italy berlusconi funeral duomo cathedral
People gather outside the Duomo cathedral in Milan on June 14, 2023 ahead of the state funeral for Italy's former prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. Image Credit: AFP

Milan: 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 which will take place in Milan’s Cathedral on Wednesday afternoon is likely to attract several thousand people, including top political leaders and foreign dignitaries.

Some Italian 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.

Former Italian premiers have been given state funerals in the past, but this is the first time that a national day of mourning, an unprecedented honour, has been called as well. 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.

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 also decided to pay its respects in this manner.

Bindi, a woman often vilified by Berlusconi’s sexist jibes, said the national day was “disrespectful towards the majority” of Italians who opposed the late leader.

Berlusconi was a highly divisive figure who set the mould for other businessmen-turned-politicians like former US President Donald Trump, with a career punctuated by scandals and legal trials.

Last goodbye

In Milan, flower wreaths were stacked against the facade of the city’s gothic cathedral ahead of the funeral starting at 1300 GMT, while giant screens were installed to allow people to follow from the square.

Among them was Lucia Adiele, a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia who travelled nearly 1,000 kilometres from her home in Altamura, southern Italy, to bid farewell to her favourite politician.

“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 to be inside the cathedral, including Meloni, President Sergio Mattarella and the leader of centre-left Democratic Party (PD) Elly Schlein.

Parliamentary activity was de facto suspended on Wednesday to allow politicians to take part in the service.

Berlusconi was also 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 life inside us.”