Stefan Krempl, Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology


In the spring 1994, Silvio Berlusconi comes to power in Italy. A businessman who turns politician -- an unusual coincidence, even in Southern Europe. Of even more concern is the fact that the new Prime Minister owns Italy‘s three most popular TV stations, the country’s biggest publishing house as well as its biggest advertising agency. His election has been a premiere for the old continent: a well-known entrepreneur with lots of media power -- which is often referred to as the "fourth pillar" in a system of checks and balances -- who gets even more powerful by attaining a state governance position.

In my analysis I will show that Berlusconi’s role playing and self-presentation, both before and during his short time as prime minister (a period that I see much like the stage setting, in which a classical tragedy takes place), are mainly based in myths, fairy tales and legends that are closely related to popular wisdom. The "great communicator" and owner of Italy’s biggest media empire presented himself in roles taken from the "public domain" like "il padrone," "il condottieri," or "il prinicipe." At other times, he made use of figures from economic settings like the restless manager or the born leader. Berlusconi also seems to be firmly rooted in biblical worlds, presenting himself either as "San Francesco," the man who gives away everything to help his people, or as "Little David" who runs against a stalled political system and its Goliaths. Finally, Berlusconi ends like Jesus or Caesar, betrayed by his own colleagues. Using all these roles that are well known to the Average Joe, and not only appealing to intellectuals, Berlusconi laid the foundation for a new phase of symbolic politics.


A critical decision: the drama begins

"I have to enter politics because I’ve lost all my godfathers. I have to become my own godfather."

(Die Woche, issue 31/94. All quotes translated by the author.)

With these telling words, the entrepreneur, Silvio Berlusconi, in mid-1993 faithfully declared his political ambitions to his friend, Indro Montanelli, doyen of Italy’s publishing business. His words were all but obvious. For the first time in modern European history, the chief executive of a big media and publishing empire, who also controlled Italy’s most booming advertising agency, several construction companies and even Milan’s most famous soccer team, wanted to save his assets by turning into a politician. He would do this by attacking democracy at its foundations.

Berlusconi had success on his side. In January 1994, he officially entered the race for the people’s vote and two months later he was able to declare victory and became Prime Minister. Berlusconi -- totally addicted to the old political system -- became a symbol of hope for Italy’s "renaissance," a phenomenon which Paul Virilio compared to the "fall of the Berlin Wall" (Die Zeit, 15.4.1994) because this "celluloid Machiavelli" had totally taken advantage of his TV stations to position himself as a powerful hero and Italy’s savior by utilizing state-of-the-art marketing principles. Most helpful to bring out Fininvest’s -- that’s the name of Berlusconi’s company -- newest "product" (himself as a candidate) was of course his own advertising agency, Publitalia. His stringent use of market research was unknown before in European politics and it’s purpose was to discover everything about Italians’ dreams and fears. His "campaign" was more a promotional mix of advertisement, public relations, and content on Berlusconi’s three stations. And of course, Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, was all new, because it was designed more like a fan club than like a political movement.

A good deal of groundwork for Berlusconi-style politics had already been laid by American political candidates and presidents where the line between politics and show biz had been successfully crossed many times. Modern politicians (especially American, but also in Israel’s recent election campaigns where Mr. Barak’s campaign was orchestrated by James Carville, who helped Bill Clinton get elected) are marketed like soap and told to act like stars - even if they were merely "B" actors like Ronald Reagan. Berlusconi not only added his own flavor to the mix, but also incorporated symbolic politics, media acting, and propaganda in his role playing, thereby creating a trend not seen before in European politics. Supported by his own market researchers, Berlusconi told the people what the wanted to hear, ascribed to himself the images of figures well-known to the public in order to act in, and react to, every possible environment. And he was successful -- at least for a short time. But in the end, Italy, the country that brought us the Mafia and Italian-style fascism, as well as the Italian comedy and opera buffa was in for another surprise. Rise and fall are closely related in the Mediterranean, and the people who voted for Berlusconi in March also sent him back home after he failed to live up to his promises.

Comedy or tragedy? That’s up to one’s subjective point of view. But Berlusconi’s political play may be described best in the form of a classical antique drama. Grotesque from the beginning, his "play" became even more theatrical towards the end. The prime minister who swore to his innocence on the lives of his children at the same time condemned his political adversaries just to keep his power -- threre’s a real farce.

In five acts, Berlusconi’s game was laid out on the political stage. It all began with the end of the old corrupt political system, known as the partitocrazia. Berlusconi -- without protection from the old guys but in possession of enormous media power and spoiled by his lucky fate -- decided to attack from the front. The breakdown of his old world -- the partitocrazia -- and his move forward was followed by the propaganda-driven electoral race that ends with Berlusconi’s victory in the third act. But as the new elected prime minister, he tried to toughen his grip on his power, became a bit incautious, and signed a highly criticized law that would have freed some of his old companions as well as his brother (charged with tax fraud) from prison. Berlusconi launched his new law right in the middle of Italian vacation season, and only after his oracle, his market research firm, Diakron, signaled green light to act immediately, before all the Leftists media outlets not yet "equalized" by Berlusconi, would jump on it. People became furious as they see their old leaders driving away from prison in their big cars.

Once off his winning streak, Berlusconi drew more and more critics. Labor unions demonstrated in the capital and people lost its faith in their leader. A big storm began moving which would actually touch Northern Italy, Berlusconi’s home region, with a terrible rain. The catastrophe was unavoidable when his own fellow, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega Nord and a member of Berlusconi’s government, saw a chance to get rid of the tyrant and withdrew his support. Like Brutes killing Caesar, Bossi jumped off the sinking ship, leaving Berlusconi alone in the cabin. Two days before Christmas, the betrayed captain resigned after a sentimental call-to-arms displayed by one of his stations without results.

