Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (born 1936) is one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice. Primarily a businessman with massive holdings and influence in international media, he is regarded by many as a political dilettante who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media.
Hated by many but respected by all at least for his bella figura (personal style) and the sheer force of his will, Berlusconi has parlayed his business acumen and influence into a personal empire that has resulted in Italy's longest–running government ever and in his becoming the country's wealthiest man. Bursting onto the scene with no political experience in 1993, he campaigned—using his vast network of media holdings—on a promise to purge the notoriously lackadaisical Italian government of corruption. He won appointment to the office of prime minister in 1994. However, he and his fellow Forza Italia Party leaders soon found themselves accused of the very corruption he had vowed to eradicate. Charges of bribery, extortion, and other abuses of power trailed the leader until he was forced to resign later in 1994. Despite convictions on a number of corruption charges that were later overturned, the suave Berlusconi was again elected prime minister in 2001, and remained in that post as of late 2004. He is owner of one of the world's most valuable soccer franchises, the country's biggest private television network, a publishing conglomerate, assorted department stores and insurance companies, a newspaper, a magazine, and a bank. His personal monetary worth is estimated at U.S. $10 billion.
Entrepreneurial Streak Apparent Early On
Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, in Milan, Italy, the first of two sons of a middle–class bank clerk and a housewife. His precocious interest in business matters was matched by his passion for making money, and even as a boy he was already earning an income by organizing puppet shows for which he would then charge admission. While studying law at the University of Milan, Berlusconi sold vacuum cleaners, worked as a singer on a cruise ship, took portrait photographs, and did other students' homework for a fee. He also formed an important friendship with Bettino Craxi, who would later become Italian prime minister. His graduation thesis from law school was titled, "The Newspaper Advertising Contract."
As soon as he left school, Berlusconi began working in real estate because he sensed the development boom that was coming in response to the post–war prosperity of the 1960s. Declining his father's offer of a job at his bank, the young man managed to put together enough loans to found two real estate and development companies: Cantieri Reuniti Milanesi in 1962 and Edilnord in 1963. Edilnord won the contract for the development of Milano Two, an attractive suburb north of Milan for the upper class, in 1969, and in 1974 Berlusconi entered the world of media when he decided to install a cable television network (through his new Telemilano company) to service the fashionable bedroom community. Edilnord developed the chic Milano 3 suburb in 1976, having become the top developer of residential and commercial properties by that point.
Became Media Mogul in 1970s and 1980s
Following the Constitutional Court's 1976 ruling that the Radio Televisone Italiana (RAI) conglomerate could no longer extend to the local level its legal monopoly over national broadcasting, Berlusconi launched a massive effort to capitalize on the legitimization of "pirate" television station operators. He founded a holding company, Fininvest, to manage his expanding portfolio of interests as 700 commercial stations mushroomed virtually overnight. Berlusconi worked quickly to create a major library of films, and then rented them out to the new stations in exchange for their advertising on his new Pubitalia publishing subsidiary. By 1980, he was the dominant force in a skyrocketing television market that over the next five years increased its share of national advertising from 15 to 50 percent.
In the meantime, Berlusconi began stringing together a nationwide communications network, Canale Five, in 1977 and completed it in 1980. He created the illusion of a single channel that people could tune into by sending the same film by courier to many of the independent television stations. The pirate stations would then transmit the show simultaneously to their viewers. Unabashedly appealing to the mass market, he stockpiled foreign game shows, soap operas, and popular movies to lure viewers away from the stodgy government–run channels. Berlusconi's position as a media baron was strengthened when the courts reversed their earlier decision and legalized private national networks as long as anti–trust provisions were observed. He bought out two of his closest competitors in 1982 and 1984, cementing his domination of the country's commercial television market. Meanwhile, the reach of Berlusconi's media empire had extended to commercial television in France, where he created La Cinq in 1986; in Germany, where he founded Telefunf in 1987; and in Spain, where he established Telecinco in 1989.
When the courts ruled later in 1984 that Canele Five had usurped RAI's state–sanctioned right to broadcast a national service simultaneously, Berlusconi summoned his old friend Craxi, who had since become prime minister, to reverse the order. Thus benefiting from a general move toward deregulation, Berlusconi was permitted to maintain a virtual duopoly with RAI over the nation's television market. For the remainder of the 1980s, he continued to acquire more and more media holdings.
