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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 July, 2003, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Berlusconi: Man of many parts

David Willey
BBC correspondent in Rome

Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU - and at the same time caused uproar for comparing a German politician to a Nazi guard. David Willey, who has met the prime minister several times, examines the real Silvio Berlusconi.

Everyone knows that Silvio Berlusconi paid for his law and business studies in Milan by working as a crooner with his own band on board a cruise ship.

Silvio Berlusconi answers questions at a press conference
Berlusconi - a skilful wheeler-dealer
He is intensely loyal to his friends.

Some of the members of his student band are now senior executives in his business empire.

He has even reserved space for them - if they should so desire - to be buried in his family tomb, of which more anon.

Wheeling and dealing

He began his business career as a property dealer and promoter, creating a whole new residential area near Milan airport by getting flight paths diverted and land originally listed as agricultural, rescheduled for residential development.

He was a skilful wheeler-dealer, and after making a small fortune in real estate expanded into commercial television, publishing and advertising.

He outsmarted the competition in TV by dreaming up a perfectly legal scheme to create a national television network at a time when the state broadcaster RAI enjoyed a TV monopoly.

He discovered a loophole in the law. The monopoly did not cover local TV.

So he set up a commercial network which did not actually infringe the letter of the law, but gave Italians for the first time a taste of the joys of commercial TV.

Mr Berlusconi also became a chum of Bettino Craxi, later prime minister, who conveniently changed the monopoly law for his friend, allowing him to become even wealthier.

First past the post

A keen football fan, like most Italians, he bought the first division AC Milan football club in 1986 and turned it into a team of champions.

Most cleverly, Silvio Berlusconi chose the language of the football field to explain to his fellow countrymen and voters what he was doing when he decided to shift careers and go into politics.

He was already in his 50s.

Silvio Berlusconi's underground mausoleum has 100 tonnes of marble abstract sculpture on top

Voters had to "come on to the field". They were encouraged to support their team by shouting "Forza Italia! Come on Italy!" which became not just a rallying cry for the stadium but the name of Silvio Berlusconi's new political party in which he first swept to victory nine years ago.

That was the year I first met him in one of his own TV studios during a pre-election transmission.

His verbal skills seemed to be less those of a savvy politician, rather more those of a successful salesman who had learned the art of winning over people at sales conventions.

He successfully marketed Forza Italia at Italy's last general election by using vague feel-good soft-sell slogans devoid of real political content.

One Berlusconi election poster said: "More respect for old people!". Another said: "Let's respect nature!".

The final curtain

My second meeting with Silvio Berlusconi took place at his palatial home near Milan, where I was invited by an Italian sculptor who wanted to show me the white marble tomb he had created for the media millionaire in the manicured grounds of his magnificent estate - which incidentally Mr Berlusconi had bought for a sum well below market value in a deal arranged by one of his lawyer cronies.

Silvio Berlusconi gives speech
Berlusconi looks to be lavish in death as in life
Silvio Berlusconi's underground mausoleum has 100 tonnes of marble abstract sculpture on top.

You enter it by a stairway reminiscent of pre-Roman burial sites, pass through a narrow corridor and enter an imposing square burial chamber with a pink marble granite sarcophagus in the centre.

It looks for all the world like the tomb of a pharaoh.

All around are niches ready to receive other remains.

They are for Silvio's family and also his "collaborators", the sculptor explained.

Afterwards we had tea in the garden with Mr Berlusconi and his family.

The prime minister relaxed in a white Japanese kimono and his second wife, a former TV actress, poured the tea.

This was years before Italians re-elected Mr Berlusconi, despite his occasional verbal gaffes.

They still seem happy with his performance, whatever criticisms the foreign press may have about conflict of interest and the prime minister's legal situation in a corruption case.

In the eyes of Italians who vote for him, Silvio Berlusconi has wealth and business success, as well as a trophy wife and family, and five - or is it six? - homes and all the trappings of power - plus a championship football club.

What more could any politician ask for?



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