Silvio Berlusconi had a dismal record in office, and today countless memes continue to treat him as a comical figure. Laughing at Berlusconi was a way of coping with his rule — but also reflected Italians’ growing cynicism about politics itself.
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi speaks at a joint rally of right-wing parties on September 22, 2022, in Rome. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images)
After Silvio Berlusconi’s death this June, his Forza Italia party tried to beatify its longtime leader. In his lifetime, the former prime minister had often been a cumbersome figure for the right-wing coalition, which he had first brought to power. Now that he was gone, his party figured out that he could serve the more significant role of founding father of the Right. Before his death, supporters even tried to promote him as the next president of the nation.
But any hagiography of the “Cavaliere,” or “Cav,” must confront an embarrassing legacy. Berlusconi was a powerful man, and this was also because of how he spectacularized his personality. He turned his political self into a televised character and, later, a meme. He was often genuinely risible — and while the man has gone, the memes have not.
Berlusconi famously initiated a new form of populist communication, creating a televised cult of personality with his Mediaset TV empire before Vladimir Putin and even Donald Trump did the same. His manner of amicably bragging with journalists in front of parliament, his “Bunga Bunga” sexual escapades, the inappropriate jokes he made at both party rallies and international summits — it all helped consolidate his power. At the same time, his oddities pushed his political authority further from any kind of objective credibility. Berlusconi turned himself into a stereotype that foreign observers used to evoke the quirkiness of Italian politics. “His legacy abroad remains this,” says Michela Grasso, admin of Spaghetti Politics, an Instagram page explaining Italian politics to the rest of the world. “He contributed to legitimizing this stereotype of our politics as something tragicomic.”
While the man Berlusconi has gone, the memes have not.
His silly escapades circulated in newspapers and talk shows. They were archived on the internet, as Berlusconi’s power coincided with Italians’ growing digital literacy. His best antics gradually entered a circle of evergreen videos that shaped the collective memory of the first Italian internet-sphere. Berlusconi’s viral status permeated the public debate online, on TV, and the streets, and migrated from platform to platform. It became cherished content to laugh at and feel nostalgic about. It inspired admiration and disgust, epitomizing the political temper of almost three decades of Italian life.
This legacy of Berlusconi, a trail of memes, clashes with the right-wing attempt to paint him as a “father of the nation.” But he really did change Italy.
To be sure, under Berlusconi the Italian democracy lost authority and seriousness. But before his arrival, the early 1990s had seen the disintegration of the entire old party system, following the discovery of widespread corruption between businessmen and politicians across the left-right divide. The judicial investigation, known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), brought down the whole political order today remembered as the “First Republic.” This same upheaval opened the way for the political rise of Berlusconi, hitherto known as a construction and TV entrepreneur. His version of politics looked like an ad for some new dishwasher soap. This seemed convincing enough, in a time when Italians trusted brands more than political parties.
Yet while he promised prosperity for all, Berlusconi ended up dragging the country into financial and moral bankruptcy. He weakened laws on construction safety, environmental protection, and fiscal controls, and eroded the country’s economic stability. He helped xenophobic and neo-fascist parties gain seats in parliament and invited them into his ruling coalitions — the same pattern that brought Giorgia Meloni into government. Over the years, he was accused of dealing with the Mafia, of corruption, abetting juvenile prostitution, and even insider trading. But after thirty-five trials, he was convicted of only one charge, concerning tax fraud connected to his television company Mediaset.
Unsurprisingly, Italian left-wingers watched Berlusconi’s power with horror and disgust. They opposed his governments with intense vituperation. Newspapers like La Repubblica and Il Fatto Quotidiano harshly challenged his reckless behavior — though he naturally never answered their line of questions. Even the smallest of Berlusconi’s escapades would have brought down any other politician, especially abroad. And as he resisted any moral boundaries, a new form of cynicism seeped through Italy’s society.
This legacy of Berlusconi — a trail of memes — clashes with the right-wing attempt to paint him as a ‘father of the nation.’ But he really did change Italy.
The memeification of Berlusconi mirrors the memeification of the whole of Italian politics of those years. It reflects the belief that politics was dead, stuck in a climate of unending ridiculousness. Laughing at Berlusconi was a way of rejecting him. But in the end it became a way of condescending to his idiocy — and even digesting it.
