‘Anyone not jumping is a communist’

Alessio Perrone at Berlusconi’s funeral

The woman next to me started crying when the hearse carrying Silvio Berlusconi’s corpse arrived in Milan’s Piazza Duomo just before three o’clock last Wednesday afternoon. She was dressed in black from head to toe, with a black bag and black sunglasses. Giant red and black AC Milan flags – Berlusconi owned the football club for thirty years – waved over us, providing some shade from the scorching sun. Football chants briefly broke out: ‘Silvio! Silvio! Silvio!’; ‘Anyone not jumping is a communist!’; ‘There’s only one president!’ Journalists zig-zagged through the crowd and confused tourists wondered why they couldn’t get near the cathedral. ‘It’s the funeral of a former prime minister,’ someone explained to them, in English. ‘A complex personality.’

I grew up in Berlusconi’s Italy. I used to imagine that when he died, half the country would be plunged in mourning, while the other half erupted in spontaneous street parties. For more than twenty years, with the help of his media empire, he made everything in Italian politics about him. To his supporters, he was the charismatic leader who could miraculously do it all, or would have been able to if he hadn’t been thwarted by his ‘communist’ adversaries: prosecuting magistrates, the media he didn’t own and his political opponents, who used sex scandals, allegations of mafia ties and corruption investigations to try to bring him down. From TV discussions to family scuffles at the dinner table, most political arguments weren’t about policy – they were about Berlusconi himself. If you were for him, you loved him viscerally; if you were against him, the resentment ran deep.

My family and most of my friends fell fiercely on the against side. One day my grandmother, who was the same age as Berlusconi, came back delighted from the card reader. The fortune teller had told her she would die after the death of a ‘great dictator’, which she decided couldn’t be anyone but Berlusconi. ‘He dies, I can go in peace,’ she would say. (She died ten years ago.)

Today, Berlusconi’s influence seems diminished, as do the passions it fuelled. Few international politicians attended his funeral: Victor Orbán was the only European head of government there. The UK, France and Germany sent their ambassadors. There were few dissenting voices when the Italian government declared three days of national mourning. Rosy Bindi, an opposition politician whose physical appearance Berlusconi had joked about, protested at the beatification of a man who had ‘split’ Italy. The rector of a university in Siena refused to fly the flags at half-mast. Marco Travaglio, a journalist and vocal critic of Berlusconi for much of his career, reminded reporters that Berlusconi had insulted his adversaries, criminalised magistrates and didn’t care to follow the rules. Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Star Movement and former prime minister, didn’t go to the funeral. But Elly Schlein, the new left-wing leader of the opposition Democratic Party was there in the duomo, as well as Berlusconi’s coalition partners Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini.

I roamed the crowd while listening to Milan’s archbishop remember Berlusconi as an intrepid businessman and notoriety-seeking politician. ‘There are those who glorify him and those who can’t stand him,’ he said. ‘A politician is always a partisan.’ A young man in a suit was holding a sign that celebrated him as ‘the most Italian of Italians’, which I felt a little insulted by. A couple nearby were preparing a sign that said: ‘Welcome back to hell.’ A teary-eyed woman in her fifties told me Berlusconi had always been part of her life, and it would be ‘surreal’ without him.

His similarities to the other politicians he was often compared to, such as Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, only go so far, but Berlusconi paved the way for a brand of personalised politics that has since spread to several liberal democracies. He prided himself on having legitimised the post-fascist far right. The increasing role of celebrity and fandom in politics, cronyism and the trivialisation of politicians’ mistakes are all staples of Berlusconi’s brand. ‘Silvio Berlusconi as a political figure may be transitory,’ Alexander Stille wrote in 2006, in The Sack of Rome. ‘But the Berlusconi phenomenon is in all likelihood a reality that will not vanish so easily.’

The intensity of the disagreement over Berlusconi himself is subdued today compared to when he was at the peak of his power; the forces he helped to unleash left the transitory man behind even before he died. His last government collapsed in 2011, during the global financial crisis, and he was consigned to an inescapable decline and an ill-fitting sidekick role for more than a decade. New politicians to his right, like Salvini and Meloni, captured the imagination of his former supporters long before his death, using social media to overshadow his TV popularity. Even his football club all but crumbled, with richer men pouring more money than he could into the sport, until he sold it.

The service ended, the hearse left, there were more chants, more flag waving, a round of applause, then people began to drift away. I went back in the evening and there was little trace of the day’s events. Tourists and pigeons had reclaimed the piazza, and workers were taking down the screens and looking to head home. Two, I overheard, were talking about tomorrow’s job.


  • 21 June 2023 at 5:48pm
    abcd85 says:
    From the beginning, Berlusconi was the minstrel for the mafia. He did this perfectly. From being the palazzinaro to Mangano and Dell'Utri, the mafia protected and controlled him.

    I am puzzled: how can this comment doe not consider the issue?