One of Berlusconi's key purchases during this period was of the Milan AC Soccer Club in 1986. A passionate soccer fan, he poured money into the club until it soon became the most successful Italian soccer team ever. (With him as chairperson, the team has since won the Champion's League title four times, the National League title seven times, and the World Cup Championship twice). He also bought the popular Standa department store chain in 1988 and, after a gigantic legal tussle, the Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.P.A. magazine, book, and newspaper publishing group in 1990. The latter purchase gave Berlusconi instant control over 20 percent of the Italian publishing market. His relentless acquisitions also exponentially increased Fininvest's debt load to dangerous levels, but Berlusconi had already become a billionaire.
Launched Political Career
At this point, Berlusconi found himself increasingly hounded by demands from all quarters that he break up his media empire for violating virtually every anti–trust law in the books. As these pressures increased through the first part of the 1990s, he made a decision that some saw as foolish but that others perceived as an effort to grab the power of the very forces opposed to him: he announced that he would run for prime minister. In typical aggressive fashion, Berlusconi handed over to close friends all his positions at Fininvest and other companies to avoid political conflicts of interest and immediately organized a political coalition named Forza Italia (after the ubiquitous soccer chant meaning "Go Italy"). He appointed himself as its leader.
Allying the new grouping with a federalist party and the remains of a disbanded neo–fascist group, he geared up his media companies to begin a television and print blitz to advertise his candidacy. Several editors of his press concerns resigned in protest at being told whom to endorse in the typically free–for–all run–up to elections. Berlosconi pressed on, portraying himself as honest and in touch with the concerns of young Italians while pledging to eradicate corruption, lower taxes, increase personal choice, and promote free–market economics. In 1992, a national poll revealed that Italian teenagers ranked Berlusconi ahead of Jesus Christ and the Italian president when asked about the ten people they admired most. However, disaster struck when the leader of the fascist group praised deceased Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as the century's finest statesman. It was a testament to the power of Berlusconi's personality that he was quickly able to smooth over the outrage that instantly arose over the comment about the hated leader.
Berlusconi held up his lack of political experience as a virtue to voters, telling them that his success as a businessman was excellent preparation for him to transform the bloated, inefficient Italian government into a lean, streamlined machine that would work for the people and provide a fresh start for all, with sweeping tax cuts and millions of new jobs. The media (much of which he ran, of course) quickly dubbed Berlusconi "the Knight." Support for him built rapidly despite virulent attacks by his detractors. The media and Berlusconi's own personal flair prevailed, and the Freedom Pole won 43 percent of the popular vote in March 1994 elections—enough to enable him to form a government of which he was appointed prime minister. However, despite his precautions, allegations of conflicts of interest arose quickly, fueled by the fact that Berlusconi and his family had retained 51 percent of Fininvest's interests. Coupled with these suspicions, when one of the coalition's parties bailed out of the union, Berlusconi's government collapsed after only nine months in power. In the meantime, his carefully cultivated image as a politician who was above the nation's traditional corruption began to crumble when it was revealed that Berlusconi had in 1978 joined the sinister Propaganda Two group. This was a secret Masonic lodge that had created a powerful state within a state with strong influence on the secret police, banks, the government, and the military.
Undaunted by these obstacles, Berlusconi began selling off more and more of his shares in his wide array of holdings, and in 1996—just two days before the April general election—he officially declared that he no longer had a majority control in any business. His past continued to haunt him, however, with further allegations of corruption and misdeeds, and although he succeeded in being elected as a member of Parliament representing his right–wing coalition, he was forced to abandon his bid for the premiership.
Appointed Premier Again Despite Lingering Charges
As charges of misdeeds continued to pile up, Berlusconi alleged that left–wing politicians had mounted a plot against him. He was convicted of several financial crimes related to accounting and illegal political funding in 1997 and 1998. He managed to have these overturned on appeal, but those charges were followed by allegations of bribery and other misdeeds in 1999. Nevertheless, he was reelected as a member of the European Union Parliament in 1999 and remained opposition leader in his own country's Parliament until 2001, when he was once again appointed prime minister on May 13. Berlusconi and his House of Freedoms coalition had won the popular vote by 18.5 million votes, propelled once again by his image as a forceful, self–made man who would at last straighten out the Italian government. Nevertheless, plenty of people were outraged by Berlusconi's second rise to power, and in 2002 hundreds of thousands of them staged a massive protest to drive home their point—that his heavy involvement in the world of business made him incapable of being an impartial and fair national leader.