After outlining my analytical framework in the following part, I will try to unmask Berlusconi to show the roles that made up his acting, as, well as the backgrounds and roots of those roles. To learn more about the method or to fully enjoy Berlusconi’s drama, please have a look at my thesis (Krempl 1996) about the "phenomenon Berlusconi", published by Peter Lang in German.


The games politicians play

In the 1960s, Murray Edelman described the divide existing in political reality as being that of the layer of presentation as a spectacle for the voter on the one hand, and the layer of performance of specific political means through concrete acts on the other. "For the most of the people most of the time, politics tends to be a head game that manifests itself through the flood of pictures with which newspapers, magazines, TV and political discussions confront them. These pictures create a moving panorama of a world, which is in practice closed for the masses" (Edelman 1976).

Thus, the role of the active participant conceptualized in ideal notions of democracy is pared back by the mass media to the role of the more or less passive spectator. Politics becomes nothing more than "a parade of abstract symbols" for most of us (ibid.). Politicians learned very well in the last few decades how to make use of the media and how to present themselves by creating simple worlds made up of metaphors and myths drawn from popular wisdom. Metaphors and myths help people and their societies to construct reality and bring order to a chaotic world. They presume underlying frameworks of meaning that motivate, constitute and justify different patterns of interpretation (cf. Wesel 1991, 71). Especially, myths not only help to understand the world as we know it, they also sanctify the status quo. Even in our rational, demystified world, people long for the "simple" mythological reality. Or as Kolakowski (1973, 132) puts it: "The search for the myth is most of the time an attempt to find a higher authority that takes care for our lives, that solves the questions for the real thing without any problems, that supplies one with a trustable value set."

That’s why politicians like to make use of mythical worlds in which they find "an ever present mine of explanations for complex phenomena" (Wesel 1991, 71). In these worlds they can act in pre-designed roles, they can be a leader, a savior or a hero, for instance. By assuming these roles they place the people in the role of uncritical supporters and spectators and are able to follow their own interests better than ever. Even if some things should go wrong, politicians can put the blame on dark forces or the Almighty’s destiny by spinning their conspiracy theories.

We will see that Berlusconi is a master in explaining the world with popular myths. But Lévi-Strauss, however, has already pointed out for us that "nothing is more similar to the myths of the societies that we call exotic or oral as the political ideology of our own societies" (1980, 96).


Image and self-presentation

"The masses can only think in images and can only be influenced by images," wrote Gustave Le Bon in 1986, one of the first psychologists concentrating on mass behavior (44). These images in the minds of the people can be best influenced by controlled self-presentation and by using the media to communicate these images. The image of a person is constructed through complex reciprocal communication processes. Self-presentation, therefore, is not simply a one-way flow of images from actor to audience. The image a person has of herself can therefore be quite different from the image the audience receives. The potential for expressing one’s self can be divided between the expression that he wants to deliver and the expression that she "radiates," that is, the image which is perceived by her communication partners (cf. Goffman 1988, 6). The whole set of pictures a person sends out into the world become bundled into a complex, single image in the public mind. "The Image is a self-picture that is described in a set of social appreciated abilities -- a picture that others can adapt to" (Goffman 1986, 10).

As a socio-psychological construct, the image is normally used to control and regulate a person's behavior: people want to orient themselves with the help of images of individuals. An image can therefore be calculatedly used to achieve certain desired effects, an idea well known by marketers and advertising specialists. Marketers have also discovered that a politician’s image can be constructed or re-established in the same way as the image of a pop or movie star becomes changed (for instance, Madonna, Marky Mark or Courtney Love and their image "makeover"). But there are limits in redefining personalities as a public image is correctable from the inside or open to manipulation from the outside only to a certain extent. As we will see later, an actor can change roles pretty often, but sometimes he might get stuck with certain images, even if they are only self-assigned.

For the construction of an image, it is suitable to use symbols, metaphors and myths that are well-rooted in public wisdom. Each is a promising method for appealing to the public easily, and can hide certain unpleasant details that could zoom out of an image more or less automatically, while concentrating on the image's common traits. Within social interactions, a certain image can be best set up by a self-presentation that adapts to the techniques and rules of acting. "We all play theater," Goffman says, and in doing so, we make use of pre-designed roles and action patterns that are highly stereotypical and ritualized. By acting in this way, we don’t have to define our roles and our expressions from scratch all the time. Society can recognize the old playing by the facades and the standardized repertoire of an actor.

In the next part of this paper, I will describe Berlusconi’s rise and fall in the terms of a personal drama by:

  • Analyzing his roles - taken from economic, socio-cultural and historical contexts which also have a mythic relationship;
  • Examining at his self-presentation in the video announcements that he showed before and during his ministry; and
  • Scanning articles from the Italian and German press.

One cannot make a sharp division between the many roles that Berlusconi features. That wouldn’t make too much sense anyway, since his roles are deeply combined and entangled in the public perception. Some roles rely on others, or naturally supplement another one, while other roles of his dissent because they aim at different segments of his audience. Many of Berlusconi’s roles were already inaugurated in the prelude to his ministry while others were drawn into the play right before its bitter end.


Enter the game!

