After Berlusconi's ban from public office in 2013, most dismissed Berlusconi's possibility of a comeback. He had been convicted of tax fraud, and in addition to jail time, he was stripped of the ability to hold public office for 6 years. But when the ban ended in 2019, Berlusconi made what has been so typical throughout his career: a comeback. He won a seat in the European Parliament, while also regaining his seat in the Senate in 2022. If this were not enough, he is expected to be part of the upcoming right-wing coalition government with Matteo Salvini, led by Giorgia Meloni.
Berlusconi is the longest-serving prime minister since WWII, and the first person to occupy the position without having held any prior government or administrative offices. He pioneered the television sector during the liberalization in the 1980s and led most of the construction expansion in Milan in his younger days, resulting in a staggering net worth of $5.5 billion today.
Mr Berlusconi is best described as a walking enigma, a jack of all traits, but above all a businessman. Berlusconi is not a well-read man, but he instinctively understands what is required to win a fight. A true conquistador and an inpatient optimist. A fascinating and complex character whose immense talents have constantly been underestimated by the people around him, because he aims at the seemingly impossible. One cannot imagine him as a solitary, thoughtful or reflective man, rather the buzzword of Mr Berlusconi is action.
This is the story of Silvio Berlusconi.
The year is 1968 and the company Edilnord buys an undeveloped piece of land near Milano's Airport Linate from the municipality. Edilnord scores the land for pennies on the dollar, and the process of obtaining the building permit does not occur without irregularities, to say the least. In 1971 the press was swirling with rumours that Edilnord had bribed Christian Democratic and Socialist councillors with a villa in Switzerland and several apartments in Milan.
As you probably have guessed by now, Edilnord is a subsidiary of Mr Berlusconi’s vast business empire, and like Mr Berlusconi himself, it is surrounded by scandal. But scandal and controversy fail to distract Berlusconi, who, by this point, has developed an impressive ability to dodge police and nosy prosecutors, usually leaving no traces of his shady dealings.
At this point, Berlusconi is in his early 30s and has grand visions, not only for himself but also for his new project which is to be called Milano 2 - in contrast to Milano 1, the metropolis. He plans to build the satellite city of the future, where the upper middle class lives in luxury apartments, surrounded by greenery and artificial lakes and enjoys easy access to public transport and well-functioning institutions. This project is to be realized on the undeveloped piece of land bought by Edilnord in 1968.
There has generally been a systematic disconnect between Mr Berlusconi's grand visions and reality. And to the dismay of the buyers of the luxurious apartments in Milan 2, they discover that the neighbourhood is plagued by severe noise pollution from the commercial airport, not disclosed when they bought the apartments. The project turns from an overwhelming success to being on the brink of disaster. Buyers are threatening to take Berlusconi to court, while others pull out of their contracts.
So how does Berlusconi, the shrewd snake oil salesman, convince buyers to remain committed, while at the same time securing his personal finances from ruin?
The only effective solution would be to divert all air traffic to and from the airport to avoid the unbearable noise. And that is exactly what Berlusconi intends to do. Through a spontaneously formed citizens' committee, he begins to put pressure on Milan's politicians. But it is only after Berlusconi involves his good friend Don Verzé that they strike the jackpot.
Don Verzé built a billion-dollar construction empire by specializing in the construction of public hospitals. A line of business where close links to high-ranking politicians are a prerequisite and, in the case of Italy, is often linked with nepotism and even corruption. Berlusconi and Don Verzé plan to build a hospital to give politicians a valid reason to divert air traffic away from Milan 2, for what better argument for diverting flights than to avoid sick people in the hospital having their medical condition worsened by intolerable noise pollution.
To the surprise of all concerned and with the help of political connections in Milan, Berlusconi succeeds in getting all domestic and international planes to change landing routes, despite objections from the pilots' union, stating that it would lead to risky manoeuvres when landing. Shortly thereafter, prices in Milan 2 double, while residents of the neighbouring town of Sergrato watch in horror as heavy passenger planes hover over their town upon landing.
Berlusconi had a modest upbringing in one of Milan's less glamorous neighbourhoods. From a young age, Berlusconi had exceptional flair for sales, taking fees for performing skits for guests as a child and selling candy in the school yard for modest profits. As a high school student, Berlusconi somehow managed to be everywhere and do almost everything.
