Allies and critics have paid tribute to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s longest-serving postwar leader and one of its most scandalous, who died at eighty-six. 

The billionaire media mogul and former AC Milan owner, who entered politics at the head of his own Forza Italia party in the nineties, led three governments from 1994 to 2011 and managed to return in 2017 despite a career tainted by sex scandals, corruption allegations and a conviction for tax fraud. 

Berlusconi died at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, where he spent six weeks this spring being treated for a lung infection. 

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose ruling coalition includes Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as a junior member, said Monday, “Silvio Berlusconi was, above all, a fighter. He was a man who was never afraid to stand up for what he believed in, and this courage and determination made him one of the most influential men in Italian history.” 

The two have recently argued over the war in Ukraine and Berlusconi’s friendship with Russian President Putin, who sent him a bottle of vodka for his last birthday. On Monday, the Russian embassy in Rome called Berlusconi a great statesman and visionary, while Putin, in a statement, said he was a dear man and a true friend. 

Italian Defense Minister Guido Crozetto called Berlusconi’s death “a great pain.” “He leaves behind a huge void because he was great. The era is over; I loved him very much. Goodbye, Silvio.” 

The former prime minister’s funeral will be held Wednesday in Milan – Supporters dressed in flags of Forza Italia and AC Milan, which he owned from 1986 to 2107, gathered Monday outside the Milan hospital where he died. 

Born in Milan in 1936 to a middle-class family, Berlusconi began his business career in real estate before founding Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster. 

In 1994 the Forza Italia party was founded, and Berlusconi became the first prime minister to be elected without having previously held public office. His second term, from 2001 to 2006, was the longest for any Italian leader since World War II. He returned to power in 2008 but was forced to resign in 2011 amid an acute debt crisis and accusations that he had hosted sex parties with underage girls, which he denied. 

He was subsequently acquitted on appeal of all charges related to the parties, but in late 2012 was convicted of tax fraud, for which he served a one-year sentence while doing part-time community service at a boarding house in Milan.  

Berlusconi won a seat in the European Parliament in 2019, and in the October 2022 general election, his party returned to power in a coalition with the Brothers of Italy, Georgia Meloni. Berlusconi was also elected senator. 

He was often criticized for his arrogance, sometimes profane language, chauvinism, and blurring lines between business and politics, but his rivals also united in paying tribute. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called Berlusconi a history maker. 

One of the first to react to Silvio Berlusconi’s death was former European Commission President Romano Prodi, perhaps Berlusconi’s worst political enemy. 

“We represented different and opposing worlds, but our rivalry never turned into feelings of enmity on a personal level, and the debate remained in the realm of mutual respect,” Prodi said. 

Pope Francis also sent a telegram of condolence to the Berlusconi family, expressing his sincere sympathy for the loss of the main hero of Italian political life.