“He was a sort of avant la lettre influencer,” journalist and writer Mattia Salvia, managing editor of Iconografie, a magazine on the aesthetics of contemporary politics and propaganda, tells me. For Italians, Silvio was divisive, Salvia explains: for some, an enemy, for others, an idol. Berlusconi’s antics broke all the norms of politics — a feat which some considered splendid, though it terrified others. But in the end, both sides indulged his shenanigans. This, too, was one of the reasons behind his memetic allure. “It is similar to what happened with Donald Trump. The fact that you consider him an enemy can coexist with the fact that he is also ridiculous,” says Salvia.
That definition could perfectly apply to a 2002 picture of Berlusconi making an obscene “horns” hand signal at a European summit, remembered as one of his “finest moments.” In another memorable episode, in 2008, Berlusconi described Barack Obama as “suntanned.” For moments like that, he was a natural. Yet Italians were ambivalent. As Rachel Donadio wrote for the New York Times, they “never quite know whether to laugh or cry at [him].” At times, the outrage could not resist Berlusconi’s debonair allure, which seeped in behind his childish jokes. That was true even if we knew that it was the same person liable for the questionable response to the 2009 earthquake that destroyed the city of L’Aquila, with the decision to build an alternative town out of cheap buildings rather than speed up the reconstruction of the actual city — or that it was the same leader who pushed the country to the brink of default in 2011, triggering European Union austerity measures and the advent of a technocratic government.
Italian left-wingers watched horrified and disgusted at Berlusconi’s power. They opposed his governments with intense vituperation.
He could even get away with his behavior in front of his enemies. One famous case came when he was invited onto a talk show in 2013 to be roasted live on TV by journalist Marco Travaglio, the director of the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. Travaglio, able to quiz Silvio face-to-face for the first time, accused him of wasting twenty years of Italian history — arguing that instead of fighting the mafia, tax evasion, and political corruption, Berlusconi used his power to oppose those who did fight those evils. “Maybe you haven’t done anything about it because you couldn’t,” Travaglio said. His words wounded Berlusconi’s pride. Rendered speechless, his reaction was a simple gesture of disdain: with masterful comic timing, he wiped Travaglio’s seat clean. Strange as it may seem, his theatrical response “won” him the night. It snatched an outraged laugh in the studio, and helped him avoid answering for his faults. Berlusconi lost the elections the following month. But on the web, only the scene of the seat remains, and few remember Travaglio’s blistering speech.
This past September 29, the organizers of the Berlusconi Day in Paestum, near Salerno, promised to celebrate their late leader’s birthday with a life-sized holographic replica of his head.
With the same tactics, Berlusconi put his allies in their place when they tried to marginalize him. Even a smile, a silly gesture, for he preferred them to angry speeches, could reverberate on TV and social networks for months, deflecting his critics’ blows. “Berlusconi was well aware of his viral potential, notwithstanding the age gap between himself and social networks,” the admin of Il Grande Flagello, a satirical Instagram and Twitter meme page, tells me. “He was a pioneer of the political use of memes.”
Once at a press conference, with utter serenity and sincere concern, Berlusconi mopped the sweat from the forehead of Matteo Salvini, his longtime coalition partner and leader of the xenophobic Lega Nord party. Viewers could see who was really in charge. Gestures such as these were instant viral moments. They carried political power but were also risible. At times, it was not clear if such moments were staged or spontaneous — but Berlusconi always gained something from them, even if it was only more sympathy from the public. Many got used to his antics to the point of enjoying them — even if through a peculiarly Italian sense for the tragicomic. “It was even difficult to meme him, as he constantly created meme situations on his own,” notes Paolo Danzì, admin of the Instagram page Sapore di Male, which satirizes 1990s and early 2000s Italian pop culture. “He truly brought politics down to the level of comedy.”
Last October, after the election victory for his coalition partner Giorgia Meloni marked Berlusconi’s final defeat, he managed to go viral once more. During votes to elect the new president of the Senate, photographers captured a piece of paper lying on his desk in the parliament. On it, Berlusconi had written a list of reasons why he could no longer stand Meloni. In these same days, she was moving to form her own right-wing government, with little consideration for Berlusconi’s demands. Enraged, he wrote that she was “self-entitled, bossy, arrogant and insulting.” A final act of revenge.
