Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who reshaped Italy's political and cultural landscape while fending off multiple legal and sex scandals, died Monday aged 86.
The billionaire media mogul had been suffering from a rare type of blood cancer.
Mourners laid flowers and notes outside Villa San Martino, Berlusconi's home near Milan, with one reading simply "we will miss you."
Berlusconi will have a state funeral in Milan's gothic Duomo Cathedral on Wednesday.
He had suffered ill health for years, from heart surgery in 2016 to a 2020 hospitalisation for Covid-19. Despite being re-elected to the Senate last year, he was rarely seen in public.
But he remained the official head of his right-wing Forza Italia party, a junior – and occasionally troublesome – partner in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's coalition government.
"Berlusconi was above all a fighter," Meloni said in a video message posted on Twitter. "He was a man who was not afraid to defend his convictions, and it was precisely that courage and determination which made him one of the most influential men in Italy's history."
As Berlusconi's body was moved from the hospital to Villa San Martino, tributes flowed from in from international leaders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin – whom Berlusconi controversially defended following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine – said his death was an "irreparable loss" and he hailed him as a "true friend."
"For me Silvio was a cherished person and a true friend," Putin said in a telegram to the Italian president released by the Kremlin. "His passing is an irreparable loss and a great sorrow."
The 70-year-old Russian leader said that he admired the Italian's wisdom and ability to make "far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations."
Speaking separately in televised remarks, Putin said Berlusconi had done a lot to develop ties between Russia and European countries and NATO.
The Russian leader said the former prime minister stood out because he said what he thought," Putin said. "This is a big loss not only for Italy but international politics."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban tweeted: "Gone is the great fighter," while Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "Silvio was a great friend of Israel and stood by us at all times."
Loved and hated
Berlusconi led Italy three times between 1994 and 2011, for a total of nine years, wooing voters with a promise of economic success, only to be forced out as a debt crisis gripped his country.
But his influence extended well beyond politics, thanks to his extensive TV, newspaper and sporting interests, while his playboy antics kept him in the headlines even in his final years.
Italian ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi said that Berlusconi had "made history," even if he was controversial.
"Many loved him, many hated him: everyone today must recognise that his impact on political but also economic, sporting and television life was unprecedented," he said.
Elly Schlein, leader of the centre-left opposition Democratic Party, said Berlusconi's death "marks the end of an era."
Berlusconi had been admitted to a Milan hospital on Friday for what aides said were pre-planned tests related to leukaemia.
His admission came just three weeks after he was discharged following a six-week stay at Milan's San Raffaele hospital, during which time doctors revealed he had a rare type of blood cancer.
He is survived by his 33-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, two ex-wives and five children, some of whom help run his empire, recently estimated to be worth around US$7 billion.
Funeral details have not been announced, but Berlusconi built a Pharaoh-inspired marble mausoleum at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, to house his family and friends when they die.
Charismatic, clownish and with a fine grasp of what his audiences wanted, Berlusconi used his media interests to project an image of a strong, self-made man that voters could emulate – a tactic later used by US president Donald Trump.
Berlusconi "ignited and polarised the public debate perhaps like no other", former prime minister Giuseppe Conte said on Facebook. "And even those who faced him as a political opponent must recognise that he never lacked courage, passion, [and] tenacity," he wrote.
The Italian leader's career was dogged dozens of legal cases going back to the 1980s – most of them for bribery or fraud linked to his various business interests.
Almost all the cases resulted either in acquittals under appeal to the Supreme Court or expired under the statute of limitations.
Berlusconi often took aim at the judiciary, portraying himself as the innocent victim of left-wing magistrates with a political agenda.
Bunga bunga and influence on football
Berlusconi began his career as a real-estate magnate before investing in television channels which broke the mould in Italy, featuring shows particularly popular with housewives, later a pillar of his electorate.
His empire also included football – he reigned supreme at AC Milan from 1986 until 2017, during which time the club won 29 trophies, including five Champions League and eight Italian league titles. The club said in a tribute that it was "grieving the passing of the unforgettable Silvio Berlusconi" and "Thank you, Mr President. Always with us."
AC Monza, the club Berlusconi and his long-standing business partner Adriano Galliani bought in 2018 after he sold AC Milan, said the former Italian prime minister's death left an unfillable hole.
"Adriano Galliani and AC Monza mourn the passing of president Silvio Berlusconi," the club said in a statement. "A gap that will never be filled, forever with us. Thank you for everything presidente."
When Berlusconi purchased Monza in 2018, the club was in the third tier of Italian football. Berlusconi vowed to take Monza to Serie A and with the help of Galliani the team based near Milan reached the top flight for the first time in their history last season.
Several other Italian clubs also joined in tributes, including Aurelio De Laurentiis, the president of Italian champions Napoli expressing his "condolences."
"Silvio Berlusconi changed the history of Italian football," said Gabriele Gravina, president of the Italian football federation.
Berlusconi portrayed himself as both messiah and martyr and enjoyed widespread popularity, though detractors accused him of cronyism, corruption and pushing through laws to protect his own interests.
His fans admired his plain speaking, though many Italians were acutely embarrassed by his crude jokes and insults on the international stage, as well as his endless legal cases, which resulted in one conviction for corporate tax fraud.
And while Italy's economy floundered, the self-professed playboy was hosting notorious "bunga bunga" sex parties, which triggered a series of trials that were only wrapped up in recent months.
In 2010, 17-year-old Karima El-Mahroug, known as 'Ruby the Heart Stealer,' claimed to have been paid by Berlusconi for sex. He was later also accused of bribing witnesses to lie about the parties, though he was ultimately acquitted.
Berlusconi was also cleared on appeal of abusing the powers of the prime minister's office with his efforts to avoid theft charges against El-Mahroug. These included pretending she was the niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Long suspected of links to the mafia, Berlusconi was investigated by authorities over such allegations, but never tried. He has repeatedly denied having ties to organised crime.
His long-standing associate Marcello Dell'Utri, however, was jailed in the 2010s for having acted as a go-between for Berlusconi and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia in the 1970s.