Maligned for his tactlessness, his womanising and his corrupting influence, yet still defended to the hilt by his supporters, former Italian prime minister Berlusconi was perhaps the ultimate love-hate figure in Italian politics. Indeed, the Milanese billionaire in many ways epitomised the spirit of the Bel Paese: its visual panache, its love of sensualism, and its dark heart.
On coming to power Berlusconi proved himself to be a shrewd businessman and a canny political tactician who parroted the Thatcherite notion that big government was to blame for Italy’s economic ills. Though projecting himself as an inspirational, charismatic figure poised to remedy these ills, he in reality, employed a string of tenuous economic policies in which the illegal and legal were often confused. With many of his right-hand men also implicated in Mafia involvement, it often appeared during Berlusconi’s administration, as if criminal activity had effectively been given a green light and that Italy was basically a nation being run by petty crooks.
Coupled with his criminal bent was his tendency to turn politics into theatre; conducting his politics more through pose, gesture and iconography than through any reasoned debate. He championed a sort of tribalistic political mentality, whereby Italian politics during his era became essentially two-sided and bellicose. As such, his administration drew many obvious comparisons to a sport Berlusconi was heavily involved in: football. Though primitive, his footballing mindset was often popular, and something many working-class Italians could readily relate to.
For years, I remained convinced that this divisive mentality infused with his blurring of good and bad could only be detrimental in politics. But for all the scandals, he was never a hypocrite; he was transparent about what he was doing and perpetually wore his heart on his sleeve. After all, someone who is honest about his vices is infinitely more trustworthy than someone (usually on the politically correct left) who is dishonest about their virtues.
Accentuating the quirky sociological habits of an entire nation, Berlusconi brought into sharp relief the nuances of a national psyche that can be both cerebral and amoral at the same time. For all his criticisms, his legacy was incredible and the lengths many went to defend it bore witness to his sheer charisma.