Italy bids farewell to former PM Berlusconi on contested day of mourning

Italy bids farewell to former PM Berlusconi on contested day of mourning
4 min read
Italy's former prime minister was laid to rest on Wednesday, amid controversy over whether or not his funeral should be a national day of mourning.
The funeral at Milan's Cathedral drew several thousand mourners [Getty]

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continued to divide his country even after death, as a decision by the government, which includes his former party, to honour him with a national day of mourning on Wednesday sparked controversy.

Berlusconi died on Monday aged 86. His state funeral in Milan's Cathedral drew several thousand mourners including foreign dignitaries and Italian political leaders.

The billionaire tycoon, whose business empire spanned media to soccer, 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.

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.

Italian premiers have been given state funerals in the past, but this is the first time a national day of mourning has been called for one. It is up to the government to declare it.

Italy is ruled by a right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's party Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini's League and Berlusconi's former party Forza Italia.

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.

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 decided to pay 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."

Bindi, a woman often targeted by Berlusconi's sexist jibes, said the national day of mourning was "disrespectful towards the majority" of Italians who opposed the late leader.

In Milan, flower wreaths and soccer team banners were stacked against the facade of the city's gothic cathedral, while two giant screens allowed people to follow the funeral from the square.

Among them was Lucia Adiele, a member of Forza Italia who travelled nearly 1,000 kilometres from her home in Altamura, southern Italy.

"I was lucky enough to be a part of Forza Italia for 18 years. I was also lucky enough to meet him. The least I could do was to be here and say goodbye for the last time," she told Reuters TV.

Around 2,300 people were expected inside the cathedral, including Meloni, President Sergio Mattarella and the leader of centre-left Democratic Party (PD) Elly Schlein.

A larger crowd was gathering in the square outside, with an argument breaking out between Berlusconi's admirers and a woman who had come to criticise him.

Another group of Berlusconi supporters began jumping up and down shouting "anyone who doesn't jump is a communist," a term Berlusconi often used to discredit his political opponents.

Former Italian Prime Ministers Mario Draghi and Mario Monti, EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Iraq's PM Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani were due to attend the funeral.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was also confirmed, but few other senior European politicians were expected.

Berlusconi was honoured by full-page newspaper advertisements from his family and by his media company MFE .

The message from his five children read, "Sweetest Dad, Thank you for your life, Thank you for your love, You will always live inside us."