stayed at the helm of Forza Italia, the centre-right party he created when he entered politics in the 1990s, that was named after a football cheer, “Let's go, Italy.”

He eventually held office again - elected to the European Parliament at age 82 and then last year to the Italian Senate.

Silvio Berlusconi with Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni. Credit: AP

Berlusconi’s party was eclipsed as the dominant force on Italy’s political right - first by the League, led by anti-migrant populist Matteo Salvini, then by Meloni's Brothers of Italy party.

Following elections in 2022, Meloni formed a governing coalition with their help.

Berlusconi also lost his standing as Italy’s richest man, although his sprawling media holdings and luxury real estate still left him with his billionaire status.

In 2013, guests at one of his parties included an underage Moroccan dancer whom prosecutors alleged had sex with Berlusconi in exchange for cash and jewellery.

A Milan court initially convicted Berlusconi of paying for sex with a minor and using his office to try to cover it up. Both denied having sex with each other, and he was eventually acquitted.

The Catholic Church, at times sympathetic to his conservative politics, was scandalised by his antics, and his wife of nearly 20 years divorced him, but Berlusconi was unapologetic, declaring: “I’m no saint.”

Berlusconi had always insisted that voters were impressed by his brashness.

“The majority of Italians in their hearts would like to be like me and see themselves in me and in how I behave,” he said in 2009, during his third and final stint as premier.

Berlusconi boosted his personal profile through his friendship and support of George W. Bush. Credit: AP

His second term, from 2001-06, was perhaps his golden era when he became Italy’s longest-serving head of government and boosted its global profile through his friendship with US President George W. Bush.

Berlusconi backed the US-led war in Iraq, causing controversy.

From the start of his political career in 1994, he portrayed himself as the target of a judiciary he described as full of leftist sympathisers. He always proclaimed his innocence.

When the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement gained strength, Berlusconi branded it as a menace worse than Communism.

He also boasted of his libido and entertained friends and world leaders at his villas.

At one party, newspapers reported the women were dressed as “little Santas”, while at another, photos showed topless women and a naked man lounging poolside.

“I love life! I love women!” an unrepentant Berlusconi said in 2010.

He occasionally selected TV starlets for posts in his Forza Italia party. “If I weren’t married, I would marry you immediately,” Berlusconi reportedly said in 2007 to Mara Carfagna, who later became a Cabinet minister. Berlusconi’s wife publicly demanded an apology.

From his cruise ship entertainer days, Berlusconi loved to compose and sing Neapolitan songs. Like millions of Italians, he had a passion for football and often was in the stands at AC Milan.

He delighted in going against political etiquette. He sported a bandanna when hosting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his estate on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia, and it was later revealed he was concealing hair transplants.

Silvio Berlusconi wearing a bandanna while meeting Tony Blair in an apparent effort to hide his hair transplants. Credit: AP

He posed for photos at international summits making an Italian gesture - which can be offensive or superstitious, depending on circumstances - in which the index and pinkie fingers are extended like horns.

He stirred anger after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States by claiming Western civilization was superior to Islam.

When criticised in 2003 at the European Parliament by a German lawmaker, Berlusconi likened his adversary to a concentration camp guard.

Years later, he drew outrage when he compared his family's legal woes to what Jews must have encountered in Nazi Germany.

Berlusconi was born in Milan on September 29, 1936, and was the son of a middle-class banker.

He earned a law degree, and later started a construction company at 25 and built apartment complexes for middle-class families on Milan's outskirts, part of a postwar boom.

But his astronomical wealth came from the media.

When the “Clean Hands” corruption scandals of the 1990s decimated the political establishment that had dominated postwar Italy, Berlusconi filled the void, founding Forza Italia in 1994.

His first government in 1994 collapsed after eight months when an ally who led an anti-immigrant party yanked support.

But aided by an aggressive campaign that included mass mailings of glossy magazines recounting his success story, Berlusconi swept to victory in 2001.

In 2008, he took on his final term as premier before it was abruptly ended in 2011 when financial markets lost faith in his ability to keep Italy from the Eurozone debt crisis.

Health concerns dogged him over the years. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997.

In November 2006, he fainted during a speech, and the next month flew to the US, where he received a pacemaker at the Cleveland Clinic. He underwent more heart surgery in 2016.

Silvio Berlusconi waving from his car after being attacked by a man at a political rally. Credit: AP

During a political rally in 2009, a man threw a souvenir statuette of Milan’s cathedral at Berlusconi, fracturing his nose, cracking two teeth and cutting his lip.

Berlusconi was first married in 1965 to Carla Dall’Oglio, and their two children, Marina and Piersilvio, were groomed to hold top positions in his business empire.

He married his second wife, Veronica Lario, in 1990, and they had three children, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.

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