More than two thousand guests were in attendance at Milan Cathedral on June 14 for the state funeral of Silvio Berlusconi, the businessman-turned-politician who served four different times as Italy’s prime minister and who died at the age of eighty-six of leukemia. His notorious lifestyle—two marriages, one engagement, a quasi-marriage, countless affairs, sexual scandals, and disregard for the law, though that doesn’t even capture everything—was decried by many Italians and celebrated by millions of others. So when the moment came there was a question as to whether Milan Archbishop Mario Delpini would deliver a condemnation or a eulogy. What he offered was neither. “What can we say about Silvio Berlusconi?” the archbishop asked from the pulpit. “He was a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy. He was a man and now meets God.” It was an acknowledgment of the ambiguous moral legacy Berlusconi leaves to his country and to Italian Catholicism. His political legacy is far more clear.
Berlusconi entered the scene with a splash in late 1993, and by 1994 transformed Italy’s infamously chaotic multiparty politics—which for half a century had revolved around the centrist Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party—into a two-coalition system. One coalition consisted of “Forza Italia” (his own personal party, with a name stolen directly from soccer fans), the neo-fascist National Alliance, and the independentist Northern League; the other was a center-left group with the former Communist Party as its major partner. The suddenness of his success shocked political experts and ordinary citizens alike, and in retrospect looks like a foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s 2016 election. He was the inventor of a political system centered on himself.
Like Trump, Berlusconi brought a mogul’s understanding of the world to politics. Like Rupert Murdoch, he was keenly aware of how a government and the law could impact his media empire. He viewed the collapse of the Christian Democratic Party and the normalizing of the Communist Party in terms of the potential danger to his business, and while in office he rewrote rules on fraud, corruption, and other financial crimes to shield himself and his companies from prosecution. Yet he also understood better than others how momentous events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union could affect Italy and Europe more broadly. And he had a knack for speaking to (and for) the segment of Italian society holding a lingering affinity for Mussolini’s Fascist regime and its postwar adherents.
Berlusconi’s “businessman populism” was a preview of today’s disruption of the liberal order. In international relations, he accepted the post-1945 alignment of Italy with the West—but emphasized transactional and deal-oriented friendships with foreign leaders over any sense of shared values. His gaffes with various world figures were legendary, and they remain a source of embarrassment for many Italians. His pro-Israel stance aided the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Right. He claimed credit for ending the Cold War thanks to the 2002 summit in Italy between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the latter of whom—along with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—is at the center of tensions with the West today. But Berlusconi never made a secret of his preference for Putin over Germany’s Angela Merkel; he even spent holidays and birthdays with him.
In domestic politics, Berlusconi achieved his major goal of keeping the Left out of power. Though he lost two elections, they were both to former Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, a centrist civil servant (and a Catholic) whom he could not accuse of being a Communist. He also managed to build a more friendly relationship between Italian conservatism and the European Union, giving key political support to the appointments of technocrats Mario Monti as member of the government of the European Union in 1994 and Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank in 2011. But he failed in modernizing the Italian economic system along libertarian lines, and when Italy found itself in dire fiscal straits in 2011, he was ousted from power under pressure from the markets and European leaders—but not before implementing some of the worst aspects of the neoliberal gig-economy model. His thirty years in politics also coincided with the deindustrialization of Italy (auto and auto-component manufacturing in particular). And, of course, he did nothing to address migration—though the technocratic governments that succeeded him were no more welcoming to migrants than he was.
Italy is now a country in decline demographically and economically. It is less inclined to invest in the future, depending more and more on the European Union and a shrinking number of industrial sectors. Socially, it is more unjust. Berlusconi succeeded in defending his own business empire and in moderating and rehabilitating the neo-Fascist extreme Right, with Giorgia Meloni becoming prime minister in September 2022 (Berlusconi reluctantly had to accept her as his successor). With his moderating presence now gone, it will be interesting to see how Meloni chooses to proceed.
