Devotees of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi bid him farewell in Milan on Wednesday at a state funeral for the controversial billionaire, which closes a 30-year chapter in the country’s history.
The coffin of the media mogul, adorned with white and red roses, was driven through the city from his villa in Arcore to the city’s Gothic Duomo, with mourners clapping and waving along the route.
It was then carried into the cathedral, escorted by a guard of honour, as his family walked behind.
Thousands of the tycoon’s supporters — including a delegation from his Monza football club — watched on giant screens set up in the square, as Archbishop Mario Delpini led the ceremony for Berlusconi, who died Monday aged 86.
“When a man is a politician, then he tries to win. There are those who exalt him and those who cannot stand him,” Delpini said in his homily.
“When a man is a protagonist, then he is always on stage. He has those who applaud him and those who detest him,” he said.
“But in this moment of farewell and prayer, what can we say about Silvio Berlusconi? He was a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy,” he added.
Berlusconi, adored and loathed by Italians in equal measure, had been ill for several years, though he remained the official head of his right-wing Forza Italia party, a member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition government.
Lucia Diele, 30, a Berlusconi fan from Puglia in Italy’s south, described the man who entered politics in 1994 and went on to be prime minister three times as “the greatest politician in the history of Italy”.
“He leaves a huge void that will be impossible to fill. Giorgia Meloni is a great prime minister, but no one will take Silvio’s place,” she said outside the cathedral.
Fellow supporter Luigi Vecchione, 48, said Berlusconi was “my first and last political love. It’s a very sad day for Italy”.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Meloni and fellow coalition partner Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League, were at the funeral, while the European Union was represented by its economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was also present, along with Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Iraqi President Abdel Latif Rashid.
The longest-serving premier in Italy’s post-war history, and re-elected to the Senate last year, Berlusconi was dogged by multiple legal and sex scandals and famed for his controversial gaffes on the international stage.
He counted President Vladimir Putin among his friends — but the Russian leader is subject to an international arrest warrant and could not travel to Italy.
Amateur photographer Gianfranco Diletta, 65, said he had come to “immortalise this mass phenomenon”.
“I never voted for Berlusconi, who embodied for Italy the modern populism of the 1990s… and was a friend of Putin’s to the end, a strategic error which put Italy’s national security in danger,” he said.
Berlusconi is survived by his 33-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, with whom he held a fake wedding last year and who was at his bedside as he succumbed to a rare type of blood cancer.
She was joined in the front pews by one of Berlusconi’s two ex-wives, and his five children, some of whom helped run his empire, recently estimated to be worth around $7 billion.
Flags were lowered to half-mast on all public buildings from Monday in tribute to a leader whose influence extended well beyond politics, thanks to his extensive TV, newspaper and sporting interests.
Parliament was suspended for three days and the government declared a national day of mourning for Wednesday — the first time for an ex-prime minister.
The decision was criticised by Berlusconi’s detractors, who accused him of cronyism, corruption and pushing through laws to protect his own interests.
Senator Andrea Crisanti said he was “strongly against” such national honours for “someone who had no respect for the state”, pointing to Berlusconi’s definitive conviction for tax fraud in 2013.
Rosy Bindi, former head of the Antimafia Commission, said it was “inopportune” for “a person as divisive as Berlusconi”, and the Repubblica daily said the “institutional shutdown” was “extreme” and compared it to Britain’s protocol for Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
Berlusconi built a pharaoh-inspired marble mausoleum at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, to house his family and friends when they die.
His family planned to cremate his remains and place his ashes in the mausoleum, Italian media reported.