The death of Silvio Berlusconi on Monday brought to an end one of the longest, most consequential and colorful eras in Italian politics, with both ardent admirers and die-hard critics marking a life of outsized influence as something that split contemporary Italian history into the before and after.
From his origins as a real estate and media mogul, Mr. Berlusconi, who was 86 when he died, became the most dominant personality on the theatrical Italian landscape. He revolutionized not only Italian politics, but also its sport, daily life, image of itself and popular culture — all through his privately owned television channels — leaving an imprint, or a bruise, on almost everything he touched.
“Goodbye Silvio,” Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in a statement about her coalition partner, calling him “one of the most influential men in Italian history.” He will receive a state funeral in Milan’s Duomo on Wednesday.
Even in death, Mr. Berlusconi had the power to potentially destabilize the political universe and Ms. Meloni’s governing coalition, of which his party, Forza Italia, is a small but critical linchpin.
Mr. Berlusconi, who had an enormous opinion of himself, seemed to believe, along with much of Italy, that he would live in perpetuity. He recently gave his “biological age” as in his 50s, and never anointed an heir to his center-right Forza Italia party.
As a result, political analysts believe that either one of his children will step up to hold the party, and potentially the coalition, together, or it will disintegrate without him, putting Ms. Meloni’s government, at the beginning of a five-year term, in doubt.
Such an outcome would be only the last tremor Mr. Berlusconi sent through the political system. While his health and political influence diminished in recent years, everything around him could be argued to be products of his making, shaped in support of, or opposition to, the man widely known as “The Knight.”
That included the political allies who eclipsed him, like Ms. Meloni; the Machiavellian political operators who tried to co-opt him; even the anti-establishment opposition that tried — but never fully succeeded — to get rid of him.
His fans, who for years sang, “Thank Goodness There’s Silvio,” say he was a force of nature that modernized Italian politics, matured its democracy and added capitalist dynamism to a creaky economy overly reliant on government.
His detractors saw him as the very personification of the country’s political and cultural decline, a crooked businessman who entered politics to protect his business interests, a womanizing caricature of the Italian libertine who cozied up to despicable strongmen from Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
He embodied multitudes of contradictory personas: The reformer who promised to liberalize the country, but then governed like a populist. The family man whose long list of young companions, especially at so-called Bunga Bunga bacchanals, both scandalized the country and endeared him to aspiring Lotharios. The committed ally and lover of America who became an apologist for Mr. Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. The candidate who, in a clear conflict of interest, used his television channels as a political cudgel.
Whether he changed Italy for better or worse “was a very, very complicated question to answer,” said Giovanni Orsina, dean of the Luiss School of Government in Rome and the author of “Berlusconism and Italy: A Historical Interpretation.” It is likely to be debated for a period at least as long as the three decades that Mr. Berlusconi weighed on the Italian imagination. What is certain is that he changed Italy.
“The impact he had through television is much deeper than an electoral cycle,” said Christian Rocca, the editor of Linkiesta, an Italian news outlet. Mr. Rocca said Mr. Berlusconi transformed the staid Italian programming “that was in color but could have been in black and white,” bringing American sports, soap operas, movies and a new Italian style of variety show adorned with beautiful women.
That cultural shift to the spectacular and tawdry has not only has remained on the airwaves, but critics have argued it has pervaded all of Italian society, transforming the way people look and the ambitions and dreams of a generation of Italians who hungered for the wealth and confidence that Mr. Berlusconi, transactional and aspirational and gaudy, stood for.
After the fall of Communism, which was the chief dividing line for Italian politics for a half-century, Mr. Berlusconi capitalized on the collapse of the political establishment in a bribery scandal to “enter the field” of politics, as he famously put it. In doing so, Mr. Berlusconi became Italy’s new dividing line.
“This was his great innovation,” said Mr. Rocca, “you were in favor or against, you couldn’t be indifferent.”
Mr. Berlusconi’s polarizing style not only has remained in Italy, but it has become a küresel trend, seen most clearly in Donald J. Trump in the United States, who in many ways echoes his bombast.
Mr. Berlusconi “modernized the instruments of politics, that is to say, leadership, television, communication,” said Mr. Orsina. “He changed the political language.”
And he started doing that, said Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister and center-left opponent of Mr. Berlusconi, by changing “the Italians’ daily life with commercial television,” giving them greater choice. In return those viewers provided Mr. Berlusconi with “a huge reserve of votes.”
He also changed the way Italian politicians sounded. He projected optimism, capitalized on over-the-top demonization by his critics and perfected victimization. He painted all his critics red as Communists, ushering in a combative campaigning style and delegitimization of institutions that would be distilled to the poisonous messages that his enemies and acolytes flooded social media with in the last decade.
But even as Italian politicians across the spectrum paid homage to Mr. Berlusconi on Monday, they began plotting next steps.
In recent months, Mr. Berlusconi’s loyalists have jousted to take the helm. They included Italy’s current foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, as well as Licia Ronzulli, a senator, who acted as Mr. Berlusconi’s de facto nurse and Marta Fascina, a girlfriend more than 50 years his junior whom he celebrated a wedding with but did not officially marry.
“We have the duty, as Forza Italia, to go ahead, even though we are wounded,” Mr. Tajani said, adding that Mr. Berlusconi wanted the party to stay compact and in the government. “To honor him and continue his project we must look to the future. Forza Italia will be there.”
The former center-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, whom Mr. Berlusconi apparently evvel saw as a potential successor before double-crossing, (after Mr. Renzi double-crossed him) has sought to regain relevance by positioning himself as the heir of the moderate Italian center that Mr. Berlusconi evvel controlled.
Many consider it an impossible mission. But Mr. Renzi, a consummate political operator, has licked his chops at the chance of vacuuming up Mr. Berlusconi’s parliament members and evvel again controlling enough support to become vital in Italian politics, either to prop up or take down Ms. Meloni’s government.
Ms. Meloni said in a recent interview that Mr. Berlusconi put her in a difficult situation with his reputation for womanizing when she was a young minister in one of his governments. And Mr. Berlusconi’s clear backing of Mr. Putin in the war in Ukraine emerged as a political headache for her. (“For me, Silvio was a dear person, a true friend,” Mr. Putin said in a statement Monday.)
But now Ms. Meloni, who honored his memory, needed to keep his supporters in the fold.
The stability of the Italian government, analysts said, may depend on the decisions of Mr. Berlusconi’s daughter, Marina, widely considered to be the sharpest in a family that has had its own succession feuds.
“The question is will Marina Berlusconi step in?” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “The party will disband without the Berlusconi brand.”
“If she steps in,” he said, or makes it clear she is running things behind the scenes, “the party has a chance to survive and the Meloni government won’t be particularly affected,” as the two are understood to be in sync. If Ms. Berlusconi, an executive in her father’s empire who apparently does not love politics, stays away, he said, “the repercussions will be greater.”
Her father did little without repercussions.
Mr. Rocca said that one story about Mr. Berlusconi summed him up.
When he was starting out as a real estate tycoon in Milan, he said, Mr. Berlusconi wanted to build a suburban-like housing complex and market it as an oasis of peace and quiet.
But planes flying in and out of the nearby airport made that a hard sell. To reroute the planes, Mr. Berlusconi built a hospital, over which they could not fly, greasing more than a few palms in the process. The hospital, San Raffaele, became a center of excellence, and it was where he died on Monday morning.
“That’s Berlusconi — entrepreneur, outlaw, politician,” he said. “But somehow in the end, it was a good thing.”
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.
The New York Times