Italy bade farewell to four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday at a state funeral befitting the business tycoon’s colourful life, with mourners bellowing soccer chants and politicians arguing over a day of national mourning.
Crowds waving the flags of the AC Milan soccer club Berlusconi used to own chanted “Silvio, Silvio” as his coffin was carried inside Milan’s gothic cathedral, flanked by ceremonially dressed Carabinieri police with plumed helmets.
Inside were some 2,300 mourners, including the women, politicians and businessmen who had accompanied the 86-year-old during his rise to power and riches.
Marta Fascina, the 33-year-old politician who was Berlusconi’s partner during his final years, wept alongside Marina, his eldest daughter, who is expected to inherit his media empire and, some speculate, even his political legacy.
Berlusconi died on Monday in a Milan hospital where he was being treated for chronic leukemia. He will be cremated and his ashes held in a mausoleum he built for himself and his family in the grounds of his villa outside Milan, a source close to the family told Reuters.
The conservative Forza Italia party he founded dominated Italian politics for much of the last 30 years, while his business empire stretched from real estate to publishing.
Berlusconi was a highly divisive figure who set the mould for other businessmen-turned-politicians like former U.S. president Donald Trump, with a career punctuated by scandals and legal trials.
Archbishop delivers eulogy
Milan’s Archbishop Mario Delpini, in a eulogy, appeared to acknowledge his excesses and political enemies.
Delpini said Berlusconi was a businessman who found success and failure, a politician who won and lost, and a notoriety-seeking personality who had admirers and detractors, “those who applaud him and those who detest him.”
“But in this moment of farewell and prayer, what can we say about Silvio Berlusconi? He has been a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy,” Delpini said. “He is a man and now he meets God.”
The divisions over Berlusconi were as visible as ever on the day of his funeral, with arguments breaking out between the thousands of his admirers outside the cathedral and a few people who had come to criticize him.
“I was lucky enough to be a part of Forza Italia for 18 years. I was also lucky enough to meet him,” said Lucia Adiele, a Forza Italia member who traveled nearly 1,000 kilometres from her home in Altamura, southern Italy.
“The least I could do was to be here and say goodbye for the last time.”
In an atmosphere often more similar to a soccer match than a funeral, another group of Berlusconi supporters jumped up and down shouting “anyone who doesn’t jump is a communist,” a term Berlusconi often used to discredit his political opponents.
The funeral was attended by most Italian party leaders including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose unprecedented decision to declare a day of national mourning drew criticism from some commentators and politicians.
Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League and Forza Italia are the main parties in the right-wing ruling coalition.
Some opposition politicians, including former premier Giuseppe Conte, refused to attend the service, while former centre-left minister Rosy Bindi said an “inappropriate sanctification” was taking place.
The day of mourning is not a public holiday, but rather a symbolic tribute in which flags fly at half-mast from public buildings. The European Parliament and the European Commission also paid their respects in this manner.
Tomaso Montanari, rector of Siena’s University for Foreigners, refused to respect the order, saying that by flying flags at half-mast for Berlusconi his university would “lose all educational and moral credibility.”
‘Disrespectful toward majority’
Bindi, a woman often targeted by Berlusconi’s sexist jibes, said the national day of mourning was “disrespectful toward the majority” who opposed the late leader.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella and former prime ministers Mario Draghi and Mario Monti attended the funeral, as did Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was also present, but few other top European politicians made the trip to Milan.
“There’s only one president, there’s only one president,” the crowds chanted as the coffin emerged from the cathedral into bright sunshine at the end of the service, in another tweaked version of a popular soccer chant.
The coffin was then driven to Berlusconi’s villa, where the former leader will lie until the cremation takes place in a few days time.
The message from his five children published in Italy’s main newspapers on Wednesday read, “Sweetest Dad, Thank you for your life, Thank you for your love, You will always live inside us.”