In the spotlight, we see a man from Italy in his best years, spoiled for a long time by success, but now fighting for his power and his destiny. He slips into many roles known from occidental history or from economic or socio-cultural everyday life and Berlusconi seems to be a real artist, with a huge repertoire of characters made manifest in his permanent transformations. Most peculiar about Berlusconi is the fact that he is an all-in-one actor, director, and ring master of the circus. During his play’s time, he lets us take a look behind the curtain, lifting the veil of his self-presentation just a little bit; however, we have to be careful not to miss the speed with which he changes roles along with the persistence with which he tried to act normally after big narrative jumps. And watch out for signs of the arriving catastrophe that are caused by mistakes in the arrangement of his various roles. Be forewarned: this play is not only about power and conspiracy. It also contains elements of betrayal, rebellion, and fall.



Berlusconi’s career during the years of corruption seems like it was taken from a picture book. It’s the fabric that (Hollywood) dreams are made of: he jumpstarts out of Milan’s middle class -- his father is a procurator at a small bank with close relation to the Mafia that funds Berlusconi’s first "adventures" which eventually lead him right to the top of one of Italy’s biggest enterprises and finally to the top of the state. During his days in the school he’s said to be one of the cleverest guys and even starts a kind of "homework agency" and knows how, at an early stage, to turn his knowledge into his first bucks. He finds out early about his talent as an actor too, and starts to put on small, one-man-plays for family and friends. Of course, his spectators have to pay to see him act. His talent for selling himself earns him some extra money later on when, as a law student, he works as a salesman of vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. In the summer months, he works as an animator on cruise ships or does small gigs in the bars of the Adriatic coast. Becoming more and more used to being a starlet, the good looking Silvio also likes to make use of his attractiveness., and buys himself lots of fancy clothes and an evening wardrobe to make an impression. And Berlusconi doesn’t even try to conceal that he is "cultivating his elegant appearance" as Guarino and Ruggeri point out in their (unauthorized) Berlusconi biography (1994, 23).

After finishing his law studies with a price-winning thesis about advertisement, Berlusconi enters the booming construction business. "With a little help from his friends," he soon manages the rise of whole new suburbs and satellite cities for thousands of people. Milano 2, a city for the rich and famous at the periphery of Milan, helps him become famous as a star entrepreneur all over the country. In 1977, the government honors his success: he’s made a "cavaliere del lavoro," a knight of work. At the same time, he is the seventh biggest taxpayer in his city and declares an annual income of 304 million Lire.

Milano 2 also helps Berlusconi get his toes into door of the media business. The new city needs a cable program and subsequently "Telemilano" goes on air in 1973. After the boom in the construction business dwindles in the mid-70s, Berlusconi invests 76 million Lire in his new adventure and sets up a professional studio in the garage of a hotel. Over night, he sets up transmitters for his new program almost over all Northern Italy as a new station is born, with two more to follow soon. The concept is as simple as in private stations all over the world: "Little clothes and lots of bare bone, that’s the stuff that Berlusconi’s profitable programs are made of" (ARD commentary, "Im Spinnennetz," 1994).



Silvio Berlusconi’s Empire in 1994

Fininvest Holding Milan

ca. 300 companies

27,000 employees

Lire 12 billion revenue in 1993


Canale 5, Rete Quattro, Italia 1, Telepiù (pay TV), 16 TV studios, holds parts of several international TV stations, for example in Germany and in Spain.

Publishing Business

Arnoldo Mondadori and Silvio Berlusconi Editore (concluding the magazines Panorama and Epoca as well as the newspaper Il Giornale Nuovo)


Publitalia 80, Italy’s biggest advertising agency, media agency for Finivest’s TV stations

Movie Theatres/Entertainment

Music- and video production companies, Cinema 5, Italy’s biggest movie chain, Theatro Manzoni in Milan


Standa, Supermercato

Assurance Business

Mediolanum and Mediolanum Vita (life assurance), several mutual funds companies

Real Estate

Cantieri Riuniti (construction company), several real estate companies


AC Milan (one of Italy’s most famous soccer clubs, Hockey and Volleyball clubs


In the battle for advertising dollar, every inch counts. "The war that Berlusconi starts with all his people, technical equipment and programs against the public television is a total one" (Guarino/Ruggeri 1994, 99). His strategy succeeds as the people like what they see: In 1984, Berlusconi owns the three, major private networks which reach half of Italy’s TV viewer; by means of which he also has more advertising revenue than the public RAI. Berlusconi now is "Signor TV" (ibid., 146) in the public image. And no one seems to care that his conquest of the media market is closely related to the rise of Bettino Craxi, the socialist who came to power in 1983. Both are big players in the regime of the Partitocrazia and both support each other wherever possible.

Success is the name of the game in Berlusconi’s private life as well. After years of marriage, he falls in love with a theater actress with long blond hair and together they have a love affair otherwise known only to the watchers of the soap operas shown daily on Fininvest’s channels. The Latin lover hides her for months in one of his office buildings until she gives birth to a son. Berlusconi then breaks up his first marriage and moves with his new family to a castle close to Milan, the Villa at Arcore, that he has bought for almost nothing under obscure conditions.


Berlusconi’s role repertoire before the lifting of the curtain

The Successful Entrepreneur

Berlusconi’s rise seems to match the well-known pattern of a glorious success story. Starting as a nobody, he evolves during the prelude to become a respectable land lord who’s constructed whole city regions, owns a wonderful castle, and finally he turns out to be king of a big empire controlling the best-received TV stations and print media, to say nothing of his shopping chain, with 27,000 employees and 30 million TV viewers.

