“I am the Jesus Christ of politics… I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
1936. Silvio Berlusconi is born in Milan, Italy, to a middle class family. His parents go on to have two more children, one of whom later becomes his brother’s partner in tax crime. Berlusconi attends a Salesian school before graduating from university with honors in 1961. He receives a degree in law with a focus on advertising. While studying, he plays the upright bass and sings on cruise ships, earning the nickname “The Great Seducer.” He develops a powerful and unshakeable vision of himself and his future. This is a man with ambition in every aspect of his life. In 1965, he marries Carla Dall’Oglio and in the next four years they have two children.
“We must fight tax evasion but also defend the rights of tax evaders.”
1973. Berlusconi meets Vittorio Mangano for the first time and hires him as a stable keeper. Mangano is a member of the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, with an extensive criminal record. He is put in charge of security at Berlusconi’s villa and works there for two years—years in which he is briefly imprisoned and suspected of arranging a kidnapping, with no repercussions for his employment. In later years, Mafia turncoats reveal that one of Berlusconi’s companies paid 100,000 euros annually to Cosa Nostra, using Mangano as a go between. In July 2000, Mangano is sentenced to life imprisonment for two murders, dying a few days after the verdict. In 2008, Berlusconi describes his former stable keeper as a “hero” but maintains that he knew nothing of any Mafia connections.
“We must have a warm heart and the sun in our pockets.”
1978. Berlusconi founds the financial holding group Fininvest. It is comprised of Mediolanum, an insurance and banking company; Mondadori, a major publishing house; A.C. Milan, one of Europe’s most prestigious soccer clubs; and Mediaset, the biggest private entertainment company in Italy that owns all three national private television channels. Berlusconi goes on to take ownership of the daily newspaper Il Giornale and the advertising company Publitalia. When he eventually enters the world of politics he chooses his party’s candidates in large part from the Publitalia sales team; they have already been trained in his philosophy of personal presentation. Hands dry, breath fresh, hair short, face clean-shaven. Suit jackets must not be removed in front of clients. “The sun in your pocket, always.” Berlusconi is a master salesman. He spreads his talent to his team with inspirational speeches. He remembers his secretaries’ birthdays and brings them flowers.
“I’m a man of honor, a truthful person, a gentleman of absolute morality.”
1989. Berlusconi is accused of false testimony, having lied in court about his involvement in a secret Masonic lodge. He is found guilty in 1990, but an amnesty instated the previous year prevents the court from passing sentence. Berlusconi goes on to face more than thirty other trials for a wide variety of crimes.
“I always win, I’m cursed to win.”
1994. Berlusconi wins his first national election as leader of the Forza Italia party and becomes Prime Minister. He has no political experience but expertly engineers the victory, allying himself with separatists in the North of Italy and neofascists in the South. He exploits a recent corruption scandal that has left the traditionally dominant parties in ruins. He positions himself as a clean-cut businessman untarnished by dirty politics. Voters reason that he is “too rich to steal.” Political advertising is banned on public television and Berlusconi owns all the private networks: polls before the election suggest that his name recognition across Italy is 97%. His government falls within a year, but he is re-elected in 2001 and again in 2008.
“My children say that they feel like Jewish families in Germany under Hitler’s regime. Truly, everyone is against us.”
2003. Berlusconi is interviewed by the Spectator and defends Benito Mussolini, claiming that the dictator “never killed anyone” but instead “sent them on holiday.” In 2013, Berlusconi makes the news again for praising Mussolini on Holocaust Memorial Day. Berlusconi and Mussolini are two of the three longest-serving leaders since the Italy’s Unification.
“Only Napoleon did more than I have done. But I am definitely taller.”
2006. Berlusconi tries to convince his center-left opponent Romano Prodi to join him for a TV debate. He offers to argue against an empty chair if necessary. Prodi responds by suggesting that he “jump up on it [to gain] more stature.” In 2008 Berlusconi is indignant that caricaturists portray him “as a dwarf” when he claims to be no shorter than Vladimir Putin or Nicolas Sarkozy. Appearance is everything.
“Let the tits be tits! Make sure the tits get plenty of makeup!”
2010. Berlusconi makes international headlines for his “bunga bunga parties”—orgies held at his villa near Milan. Prosecution documents in his prostitution trials describe the progression of events. First is dinner, often made in the red, white and green of the Italian flag. Then the bunga bunga: prostitutes dancing, stripping, touching each other or Berlusconi. At the end of the evening he chooses one or more women with whom to spend the night, supposedly in exchange for money, gifts or rent-free apartments. Over the following years more details emerge. Some women are encouraged to dress up for the parties—as Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Italian magistrates involved in Berlusconi’s trials, and nuns. The origins of the term “bunga bunga” are not known, but rumors persist that it was introduced to Berlusconi by Muammar al-Gaddafi.
“By definition, as a Prime Minister I cannot be a liar.”
2011. Berlusconi is under investigation for hiring an underage prostitute, Karima El-Mahroug, and makes a TV statement about the situation. The national newspaper La Repubblica responds by accusing him of at least 10 clear lies, including “I’ve never paid a woman” and “I don’t have to feel ashamed.” Their evidence is convincing.
“I have the good fortune of being attracted to stupid women.”
2011. Berlusconi’s record of sexist behavior and Italy’s entrenched patriarchal culture inspire women to take to the streets in mass protests. Tens of thousands of people demanding respect and dignity for Italian women fill the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Protesters complain that Italy has become “a joke to rest of the world” because of Berlusconi.
“How many women would like to go to bed with me, but don’t know it? Life is a question of communication.”
2013. Berlusconi is found guilty for paying Karima El-Mahroug for sex when she was 17, and abusing his office to conceal the act. He is sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from public office for life. He is expected to appeal. The sentence will not be enforced until the result is confirmed.
“In absolute terms, I am the most legally persecuted man of all times, in the whole history of mankind, worldwide.”
2013. Berlusconi is expelled from the Italian senate with immediate effect when the court upholds his 2012 conviction for tax fraud. He has now lost his parliamentary immunity and could face arrest for other charges. He declares a “day of mourning” for democracy. Italy does not wear black.
“It’s extremely important to be able to look at yourself in the morning and like yourself, like yourself, like yourself, like yourself.”
Silvio Berlusconi still believes in himself. His doctors say that he is “almost immortal.” His story is not over.