The government was shaken to its core later in 2002 when a mammoth corruption scandal came to light that involved some 6,000 politicians and business leaders, including Berlusconi's brother Paolo and his friend Craxi, and billions of dollars in graft. Meanwhile, Berlusconi himself served as foreign minister in addition to his role as prime minister for ten months in 2002.
Berlusconi got a reprieve from the courts in 2003 when Parliament passed a controversial law making the government's top officials, including the prime minister, immune from prosecution. It looked for a while like the legal challenges to his leadership were behind him, but the Constitutional Court soon overturned the law. Meanwhile, Berlusconi's firm decision to stand as an ally with the United States in the war in Iraq had become extremely unpopular, and by 2003, a full 75 percent of Italians were opposed to his decision. In July 2003, Berlusconi assumed the rotating six–month presidency of the European Union, using that position to urge other European countries to support the United States in the war.
By 2004, Berlusconi and his government had enacted numerous bills and laws aimed at reforming the nation's school and labor systems, reduced taxes and other financial burdens on citizens, increased government support of the unemployed, elderly, and disabled, and, not surprisingly, loosened regulations on limits of private ownership of media. However, critics from both Italy and elsewhere warned that Berlusconi's liberal spending could soon have major negative impacts on the country's long–term economic outlook. Nevertheless, the prime minister now had the honor of heading Italy's longest–running government ever.
In 2004, Forbes magazine ranked Berlusconi as the 30th wealthiest man in the world, up from 45th in 2002, and estimated his personal fortune at $10 billion. He has been married twice, first to Carla Dall'Ogglio, with whom he had two children, and then to actress Veronica Lario, with whom he has three children. He released a CD in 2003 of Neopolitan love songs. The prime minister prefers to spend his spare time at his 70–room villa in Sardinia named "Arcore," whose amenities include a private park, a movie theater, and walls of large–screen televisions.
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"Berlusconi, Silvio." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2005. Retrieved August 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3446400032.html
Berlusconi, Silvio 1936–
Founder and former chairman of Fininvest and prime minister of Italy
Born: September 29, 1936, in Milan, Italy.
Education: University of Milan, JD, 1961.
Family: Son of Luigi (bank clerk) and Rosella (secretary) Berlusconi; married Carla Dall'Ogglio (divorced); married Veronica Lario (actress), 1990; children: five (first marriage, two; second marriage, three).
Career: Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi, 1962, founder; Edilnord, 1963, founder; Telemilano, 1974, founder; Fininvest, 1978–1994, founder, chairman; Canale 5, 1980, founder; Italian government, 1994, 2001–, prime minister.
Awards: Cavalliere del Lavoro, 1977; honorary degree in managerial engineering from Calabria University, 1991; named Man of the Year by the International Film and Programme Market of Television, Cable, and Satellite, 1991.
Address: Presidenza del Consiglio dei ministri, Palazzo Chigi, Piazza Colonna 370, 00186 Rome, Italy; http://www.governo.it/index.asp.
■ Silvio Berlusconi was noted for his entrepreneurial spirit and flamboyance in his rise to the heights of Italian business and politics. His investments in real estate, media, and sports made him Italy's richest man, and he served two separate terms as the country's prime minister. He was also controversial. Lasting just seven months, his first stint as prime minister ended with his resignation amid charges that his business interests conflicted with his duties as head of state. In 2004, three years into his second term, he was tried on charges of having, in the 1980s, bribed judges who were hearing a case involving one of his competitors. Nicknamed "The Cavalier," he was known for living lavishly while catering to populist tastes in entertainment, for emphasizing his status as a self-made man and promoting himself unabashedly, and for making outrageous statements, including negative comments about Muslims and positive ones about former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Nonetheless, his influence remained far-reaching. Touching on almost every aspect of Italian life, his holdings included three television networks, Italy's largest publishing house, department stores, and a soccer team. In 2004 Forbes magazine ranked Berlusconi the richest person in Italy and the 30th wealthiest worldwide, with a net worth of $10 billion.