Something that distinguished Berlusconi from other Italian politicians was the way he managed to turn Antonio Gramsci’s theory of “cultural hegemony” into practice in the age of television. More than a decade before winning his first election, he was already shaping Italian culture through his media holdings and as owner of the popular AC Milan soccer club. Though he’d made money as a real-estate developer, his success in breaking up Italy’s public-television monopoly enabled him to really strike it rich. For the first twenty years of Italian TV, viewers paid subscription fees and received content that was shaped by the Catholic sensibility of the Christian Democrats in government. But Berlusconi brought about a thorough cultural change: from the late 1970s into the ’80s, his free channels raked in huge sums from commercial advertising, thanks to popular programming like American-made television movies and Latin American telenovelas that introduced Italians to a whole different way of life. There was new language, new style, new material expectations—much of it conveyed through or alongside a never-ending stream of highly sexualized images of women. It’s hard to overstate the effect this had on the Italians watching television at that time (including yours truly).
Berlusconi had no sense of public service or the res publica, and he used his power and popularity to ward off countless investigations for alleged white-collar crimes. He was convicted only once, in 2013, when he received a four-year sentence for tax evasion. He served no time, but performed a year of community service working with Alzheimer’s patients in a Catholic nonprofit near Milan. Though this also cost him a parliament seat, he never lost control of his personal party, and he was reelected senator in September 2022.
He loved to be loved, not just by women, but by all the people. Throughout his life, and even as prime minister, he remained a salesman. “Berlusconi considered everything and everyone, only and always, primarily as an audience, without making too much difference between that of TV viewers, consumers of commercials and supermarkets, and citizens and voters of a democracy,” wrote the Italian commentator Luca Berra. Berlusconi’s death symbolizes the end of television as the most influential medium, its replacement by digital and social media now firmly cemented.
With three decades on Italy’s political stage, Berlusconi couldn’t help but have an impact on the nation’s relationship with the Catholic Church. But how to characterize that impact? He was himself a “cultural Catholic,” in his own shallow way. He knew it was politically fruitless to push conservative American-style culture-war issues (especially abortion), but he also nominally supported the Church’s opposition to liberal legislation on euthanasia, civil unions, and same-sex marriage. First and foremost a businessman, he was far more interested in selling himself than in standing up for what the Church labeled “the non-negotiable values.” And with the lifestyle he embodied and the values he promoted both through his very public private life and his media empire, he was undeniably a factor in the de-Christianization of Italian society.
Still, many in the Church’s hierarchy in Italy and in the Vatican sought—and received—the blessing of Berlusconi. For many John Paul II and Benedict XVI bishops, Berlusconi was a man of providence, achieving the historic goal of thwarting the rise of Italy’s ex-Communists and defeating the alliance between leftists and progressive Catholics. Some Church leaders, such as the former president of the Italian bishops’ conference and vicar for the diocese of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, remain grateful to Berlusconi for having opposed the post-Christian Democrats—the so-called “grown-up Catholics”—who, following a series of scandals in the early 1990s, sought greater autonomy for the political and public sphere and freedom from confessional and clerical interference.
Yet center-right hopes that Berlusconi might help bring about a more militant Catholicism were never fully realized. An attempt to mold Italian Catholicism into a “civil religion,” especially after 9/11, did not succeed; large parts of the Italian Church, including many bishops, were uncomfortable with, if not allergic to, “Berlusconism,” and distrusted his neo-conservative, culture-war consiglieri. The most politicized of these Church leaders have died, retired, or even converted to “Bergoglism.” And Pope Francis has promoted very different kinds of pastors in Italy than those appointed by the two previous popes. Even the alliance between Berlusconi and Cardinal Ruini’s faction of the Italian Church was breaking down in 2010, thanks to the prime minister’s involvement in a prostitution scandal. It finally came apart in November 2011, when Berlusconi’s last government fell.
If Berlusconi’s influence on Italian Catholicism is a mixed bag, his political legacy is plain. There is not even the slightest threat of the Left taking over Italy anytime soon—and it was that possibility that prompted Berlusconi to build, fund, and lead a political party in the first place. The right-wing alliance that he helped spawn is in firm control, and far less moderate than the version he brought into being in 1994. When Berlusconi died, Giorgia Meloni put parliamentary sessions on hold for a week and declared his funeral a national day of mourning. In one way it was a sign of tribute. But it was also a sign that right-wing politics in Italy is now a thriving venture in itself, and no longer dependent on the wealth and celebrity of a showman.