He earned his own allowance, disciplinedly attended all classes, managed to do his homework in the evenings, played football, was second in his class in the 100-metre sprint and chased girls with considerable success. As one of the brightest minds in high school, he often helped his peers prepare for exams. In return, he charged some form of payment; it could be sweets or money, but if the classmate failed, the payment was returned immediately, highlighting his natural business skills.
He danced through college and soon became financially independent of his father through work and side hustles. Later in law school, he earned extra pocket money by selling his lecture notes, which were characterized as remarkably concise by his fellow students. At the age of 25, he passed the bar exam with the highest distinction and won the prestigious Manzoni prize for his dissertation on "corporate contracts for magazine advertising".
For some years he worked as a musician and night singer for his good friend Fedele Confalonieri's orchestra in Milan. Towards the early hours, he had the habit of leaving the stage in the middle of a song, jumping onto the dance floor amongst the squealing girls. This did not please the orchestra leader, who eventually fired Berlusconi, leading to Berlusconi’s entrance into the corporate arena.
Berlusconi's first significant business venture into construction took place in the mid-1960s, when the 28-year-old Milanese with undisclosed Swiss capital bought a large undeveloped piece of land in northern Milan to construct a 4,000-apartment complex. For investors, the adventure almost ended in catastrophe, as Berlusconi was unable to find enough buyers. However, he saved the day when a pension fund agreed to buy a considerable amount of the empty apartments. The venture was only a partial success, but also the first clear indication of the construction magnate's indisputable sales talent and his ability to attract customers: a natural leader and a shrewd salesman.
That's Berlusconi: incredibly vain and often infantile
Berlusconi does not belong to the type who swears by the conventional capitalist principles of investing the majority of profits in industrial activities. Instead, the growing fortune is spent on opulent villas, luxury cars, private planes and expensive art. The large and lavish villas clearly depict the middle-class boy whose newfound fortune must be flaunted to the outside world. Berlusconi is deeply consumed by his own importance, and his craving for glory and admiration seems insatiable.
In his vast portfolio of residential estates, Villa Certosa boasts to be the largest, spanning 4.500 m2 across 27 bedrooms with a saltwater swimming pool. The villa was bought by Berlusconi in 1988 for a staggering €480 million and put on sale for $572 million in 2012 and with no immediate buyers, Berlusconi decided to keep it. Although the media mogul, with his plethora of estates situated all over Italy, portrays himself as the modern-day monarch, housing the Dowager Queen, heir princes, princesses, and aristocratic friends. In reality, he is a part of the Italian jungle capitalism class of nouveau riche rulers.
A key motivation for Berlusconi’s frantic spending spree in the 80s and 90s lay in Berlusconi's desire to overtake his main industrial rival in northern Italy, the legendary Gianni Agnelli - the Prince of Italy. There is an unbridgeable spiritual and cultural gulf between the two industrial leaders, and the rivalry continued until Gianni Agnelli’s death in 2003. Agnelli was born into wealth and success. He belongs to the well-established and exclusive industrial bourgeoisie of northern Italy, where family ties and traditions are fundamental to a capitalism that lets the numerous small and dynamic companies sail in their own sea. Berlusconi's trajectory is radically different. He started from nothing and had all the odds against him, including Milan's industrial bourgeoisie. He resembles the American myth of the self-made man.
In the eyes of the Italian populace, Berlusconi is the embodiment of the savvy, successful and daring entrepreneur of the 1980s. From the beginning of his career, he had felt surrounded; he was Milan's eminent construction magnate and Italy's iconic television pioneer, venturing out on dangerous expeditions to conquer new territories.
Although successful, Berlusconi's code of ethics certainly has been elastic; his companies' soaring debts, his fear of investigations into Fininvest's finances and his long-standing association with corrupt political and economic powerhouses in Italy. He has been charged with tax fraud multiple times and got himself into worldwide controversy when his "Bunga Bunga" sex parties became public knowledge.
But he always rises to the surface again. Despite all the controversy, resilience has to be Berlusconi's most valuable attribute, keeping him afloat for decades through scandal and controversy.
This article is based on the book “Berlusconi: TV-kongen der ville frelse Italien” by the Danish author Martin Burcharth.