A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR
Berlusconi grew up in a lower-middle-class Milanese family, but even as a youth he showed entrepreneurial zeal and determination to improve his status. He put himself through college with a variety of jobs: selling vacuum cleaners, writing papers for his classmates (for a fee), and singing on cruise ships. After he received a law degree, with honors, from the University of Milan in 1961, he borrowed money from the bank where his father worked and went into real estate development, setting up the companies Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi in 1962 and Edilnord in 1963. With Italy's prosperity in the 1960s had come a huge demand for housing, and Berlusconi was there to take advantage of it. His projects included Milano 2, a suburban development of 4,000 housing units on the outskirts of Milan, completed in 1969. He followed this with another residential development, Milano 3, in 1976.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES IN TELEVISION
Berlusconi went into television by establishing the cable TV company Telemilano in 1974 and bringing this service to the housing complexes he had built. A 1976 court decision paved the way for more television ventures. Italy's Constitutional Court ruled that while the public-sector network, Radio Televisione Italiana, could have a monopoly on national broadcast television, local markets were open to all.
Setting up a holding company, Fininvest, in 1978 as an umbrella for his various projects, Berlusconi delved into numerous aspects of the television industry. He rented films to local TV stations; in turn, the stations had to carry advertising they bought through Fininvest's advertising agency, Publitalia. In 1980 he set up the Canale 5 television network. To avoid running afoul of regulators, Canale 5 operated legally as a group of local stations. However, all the stations carried the same programs simultaneously by means of videotape, making it a national network in practice. Renato Brunetta, one of Berlusconi's political advisers, told the London Observer, "What Berlusconi did was what he always does. He cut to the core"—and the core was that the purpose of television was to sell advertising nationally (January 18, 2004). According to Brunetta, Berlusconi then put all "his energy and imagination" into creating a virtual national network that could compete with the public TV network for advertising, a concept the political adviser called "pure genius."
In 1981 Italy's Constitutional Court decided to allow privately owned networks to broadcast nationally. Berlusconi responded by buying Canale 5's primary competitors, Italia 1 in 1983 and Rete 4 in 1984, giving him about 45 percent of the national broadcast market, equivalent to Radio Televisione Italiana's share. His networks broadcast soap operas and game shows, which proved popular in contrast to the highbrow programming on the public network. The Constitutional Court, however, also favored strong antitrust regulations on private broadcasters and urged the Italian parliament to pass such legislation. Despite this, and despite widespread criticism of Berlusconi's large market share, the parliament in 1990 enacted a very weak antitrust law.
Berlusconi kept expanding his holdings, adding broadcast operations outside Italy and such diverse acquisitions as the AC Milan soccer club in 1986, La Standa department stores in 1988, and the Arnoldo Mondadori Editore publishing house in 1990. The Fininvest empire grew to about 150 companies. His critics continued to object to the degree of control he exercised over national television, but in the 1990s, demonstrating his trademark determination and tenacity, he fought back by going into politics. In 1993 he formed the political party Forza Italia, which means "Go Italy," a cheer used by fans of his soccer team. Berlusconi forged a coalition with two right-wing parties, the National Alliance and the Northern League. His personal popularity, enhanced by his status as a political outsider at a time when many insiders had been accused of enriching themselves at public expense in a widespread scandal known as Tangentopoli (Bribesville), helped him win the office of prime minister in 1994. Berlusconi had climbed to the top in national politics by "using the same methods and many of the same people as he had used to become a billionaire" (Independent, June 21, 2003).
Berlusconi stepped down as Fininvest's chairman in 1994, but the company remained under his ownership. Many Italians called for the new prime minister to sell some of his businesses, which he declined to do. Public outcry increased when he proposed that one of Fininvest's advisers, the merchant bank Mediobanca, assist in the privatization of state-run companies. Moreover, some of his appointees in the new government had been involved in the Tangentopoli scandal, and conflicts arose with the leaders of the National Alliance and the Northern League. Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister in December 1994, after only seven months in office.
Berlusconi then made some conciliatory moves, such as selling stakes in some of his businesses to outside investors. In 1995 he sold 28 percent of Mediaset, a company he had formed to unite his television, advertising, film, and recording ventures, to outside investors, and in 1996 he announced a public stock offering to further reduce his share. That year, he was elected to parliament, despite having been accused over the years of crimes that included tax evasion, bribery, and antitrust violations. Although convicted of some corruption-related charges, he appealed and stayed out of jail. In 2004 he was taken to court again, this time on charges of bribing judges. He maintained his innocence of all the charges brought against him, which he contended were politically motivated.
