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Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian leader and media tycoon, dies at 86

Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving premier, defied scandals to tower over its public life for decades.
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ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, the former populist prime minister and media tycoon who defied a succession of scandals to tower over Italian public life for decades, has died. He was 86.

Berlusconi’s Mediaset television network announced his death Monday alongside a smiling photo of him on its homepage. A cause of death was not immediately clear.

Berlusconi, Italy's longest-serving premier, formed the country's largest media company before he used his fame and wealth as the launchpad for a political career in which he led Italy three times.

He rode out sex scandals and criminal investigations to remain influential in Italian politics until the last. His Forza Italia party helped bring down the government of then-Prime Minister Mario Draghi in July. Months earlier, he put himself forward as a candidate for Italy's presidency.

That was despite years of ill health, a diagnosis with leukemia in April and a history of heart surgery, prostate cancer and hospitalization with Covid-19. He was admitted to the hospital Friday for what doctors described as a regular check-up related to a lung infection.

Political allies paid tribute Monday to a man who fiercely divided opinion but had nevertheless been a cornerstone of Italian life for more than 40 years.

Italy's far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, called Berlusconi "a fighter" and "a man who was never afraid to defend his conviction." Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party also helped bring down Draghi last year, said he was "one of the most influential men in the history of Italy."

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini called him a "great Italian" and said he had lost a "great friend." And Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said his death marked the "end of an era."

Even Berlusconi's rivals conceded his outsized legacy.

"Many loved him, many hated him: everyone today must recognize that his impact on political but also economic, sporting and television life was unprecedented," Matteo Renzi, a former center-left prime minister, said on Twitter.

From broadcasting to bunga bunga

Born in Milan on Sept. 29, 1936, Berlusconi was the son of a middle-class banker.

Once a singer on a cruise ship in his younger days, he became a household name as a property tycoon and owner of the storied soccer club A.C. Milan, but he built his fortune — and his brand — through his media empire.

Silvio Berlusconi dies
Silvio Berlusconi in Milan in 1977. He made his fortune through construction and TV broadcasting before he launched his political career.Edoardo Fornaciari / Getty Images file

He was prime minister three times, from 1994 to 1995, from 2001 to 2006 and from 2008 to 2011

But he was just as well known for his controversial private life, and sex-fueled parties and allegations of corruption followed him for years.

He spent much of the past 30 years embroiled in legal battles and faced 35 criminal court cases, but only one, for tax fraud, led to a definitive conviction.

Berlusconi gained worldwide notoriety as the host of so-called bunga bunga parties, private dinners that allegedly led to shows performed by young and attractive guests.

An Italian court acquitted Berlusconi in February of allegations he paid witnesses to lie in an underage prostitution case that had dogged him for more than a decade.

Berlusconi was accused of bribing 24 people, mostly young, female guests, at the parties, in a previous trial at which he was charged with paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer.

Despite the scandals, Berlusconi remained an active politician until his death.

Silvio Berlusconi dies
Berlusconi with Meloni in Rome in September.Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images file

He sat in the Senate, the Italian Parliament’s upper house, and yet again stirred controversy in recent months by criticizing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, putting him at odds with Meloni’s right-wing coalition government.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party is part of the government, but he did not have a role himself. He was also a member of the European Parliament.

Forza had found itself outflanked on the right of Italian politics in recent years, first by Salvini's party, The League, and then by the Brothers of Italy, the far-right, anti-immigrant party led by Meloni.

Berlusconi Sarkozy Summit In Rome
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on April 26, 2011.Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images file

Berlusconi was a longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no matter the controversy it caused.

He said the pair had rekindled their affections in October, at the height of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Putin sent him “20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter” on his 86th birthday. “I have been declared by him as the first of his five real friends,” Berlusconi said at the time.

Putin paid tribute Monday, hailing Berlusconi as "a dear person, a true friend."

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader accused of dismantling his country’s democracy, tweeted: “Gone is the great fighter.” 

Berlusconi had enjoyed the support of the powerful Catholic Church for much of his career, but in 2009, after the latest X-rated allegation about his private life, he declared: "I'm not a saint, you've all understood that."

Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome, and Patrick Smith reported from London.