There are dark shadows over his empire, for sure. Fininvest is loosing money, 4 billion lire in 1994. It’s "so heavily covered with debts, that it creaks already" (L’Espresso, 7.1.94). But most Italians don’t want do see this side of the story. In the beginning, Berlusconi carefully hid his debts, and later on his image as a successful guy was pretty strong, putting him above such simple criticism. Many Italians see Berlusconi in context with figures from American capitalism like Rockefeller, Carnegie or Hearst. Being seen alongside such mythical capitalists can cover almost every failure.

Overall, Berlusconi’s success story reads like a fairy tale. Related to this mythic angle is his inestimable wealth. At the end of the Seventies already, Berlusconi starts to refer to himself as "Italy’s richest man," (Guarino/Ruggeri 94, 52), creating a new myth about his fortune.


In the eyes of many Italians, Berlusconi seems to be doomed to success. He has the Midas touch: everything he touches turns to gold, be it suburbs that become ghettos of the rich, or be it TV stations that let the advertising money flow, he is definitely the figure of King Midas of ancient Greek myth.

The Self-Made Man

Berlusconi is not only a very honorable business man, he also claims that he has built his empire with his own hands. He never tires of emphasizing his own accomplishments and describes himself as "an entrepreneur who has achieved a miracle" (Guarino/Ruggeri 94, 30). "Blood, sweat, and tears" are the fabric of his success (ibid.), he is the one Italian who has fulfilled the American dream.

This "self-made man" image is closely related to the Biblical story of David versus Goliath. Berlusconi fought the war against the gigantic power of the state-owned Goliath, RAI and finally persuades the channel to adopt to the entertainment programming of his stations. The media mogul now takes up a biblical image for the first time: "I am just a small guy, who had the courage to fight the colossus of state-owned TV" (L’Espresso, 5.8.1994, 36).

In reality, Berlusconi is supported by a secret plan of a political counter-revolutionary organization, the "P2," funded by obscure sources, mainly from the Mafia, and the secrets of his success are "buried in the treasures of several Swiss banks" (Guarino/Ruggeri 94, 72).

King of the Airwaves

Silvio Berlusconi brings joy and glory in the life of the average Italian by bringing into their homes the kind of entertainment needed for relaxing in the evening. Italians have a special relationship to la tivu that‘s almost comparable to how Americans have integrated The Box into their daily lives. Television functions as a device for entertainment, as a medium for para-social interactions that saves people from the burden of going down to the piazza to socialize and from the commitment to small talk.

So, it’s Berlusconi, il signor TV, who "fosters a cultural revolution with his graceless US-like entertainment program" (Der Tagesspiegel, 4.1.1994). "Sua Emittenza" -- a play of words between "emittente" (broadcaster) and "eminenza" (a highly ranked priest or cardinal).-- the Italians call him in a mix of admiration and mockery.

The Restless Manager

Jetting around between Rome and Milan, Berlusconi is always seen in action. He is a real workaholic, often working until the middle of the night. His close employees stress that "he has no joy in life, if he cannot work" (ibid., 24).


Even a workaholic has to take a break once in a while. During his leisure time, the powerful manager turns into the perfect playboy, the embodiment of the Latin lover. Many women are attracted by his style, wealth and power and his opulent lifestyle is associated, like everywhere on the world, in the public’s mind -- long conditioned by watching "Dallas" or "Dynasty" on Berlusconi’s channels in Italy -- with sexual power. Berlusconi is the ultimate Casanova, adored by thousands of women.

The Picture-Book Spouse and Caring Father

In front of a civil and Catholic audience, Berlusconi is able to quickly switch from Casanova to good family man. He tries to hide his affairs for a long time and breaks up his first marriage only after the birth of a son by his new flame. The new Ms. Berlusconi also adds to his image as a loving family man. She takes care of the house and the children, even grows her own vegetables! Part of her role is as well to add a different voice to her sometimes intransigent spouse ("the beauty and the beast"): it’s her duty to send public letters to Fininvest after programs which are too libertarian, and to watch the morals of the country.


Berlusconi’s children have a firm place in his self-presentation too. He likes to show them off in public, accompanying them to soccer games or playing with them at the computer. After his wife gives birth to two more children, he takes care not to present himself with the children from his first marriage any longer. It’s a strategy to display his sexual power -- Berlusconi is 58 years old when he enters the political stage -- and to hide his real age.

Il Padrone

Many Italians admire Berlusconi because he gave them private TV and because "he did it his way." Every child knows Berlusconi, much like every child knows the pope. He is celebrated as the big godfather and n some bars you can even find pictures on the wall with the face of Berlusconi, an honor normally only granted to the president of state.


Before the play had even started Berlusconi already had a huge repertoire of roles to make use of. He had played together with many mythical elements, his image was so widely embellished in the public perception that it helped Berlusconi to hide several consequences of his mistakes.



The first act: the breakdown of the old regime and Berlusconi’s new start

On the 17 February 1992, Mario Chiesa, an executive of a Milan senior foundation, is caught as he accepts 7 million lire "tangente" (dirty money). Nothing unusual in these times, but nonetheless manages to cause an Italian revolution. Left to his own devices by the Socialist Party, he gives the state attorney in charge of the case, Antonio Di Pietro, deep insights into the corrupt system. The Milan attorney founds the research committee "Mani Pulite" (clean hands) which brings down the Partocrazia piece by piece, head by head. Every day, new scandals make the headlines and the entire old political crew is either sent to prison or to forced retirement -- something no one thought possible anymore after decades of corruption. La festa è finita.

Soon after, some decent civilians, fearing for their own interests, started thinking where this all might lead to eventually. Many people saw that their usual way of handling everyday problems was bound to change if nothing would stop the attorney group that seemed to be running out of control. The "desire for a healer" (Der Spiegel, 14/1994, 147) was growing.

