It is an official day of national mourning in Italy with flags flying half-mast to mark the death of Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s most divisive and charismatic public figure who dominated politics, business and sport for decades.
Berlusconi died on Monday aged 86 at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan. He had been admitted there on Friday for preplanned tests related to a chronic form of leukaemia.
Berlusconi, adored and loathed by Italians in equal part, had been ill for several years, though he remained the official head of his right-wing Forza Italia party, a member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition government.
His death came as a shock to many. Despite his frail health, Berlusconi’s defining presence on Italy’s political scene coupled with his exuberance and perpetual ultra-tanned look had almost created an illusion that he would have lived in perpetuity, as television host Bruno Vespa put it on Tuesday night.
Berlusconi the longest-serving premier in Italy’s post-war history and re-elected to the Senate last year, Berlusconi was known for making numerous controversial and offensive statements on the international stage.
“He has left a huge void,” said Rosanna de Angelis, a 60-year-old boutique owner in Milan’s city centre. “He made everybody feel important, he was humane,” she added.
“We will all miss him, even those who criticised him – and even cartoonists won’t have anything to sketch now,” said Tiziana Guerra, who sells flowers close to the Duomo Gothic cathedral, a 14th-century architectural masterpiece where Berlusconi’s funeral will take place.
The church will host about 2,000 people, including Italian President Sergio Mattarella and European Union Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. It is not clear, yet which world leaders will be attending the event, but report has it that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be present. The funeral is due to start at 3pm local time (13:00 GMT) and will be shown live on big screens set up in the city’s main square.
Flags were lowered to half-mast on all public buildings from Monday in tribute to a leader whose influence extended well beyond politics, thanks to his extensive TV, newspaper and sporting interests.
A divisive figure in life, Berlusconi managed to trigger controversies following his death, too. The government’s announcement of a day of national mourning an honour not granted to any other former prime minister was met with some criticism.
“We must not forget that some of his actions had no respect for the state he represented,” said Andrea Crisanti who strongly opposed national honours.
Berlusconi is survived by his 33-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, with whom he held a fake wedding last year and who was at his bedside as he succumbed to a rare type of blood cancer.
She is expected to be joined in the front pews by Berlusconi’s two ex-wives and five children, some of whom helped run his empire, recently estimated to be worth around $7 billion.