Berlusconi’s memetic power was instrumental in disrupting established political norms.
“At least, when there was still Berlusconi, you could have a good laugh from time to time,” says the admin of Crazy Ass Moments in Italian Politics (@crazyitalianpol), a Twitter page on the quirkiest moments in politics, inspired by the eponymous US account. Berlusconi’s stunts are still the most viral on the page. “Now there is still much to laugh about, but we had become accustomed to Silvio. You hated the politician, but you had to admit he was a nice rascal.” This was even more true when, in his final years, having lost much of his real power, he felt authorized to cause problems for his allies, just for the sake of it.
In his final months, at eighty-five years of age, during last summer’s general electoral campaign, Berlusconi opened a TikTok profile to connect with Gen Z. “He had finally found the perfect platform for him,” @crazyitalianpol told me. On TikTok, his tricks did indeed resonate with users. The first video got over 10 million views. For the first time, Berlusconi was directly and actively making a meme of himself online. The social media team played on that by uploading Berlusconi’s past viral moments, like the Travaglio one, alongside speeches and videos of him cuddling animals. Today, his TikTok profile has more than 800,000 followers. “Who knows what Berlusconi could have achieved on the platform if only he had been younger,” @crazyitalianpol concludes. Yet by this point, Silvio could still be a meme, but an empty and powerless one.
For Mattia Salvia, Zoomers could not relate to him. “He was a totemic figure for Millennials, but the younger generations interacted with Berlusconi when he was not in power anymore. They only saw his final effort at rebranding, with which he tried to look like a wise grandpa with many pets. That was the image he tried to amplify on TikTok when he recorded himself feeding milk to the goats, the ‘Berluscuteness.’ Zoomers only interacted with the meme.”
Memed Beyond the Grave
Berlusconi’s memetic power was instrumental in disrupting established political norms. Now that there is no use for that, it will fade fast, along with his digital legacy. Still, there is already a certain nostalgia for his heyday.
When former president Giorgio Napolitano died on September 22, with media acclaiming him as a great figure of Italian and European institutions, Berlusconi supporters instead vented their anger. It was him, they insisted, who had forced the premier to resign at the end of his last government in 2011, an act which they interpreted as a coup. “Some Italians are already reevaluating his figure, bypassing his most bizarre aspects. It is the same as saying that, with all the bad things, it was still better than this when Berlusconi was in power,” Salvia observes.
Beside his coffin, supporters of soccer team AC Milan, owned for more than thirty years by Berlusconi, sang chants usually heard at the club’s stadium. A final meme was born.
The embarrassing, seemingly never-ending, trail of Berlusconi memes will not stop this kind of hagiography — and may even contribute to it. “Memes have the power to trivialize a political figure. You make memes for political satire on some despicable event, and then the meme makes everything more palatable, and you erode the gravity of the actions,” the Il Grande Flagello admin tells me.
Already at Berlusconi’s funeral in June, we could see how his legacy might be remolded. The funeral was quite the scene. Weeping fans crammed the piazza in front of Milan’s Duomo. They even clashed with protesters, who were critical of how the government had turned Silvio’s departure into a state funeral — a highly unusual decision for any prime minister. But nothing would stop his fans from adoring their “father of the nation.” Beside his coffin, supporters of soccer team AC Milan, owned for more than thirty years by Berlusconi, sang chants usually heard at the club’s stadium. A final meme was born.
Berlusconi’s memeability survived his death, and still lingers even months after his funeral. This past September 29, the organizers of the Berlusconi Day in Paestum, near Salerno, promised to celebrate their late leader’s birthday with a life-sized holographic replica of his head. This holo-Silvio was going to salute the convention goers with a fatherly smile and the dead politician’s proverbial charm. Besides, there had always been satire about the former premier’s unwillingness to accept his mortality — and much barroom talk of a future cyborg Silvio. The holographic Berlusconi would have made a great meme. Alas, Berlusconi Day saw a broken promise from beyond the grave — the hologram failed to show up.Original post