At that time Berlusconi feared for his empire as well. He decided to take the only chance to save the "artwork" that Fininvest had become by storming forward. And he decided to become a politician by now. It was a desperate step, but it was all too easy to recognize his real motivations. Critics also stressed his conflicts of interest between private media power and state power from the beginning. However, Berlusconi had no choice but to create a new product, the "Forza Italia," and to establish himself as the leader of the new movement by making use of his advertising and media power. Actually, he didn’t have to change much in his self-presentation, only the political drive had to be "incorporated."

The start of his new project is kept in the dark. In the middle of 1993, Diakron, Fininvest’s market research arm, asked the people for their hopes and fears, considering Le Bon's claim that "to spy on the opinions of the masses" should be the main task for politicians (1986, 109). The results were clear from the beginning: Diakron found out that Italians don’t like politics, that they don’t want to pay taxes, and that they have a longing for a strong man, for sure, but at the top of a weak state. The market niche was found. "The leftists talk, we listen," is how Berlusconi’s later speaker, Angelo Codignoni, describes the path to success (cf. Der Spiegel 14/1994, 147).

In November 1993, Forza Italia, the first virtual party totally designed by market researchers and tested with focus groups all over the country, is launched. More like a soccer movement with different clubs than a political organization, and with a hymn written by its leader. A song, which functions as a deep, binding element for all the fans: "Let us move forward together. The future is open -- let us go ahead." There is nothing especially political in this movement, it all looks merely entertaining, like a soccer game or a sit-com.

However, Berlusconi can talk the language of politics as well when necessary. In his well-prepared video statement to the public, set in his office with pictures of his young children on the desk, he brings out old concepts of a left party that would ruin the state. He also makes reference to the old Italian myth, that the left could never run the country. The Forza-Italia lead "Pole of Freedom" -- that’s the name Berlusconi chose for his alliance with the Lega Nord and the Alleanza Nationale, two far right parties -- in his vision is the only way to defend the liberty of the Italians. Berlusconi thereby opens up the "fight between the Pole of Freedom and the cartel of leftists" and declares a "holy war" on the left (L’Espresso, 7.1.1994).


New projects -- new roles

Berlusconi’s move into politics is accompanied by some selective changes in his repertoire. He mainly sticks to his old role set, but also puts new accents on some of his famous roles or creates new ones.


Berlusconi’s departure to the New World of politics is associated with Greek mythology. "Berlusconi is Ulysses," says Alessandro Meluzzi, a psychologist and a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. "He’s the hero who wants to discover everything in the world, the big sailor and he’s always challenging the unknown. As soon as he lands in a new situation, he wants to move on to new frontiers." In this mix of ancient Greek mythology and American wild-west culture, Berlusconi is portrayed as an adventurous guy who enters the political arena to follow his need to discover new realms.

The Upstart

Everybody who wants to be successful in the "new" Italy of the mid-90s must not be associated with the old system. That’s a tricky game for Berlusconi who is more or less "the best example for an entrepreneur" who up with the old regime (Braun 1994, 164). Thus, Berlusconi always has to claim the opposite. "From a political perspective, there is nobody in Italy who is fresher than me," he tells Der Spiegel (32/1994, 18). Berlusconi doesn’t get tired in stresssing that it wasn’t the network of good old friends that brought him to power. In L’Espresso he claims: "Only with heaven’s help I could build up my empire to fight the old parties’ dominance" (11.3.1994, 45).

However, Berlusconi’s "new" only in one perspective: with his smiling face and without the thick glasses typical for the old political guard he at least looks different on the TV screen. To many Italians the new face indeed must have appeared as a relief after having seen the old faces for all these years.

The Tribune

Berlusconi is an amateur in politics, but that makes him much more charming. He presents himself as the tribune -- a role all too well-known to the people in Rome. He is the people’s advocate who cares for Italians’ interests. Credits for his brilliant start in this role are due to his market researchers who try to find out the will of the nation whenever possible. Thus, Berlusconi is able to tell the audience exactly what they want to hear, at least in the beginning of the drama.

The Guerrilla

Berlusconi fights a war for his country that is endangered by powerful leftists and the old guard. "He prefers to see himself in the role of a guerrilla," says his wife (cf. L’Espresso, 5.8.1994, 36). He plays this role, because he has to fight the "battle for civilians’ rights and for liberty" (quoted in L’Espresso, 7.1.1994, 35). Berlusconi has deep fears that in case of the victory of the left -- he prefers to refer to "the communists" -- Italy and its economy would be lost. In this case he fears that "many entrepreneurs would flee the country" (cf. L’Espresso, 11.3.1994). Only Berlusconi, the proven warrior of the free market in the Italian TV republic, can save the country from this misery.

The Winner

"In the eyes of the people Berlusconi is a winner," says Vittorio Sgarbi, a show moderator in one of Fininvest’s stations in an interview with L’Espresso (10.12.1993, 57). Before the vote even starts, the image of Berlusconi as a winner is pushe to the climax. How could someone who has been Fortuna’s friend for all the years loose? "I have always proven that I was right. I have always won," is the essence of Berlusconi’s self-promotion as he enters the race for power (quoted in: Der Spiegel 19/1994, 158).



The second act: the electoral contest

The real contest starts with a dramatic highlight in Berlusconi’s presentation. On 26 January 1994, the so-called "Berlusconi-Day," the tribune finally tells his people that he is ready to run for the prime ministry. Starting this day his official campaign goes on air with a gunfire of spots, PR events, and speeches. One subject governs Italy over the next months: Silvio Berlusconi. Friends and adversaries are talking about nothing else than Berlusconi’s big promises.