Many Italians continued to support Berlusconi, electing him prime minister again in 2001 to a term ending in 2006. In 2003 he became president of the European Union, a post that rotates among European heads of state every six months. He remained "one of Europe's most unusual and flamboyant leaders, a media magnate and political titan who has amassed, or at least sought, an astonishing degree of power, yet always seems to be dancing one small step ahead of disaster" (New York Times, February 16, 2003). Despite some of the charges and criticisms he faced, Berlusconi was to many Italians "the ordinary Joe next door who by dint of incredible hard work and determination has landed on top of the heap … Italy's master of the universe, their proudest son" (Independent, June 21, 2003).
sources for further information
Bruni, Frank, "Italy's Leader Balances Ambitions and Trials," New York Times, February 16, 2003.
Carlin, John, "All Hail Berlusconi," Observer, January 18, 2004.
Popham, Peter, "Silvio Berlusconi: The Two Faces of Italy's Billionaire Premier," Independent, June 21, 2003.
Ring, Trudy. "Berlusconi, Silvio 1936–." International Directory of Business Biographies. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3448500051.html
Ring, Trudy. "Berlusconi, Silvio 1936–." International Directory of Business Biographies. 2005. Retrieved August 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3448500051.html
Silvio Berlusconi (bĕr´ləskō´nē), 1936–, Italian business executive and politician, premier (1994; 2001–6, 2008–11) of Italy, b. Milan. His first fortune was made in real estate during the 1960s. In the early 1980s Berlusconi founded commercial television networks that wooed the public away from the more stolid fare offered on government-run channels, and he became a billionaire as head of a media empire embracing television, advertising, film, and publishing as well as an investor in banking and medical biotechnology and owner of the AC Milan soccer team.
Entering politics as a strong advocate of a market-driven economy, he established the conservative Forza Italia party in 1994 and vaulted to prominence, largely through his excoriation of the corruption-tainted established parties and his ready access to publicity. In 1994 parliamentary elections, he was elected as a deputy and his right-wing coalition captured a majority; Berlusconi became premier. By the end of the year, however, his coalition collapsed and he resigned.
Subsequently accused of the very corruption he had vowed to expunge, Berlusconi, who alleged a left-wing plot against him, was convicted in 1997 and 1998 of financial crimes. The convictions were later overturned on appeal, but he also faced other bribery and other charges beginning in 1999. In 2001 he was again led a right-wing coalition to an electoral and became premier. In 2003, in an attempt to end his bribery trial, parliament passed a law making the premier (and other top Italian officials) immune from prosecution, but the constitutional court subsequently overturned the law. The following year he was acquitted of the bribery charges; the other charges were dismissed
After losses in local elections in 2005, he resigned and formed a new coalition government. His coalition narrowly lost in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Later in the year Berlusconi was tried on tax and accounting charges relating to his media companies; some of charges were later dropped, but in 2012 he was convicted on tax evasion charges, and the verdict was upheld in 2013. He returned to power in Apr., 2008, when his renamed People of Freedom party, and its coalition partners won control of the parliament.
His coalition subsequently passed legislation granting Italy's senior officeholders immunity from prosecution, but Italy's constitutional court overturned the law in 2009. In 2010 parliament passed a law allowing senior government figures to postpone trials against them for 18 months, but in 2011 the constitutional court ruled that a judge should decide whether a trial should be postponed. Subsequently, he faced prosecution or investigation in a number of cases, including one involving alleged underage prostitution (of which he was convicted in 2013; overturned 2014). Also in 2010, scandals and political divisions threatened to bring down his government.
He narrowly survived no-confidence votes in Dec., 2010, and, after being forced to adopt austerities in the face of a financial crisis, in Oct., 2011. A general loss of confidence in his government forced his resignation after an economic reform package was passed in Nov., 2011. He then supported Mario Monti's techocratic government until Dec., 2012; in the subsequent 2013 elections his coalition placed second and he was elected to the senate. In Mar., 2013, he was convicted of abuse of office in relation to the publication of wiretaps in 2005, but that was overturned a year later because of the statute of limitations. In Apr., 2013, his party became part of the new coalition government. Berlusconi withdrew his party from the coalition in September over his impending ouster (November) from the senate (because of his criminal convictions), but a party revolt forced him to support the government in a confidence vote. He subsequently withdrew his party from the government, which led to a split in his party, now again named Forza Italia.
See studies by P. Ginsburg (2004) and A Stille (2006).
"Berlusconi, Silvio." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (August 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Berluscon.html
"Berlusconi, Silvio." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved August 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Berluscon.html
"Berlusconi, Silvio." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-BerlusconiSilvio.html
"Berlusconi, Silvio." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved August 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-BerlusconiSilvio.html