Silvio Berlusconi, Polarizing Former Prime Minister of Italy, Dies at 86

He won the election anyway. For his campaign, Forza Italia sent a 127-page glossy magazine to doorsteps across Italy. Called “An Italian Story,” it offered a fairy-tale version of Mr. Berlusconi’s life, striking notes that resonated with aspirational Italians: His wealth, his respect for his father and love for his mother, his insistence on punctuality, even his eating habits. “His diet is based on carbohydrates at midday and protein in the evening,” the magazine said. “He can’t resist apple pie, a specialty of his mother, Rosella, and he hates garlic and onion.”

It explained the end of his first marriage, to Carla Dall’Oglio: “The family was tranquil and untroubled, but something in his relationship with Carla started to change, and by the beginning of the ’80s their love had changed into a close friendship.”

In 1980, at age 44 and still married to Ms. Dall’Oglio, Mr. Berlusconi met Veronica Lario, an actress who was starring in the play “The Magnificent Cuckold,” a 1920 farce by the Belgian dramatist Fernand Crommelynck. When their first daughter was born in 1984, Mr. Berlusconi recognized the child and separated from his wife. He married Ms. Lario in 1990, after the births of three more children. The couple divorced in 2014. In 2022, at age 85, he had a “symbolic,” wedding with his girlfriend, Marta Fascina, then 32, in which she wore a white wedding dress and they cut an enormous wedding cake. Already a member of Parliament, she returned to represent a Sicilian town she had never campaigned in, became a gatekeeper and power broker and, for his 86th birthday, arranged for a hot-air balloon to release thousands of red balloon hearts over his villa’s garden.

Mr. Berlusconi is survived by a daughter, Maria Elvira, known as Marina, who is chairwoman of Fininvest, the family’s holding company, and a son, Pier Silvio, who is deputy chairman and chief executive officer of the Berlusconi-controlled broadcast company, Mediaset, both from his first marriage; three children, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi, from his second marriage; a brother, Paolo; 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Mr. Berlusconi managed to stay in power for so long through a combination of factors, among them a lack of viable alternatives to him, in the view of a cynical electorate; his gift for salesmanship; and Italy’s penchant for “trasformismo” — changing political stripes with the times. And loved or loathed, he was the country’s most recognizable political figure.

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