The climax of Berlusconi’s self-presentation

Electoral contests in general are times of politicians’ careful self-presentation and times of image profiling. Of course, Berlusconi adds lots of new roles to his repertoire during the decisive weeks before the Election Day. Overall, his repertoire gets more "political". As Schwartzenberg (1980) in his description of the merging of politics and show biz from the 1970s has shown, politicians as actors use to play one of four stereotyped roles. Berlusconi plays them all-in-one. He even adds more roles as everybody might guess at this time.

The Hero

The politician as a hero is always right, as Schwartzenberg shows. That’s what Berlusconi claims, too. The hero is presumptuous. Berlusconi too. "Always an political aesthete, the hero likes big gestures" (Schwartzenberg, 27). That is something natural for Berlusconi. "Driven by pride, he doesn't doubt a second that he's a man of genius, he never questions his lucky star, and he's always ready to post his personal image on any altar""(ibid., 30). That's what "tele-altars" are particularly good for. And "since the hero gains his reputation through the 'deed,' he is condemned to be successful" (ibid., 49), which is exactly what Berlusconi, the man of success, built on from the beginning. Of course, a bit of mysticism belongs to the hero as well; he has to be surrounded by a certain distance, which, however, does not rule out occasional affability (cf.ibid., 26). Thus, even the cult figure Berlusconi, who is surrounded by the riddles of his own advancement, sometimes gladly descends from his Olympic villa at Arcore to his people.

Mr. Average

"Everybody can fully identify with this man who rose from the common people and worked his way up - with this self-made man who wins his followers through his identity," and who increases "the audience's feeling of safety ... as a blacksmith of clichés and commonplaces." (ibid., 51f.) These lines seem to be custom-tailored for Berlusconi. Moreover, Mr. Average embodies "the revenge of the 'little guy' against the 'big guy,'" much as Berlusconi personifies the retaliation of the newcomers against the Establishment. Finally, Mr. Average is characterized by "direct and concrete language" and "is the loveable product of traditional values" (ibid., 56/64).

The Charmer

Berlusconi sees politics as "the art of seduction or as a professional play." That is typical for the charmer in politics, as Schwartzenberg saw him (ibid., 69). His image is fed "by the charm of youth" and is adapted to the myths of his era -- speed, action, and success --, "the implicit ideology which is controlled by the media and advertising." Most importantly, the charmer is "mobile, active, and dynamic, he’s always on the run." He even "embodies a politics of action," he’s "a bulldozer of overbearing energy." The charmer also thinks that "you can sell the audience almost everything, if you have only studied the opinion of the public." On the one hand the charmer functions as the medium of peoples’ projections, dreams, and longings. On the other he’s totally down to earth giving people a chance for identifying. "Some call this demagogy, the art to imitate the simplicity of ordinary people to propel one’s own popularity" (Schwartzenberg 70-81). And Berlusconi according to L’Espresso even is a leader "in the subject of Applied Demagogy" (14.1.1994, 38).

Our Father

Berlusconi masters the last role assigned to the political star by Schwartzenberg too. "It’s my strength to know how to build trust," he tells L’Espresso (11.3.1994, 40). This fits with the image of a good father who is always giving people a "feeling of safety". The paternal leader is a "man who has seen the world," a man who has the "knowledge, the competence, and the ability to master the toughest situations" (Schwartzenberg 90f). These are important parts of Berlusconi’s self-promotion as well. He likes to stress that his experience as an executive will help him to manage the crisis of the state: "We know how to keep the economy running. There is no one who could make this assurance with more credibility than" himself (L’Espresso, 11.3.1994, 45). "It’s me, or the chaos".


The Messiah

Berlusconi doesn’t try to conceal his message: He is chosen to save Italy -- his beloved country -- from the fall into misery. He is the only man capable of working on "a new Italian miracle" he tells the TV viewers in his video statement on "Berlusconi Day" and everybody can read this message from billboards all over the country. Thus, Berlusconi becomes a "thin figure of hope welcomed by heart from many people. Everybody knew how the system functioned, but Berlusconi gives the impression of a new start without any efforts" (Wochenpost 13/1994). With much care, Berlusconi, the wizard, has built a shining and virtual reality, a kingdom of hope for the stressed Italians.

The Great Communicator

For quite a long time politicians knew that the TV as a communication medium has changed electoral contests, and politics as such, forever. Ronald Reagan, the gifted actor and great communicator, has shown this with all his talent. Politicians know that the people in the living rooms make the vote -- people who use their eyes more than all other senses; people who care more for a well-fitting tie and a well-exercised mimicry than for words. They know that some symbolic gestures on the screen are important to be recognized as strong or charming. That’s the essence of "great communications" which helps to connect the world and the living rooms by taking advantage of the TV. Berlusconi has propelled this strategy a lot: When politicians before him were still dependent on "gatewatchers" in the media to deliver their message, the king of the airwaves simply talked directly to the couches.


San Francesco

To hide his conflicts of interest between political and economic power, Berlusconi puts his old friend, Fede Confalonieri, in charge of Fininvest and officially resigns as an executive. "Naked" and freed from his day-to-day duties he is able to put all his energies into the battle for his country. A wonderful reminiscence to the legend of Franceso d’Assisi: the holy man from the 12th century abandoned all splendor and wealth, and gave back everything including his clothes to his father. He chose to live in the woods fighting the indecency of the church and the wealthy. After founding his own order he worked miracles all over the region. Thus, he could be seen as one of Berlusconi’s direct forefathers. However, Forza Italia’s members are mainly upstarts with big fortunes. And Berlusconi either cannot commit himself fully to the life of a friar and to abandon all his assets.

Il Condottiere

Berlusconi’s contest looks more like a war campaign against Italy’s worst enemies than like a subject-oriented confrontation with a political adversary. His argumentation is bound to the ritualized denomination of the left and the praise singing of his own party and person on the contrary. This simple scheme is spread to the public with the help of all his knights. Thus, "Marshall Forza" (Der Spiegel 15/1994, 45) turns back the clock towards the time of the famous condottieri, when mighty war man were seen as the personification of the nation’s fortune.



The third act: victory

At the end of March 1994, the Italians give their vote for Berlusconi. Everything goes as planned. Out of the blue, Forza Italia becomes the strongest party in the vote for parliament with 21 percent. Together with its allies -- 13,5 percent voted for the Alleanza Nationale, 8,4 percent for the Lega Nord --, the Right had enough of a majority to govern the country. But the victory was no easy going. Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega Nord, joint in to the government only very reluctantly. He even described Berlusconi as a "danger for democracy" and a "rib of the old regime" (cf. La Repubblica, 5.4.1994). An "exciting test on democracy" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) had begun. Let’s have a look at how Berlusconi slips into his new role as a leader of the government.

The New Leader

"I can feel the beginning of a new segment in my life. What’s been before lies way behind already," says Berlusconi after winning the race for the people’s vote (cf. Die Zeit, 15.4.1994). For sure, he is an amateur in politics. Thus, "I’m still learning," is his standard reply when asked for his next steps (cf. L’Espresso, 22.7.1994). That gives Berlusconi more room to move than normally granted to leading politicians.

Il Principe

Berlusconi knows how to make use of his position. One of his favorite books is Machiavelli’s "Principe", written 500 years ago. There one can read, that "people tend to base their judgements more on things they can see with their eyes than on things they can touch ... Everybody sees, what you seem to be, but only few guess, what you are" (1978, 74). That’s exactly the essence of Berlusconi’s self-presentation. And once in power, Berlusconi unites his own interests with the interests of the state in the way of an absolute monarch: One of his first decrees pushes the heads of the public TV station, RAI to resign. Thus, L’Espresso puts a "photoshopped" picture on one of its covers showing Berlusconi in the robe of Ludwig XIV under the headline "The state, that’s him" (13.5.1995).

The Despot

Berlusconi tries to hide the role of the all-mighty sovereign by stressing his liberal and democratic attitude. But critics can easily understand that the concentration of power that Berlusconi stands for is contrary to all conceptions of democracy. The Italian law professor, Norberto Bobbio, often referred to as the "nation’s conscience" (cf. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10.12.1994), sees a precedence in the phenomenon Berlusconi. He has never seen in any country such a "merging of political, economic, and cultural power" as in Berlusconi’s case. To Bobbio this concentration of power smells like something well-known since the days of Montesquieu: "despotism."



The fourth act: the fight for power

In August, Berlusconi has reached the zenith of his power. It seems that nothing is going to stop him. But in a drama the zenith also is the turning point, the beginning of the end. Berlusconi’s political adventure is no exception to the rule. In the summer, things get heavy for the prime minister: the "Mani Pulite" group adds Berlusconi’s Fininvest to its suspects list, and Berlusconi’s brother Paolo is accused of having paid at least some $150.000 bribes. Even worse, Berlusconi has to take back a much-criticized law that would have freed most members of the old regime from prison. And Umberto Bossi attacks his "ally" again, telling everybody who wants to listen that the country is "close to ruin" (cf. Berliner Morgenpost, 13.8.1994). Thus, it’s no wonder that Berlusconi changes roles once again, now playing the victim of a conspiracy made up against him by the domestic and foreign press.

The Innocent

Although his brother and other Fininvest executives are charged with corruption Silvio Berlusconi knows from nothing. "No one paid any bribes," is his stereotypical answer to all questions concerning his commitment to the old system (cf. L’Espresso, 26.8.1994). Even when his brother, Paolo, admits paying bribes in order to turn the focus of attention away from the prime minister, Berlusoni claims that they were "ridiculous and small" (cf. Berliner Morgenpost, 13.8.1994). Berlusconi’s argumentation is based on a circle: "I didn’t put any blame on me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have entered politics. If I wouldn’t have this assurance, I would be a fool" (cf. Der Spiegel 32/1994, 116).

The Martyr

Berlusconi who has entered the stage of politics according to his self-presentation only to save the virtues of his country feels hindered in his fight for Italy’s new glory since his inauguration. There is the RAI that condemns his work; there is the press that doesn’t leave out any opportunity to criticize; and there are the represents of justice who want to confront him with old stories. Thus, he naturally sees himself as the victim "of a forceful discreditation campaign" (cf. L’Espresso, 17.6.1994, 41). All this stress came only after he chose to end Italy’s misery. Life could be so beautiful instead: "I own 11 houses spread all over the country, and an extraordinary environmental park," he tells the Washington Post, far away from his people. "But now I am obliged to live a life that -- frankly -- doesn’t please me." Of course, the Italian press spreads the message to its readers too (cf. ibid., 43).

Once told about Berlusconi’s misery, the Italian public learns more about its leader’s conspiracy theories: "We are kept from governing. There are people rallying against us" (cf. Berliner Morgenpost, 13.8.1994). A picture assembly in Panorama, Fininvest's newsmagazine, represents Berlusconi's feelings: The graphic designer copied his head on a picture showing San Sebastian during his martyrdom.




The fifth act: betrayal, ruin, and fall

Heaven and earth seem to have united in their conspiracy against Berlusconi: the labor unions that march to Rome; Umberto Bossi, the "ally" who turns into a traitor by not supporting the planned budget; and the sky that punishes Northern Italy with a flood. Berlusconi’s final days are nothing more than "Berluschaos" (L’Espresso, 25.11.1994, 40). The man who always had his head up high suddenly looses all his dignity turning the drama into a melodramatic farce. In a TV statement he turns to his voters and asks: "Don’t you think that I feel pain watching my children crying over the stuff that is written about me?"

But the Italians don’t feel any misery. They even punish Berlusconi during communal votes. Only 8,4 percent vote for Forza Italia. "The miracle didn’t work, and now the voters rally against their fallen Messiah" (Wochenpost 48/199).

Another strike follows: The "Mani Pulite" go after Berlusconi himself charging him with paying bribes. Right before Christmas, Berlusconi has his last try. Again, he makes a statement on TV calling his people to a "march for liberty." But people only keep on marching to the shopping malls ignoring Berlusconi’s fate. Three days before the holidays, Berlusconi leaves the stage when faced with impeachment. In his last words he puts the blame on Bossi whom he calls the "embodiment of a political destroyer" ruining the image of the country.


Berlusconi does want to avoid stepping down from his prime ministry by all means. Otherwise he threatens "to become a Massaniello" (cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 22.12.1994). In his threat he refers to a popular Italian hero who lead the rebellion against the Spanish king in Naples in 1647. For many Italians, the figure Massaniello still is associated with the fight for their country and with the fight for liberty.


Like Caesar, Berlusconi is "killed" by his former friend and ally. Umberto Bossi is Brutes who can’t stand his idol’s veni-vidi-vice style of success thinking that there is too much power concentrated in the hand of the emperor. Only this time the stab of dagger is the dooming impeachment.

The Crucified

Berlusconi ends the play with his self-presentation as Jesus being betrayed by his disciple Judas (played by Bossi). In this sense, Berlusconi calls Bossi several times a traitor when he recognizes that Bossi wants to give him the evil kiss. However, the changing of political fronts is a given in a democracy and has been played out in many countries. Bossi’s reluctance to subordinate the Lega Nord under Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was well known from the beginning of the game. Nevertheless, Berlusconi uses the biblical image in order to sanctify himself in the end.

The Clown

It’s hard to cut through Berlusconi’s multiple role-playing in the end. There are so many connotations to religious or mythical realms making it hard not to mix them in one’s own perception. However, the more Berlusconi pathetically stresses his "serious" roles at the end the more the audience feels the melodramatic vibes. Thus, the TV viewers in the end don’t really know if they should cry or laugh out loud. Berlusconi involuntary turns the "tragic" showdown into a "comica finale" (L’Espresso, 30.12.1994). At the end, he’s nothing more than a clown, very much disalienated from Italians’ everyday life.


The deserted stage gives way to new actors all over the world

The gifted actor Berlusconi showed up at the right time at the right place. Entertaining the TV viewers very well for quite a long time he pushed forward the notion of politics as a symbolic show produced for, and transmitted by, the media. Berlusconi gave the audience many points of identification by playing famous roles with biblical, religious, economic and mythical backgrounds, often merging all connotations to an indistinct mix. Even when he didn’t play out all his roles to their full extent people substituted the missing pieces out of public wisdom, in which almost all of Berlusconi’s roles are firmly rooted. This kind of play with connotations and associations is a common feature in advertising as well. It is used to entertain the viewers and to give them the impression that they "get" the story with the help of their own "creative" thinking. Again, this can be seen as a part of the strong bind between symbolic politics and advertising that Berlusconi’s promotional mix established. There doesn’t seem to be a need for propelling real political issues, as long as the show is entertaining enough, and the viewers aren’t threatened in their everyday life.



Berlusconi’s Role Repertoire

Economic and Cultural Myths


The Successful Entrepreneur

The Self-Made Man

The Restless Manager

Il Padrone

The Upstart

The Winner

The Clown

The Picture-Book Spouse and Caring Father

The Innocent

Historical Myths





The Tribune

Il Condottiere

Il Principe



Biblical and Religious Figures


The Little David

The Messiah

San Francesco

The Martyr

The Crucified

Political Figures


The Guerrilla

The Hero

Mr. Average

The Charmer

Our Father

The Great Communicator

The New Leader

The Despot

Unspecified Roles


King of the Airwaves


However, Berlusconi didn’t deliver the happy end many viewers waited for. Thus, he also showed the limits of media-driven self-presentation for making politics. There is no evidence found in the analysis of Berlusconi’s drama that "mediacracy" has overcome democracy as such. But the analysis has shown that Berlusconi’s metamorphosis as an actor also propelled the metamorphosis of politics a bit further in the same direction as Ronald Reagan’s or Ross Perot’s presentations did before. Also, there are many followers in politics that have watched the Italian play carefully and drawn their lessons from the case. Take Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Boris Jelzin or Gerhard Schröder -- they all know how to act and to present themselves in "suitable" roles in given contexts. The entertainer Berlusconi has shown how to keep the audience in a good mood -- at least for a certain time frame. Thus, it might be thought-provoking that the former German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, sees his country, as well as many others, well underway towards "Berlusconi-ization," which is the "step-by-step transformation of the realms of politics into the big theme of entertainment" (cf. Die Zeit, 2.12.1994).




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