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Silvio Berlusconi has been described as the “embodiment of the modern Italian dream.” (Cosentino et al. pg. 226) His disregard and detest for traditional politics, flaunting of western consumerism values and obsession for football allow him to be depicted as a representation of the evolving cultures of modern Italy. His rise from a media tycoon to a powerful politician within the modern day Italian landscape is at first a bewilderment. An analysis however shows how his use of political, cultural and social fractures of Italy’s past allowed him to manipulate and converge these tensions to positively succeed his personal political brand and Italy’s culture landscape as a nation. This essay outlines three key aspects considered instrumental to not only Italian culture but Berlusconi’s’ own success as a politician. The Italian political system, television and football or ‘calcio’. Many have criticised his political views and actions that show conflict of interests “his most ambitious attempt to date has been to combine media control and political power … a media tycoon who not only lurks behind politics, but he is himself in politics” (P. Ginsborg, 2005, pg.10) and his personal image has long been the subject of controversy and scandal. I argue however that his contribution to Italian culture and the resources he has provided for unity and nationalism in the nation are undeniable. His feat in the political and social arenas of Italy have allowed him to come to symbolise aspects of Italian culture that hold great importance in its history and unification as a nation.
The disruptive and tormented political history of Italy is an aspect of Italian culture represented by Silvio Berlusconi. The political and cultural tensions that have emerged as a result of this history and his tactical use of this in his political campaigns show a transition of the shifting ideals and values of Italian society.
Italy has suffered from an immensely unstable governing, experiencing political instability since its beginnings as a nation. As explained by Lauro Martines in Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy “It is hard to summarise chaos, yet the narrative history of Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a story of political wreckage and confused authority.” (1979) Despite being ruled by the Romans and the Papal authority, the empire was more focused on occupying foreign land and widening their power while the popes themselves attempted to overtake more of Europe. As a result, during the renaissance era, governing Italy was neglected. It was therefore initially run as small independent states and cities. These were managed and controlled by noble families of the region that administered power. These were known as ‘signoria’ and included the Gonzaga family in Mantua and the Este family in Ferrara. Though these families contributed significantly to Italian culture, advancing in leaps in architecture and art, political rights and power was colossally reserved for the elite. This ruling system continued to transpire for a remarkable period of time with foreign powers also having stakes through certain regions in between the years like the Spanish Ruling Southern Italy and Independent Duchies and Australia controlling the North. When a demand for nationalism through the ‘Risorgimento’ movement came around in the 19th century, economic and social disparity became prevalent. The Northerns disdain and contempt for the Southerns brewed hatred and showed Italy's obvious detachment as a unified nation. “The south ended up being portrayed as a paradise inhabited by devils where civilizations had to be imposed.” After the unification of Italy, the majority of the population (78%) was still illiterate and the lack of a unified language resulted in the continuation of the elite in power with only 2% of the population eligible to vote. This oppression of power and choice led to scepticism and a loathing of the political system, revealing fractures of unrest for the government. Silvio Berlusconi's rise to power therefore is fascinating. Coming from humble beginnings and succeeding to immense success and wealth, he was able to portray himself as an ordinary man of Italy. Removing himself from the elite class, he used Italy’s historical resentment for the establishment as his edge. “His ignorance of the places and mental schemes of traditional politics, the institutional culture’s disdain for a man who adventures into an unknown world, who knows and uses the secrets of the market culture and who has no respect for the symbols of representative democracy, all contribute to Berlusconi’s success.” (Ginsborg, 2005) This can be seen through the 1994 general election where Berlusconi won presidency after entering the campaign only 2 months before elections after the ‘Mani Pulite’ scandal where the majority of Italy’s politicians were exposed of corruption.
Media in Italy, specifically television has had a significant contribution to Italian culture. Television has been an instrumental tool in helping to reduce the tension of immense social disparity caused by years of an elite political ruling system. Television worked to effectively educate and entertain the Italian public, strengthening unification and culture as a result. Silvio Berlusconi represents this cultural phenomenon well-being responsible for Mediaset, the largest commercial broadcaster in the country that dramatically changed the landscape of television in Italy. Television in Italy first started in the 1950’s run by a government run initiative RAI. Popular shows included “Non e mai troppo tardi” or “It is never too late” which taught the Italian language in an entertaining classroom setting. The content was heavily controlled and censored, created with the purpose to inform, educate and entertain. It did however represent the ideologies of the government at the time which was run by Christian Democrats. As the only authorised network, it had a monopoly and therefore immense influence. In 1976, a landmark decision by the constitutional court eradicated the censorship and opened up the networks to be privatised. Though they were still not allowed to compete on a national scale, the emergence of several new small scale networks changed the landscape of television and the RAI network lost their reign. Silvio Berlusconi started with a local cable network ‘Telemilano’ until the 1990 ‘mammi law’ finally legalised the mixed system. Bersculoni came in with force, establishing Mediaset which ran 3 different networks; Canale 5 in 1978 and soon after Italia 1 and Rete 4. At his strongest reign, Berlusconi's owned Mediaset captured 45% of total viewing in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. He grew this television empire to pass the states network in both advertising revenue and viewers. Berlusconi in his channels, brought about a new wave of media to the Italian public, introducing western values and ideologies not exposed to them on such a dramatic scale ever before. “The model of commercial television that Berlusconi introduced in Italy in the 1980’s offering escapism and promoting individualistic and consumerist values … commercial television majorly contributed to the profound cultural changes that Italian society underwent”. He promoted ideas of consumerism and aspects of western culture not previously focused on in Italian culture such as money, fashion, individualism and sport. This could then be credited for social movements that arose in Italy such as the increase of the nuclear family phenomenon and a declining birth rate from people focusing on careers and personal goals instead. In a larger cultural sense, television was able to break the boundaries of the social hierarchy and work towards a cultural unification in language and national identity. The cultural significance of this was enormous and had aftershocks in social and political aspects when Berlusconi later used this as a key aspect to influencing public opinion of his political policies and campaign success in the future. By controlling what Italians watched every day, he successfully moulded public perception to his own accord. As a result, he embodied the hopes and dreams of what an Italian would want to aspire to be. “His brand thus came to connote success and wealth that could be transferred from his companies to his person and eventually to his voters.”
Soccer or ‘Calcio’ is lastly a paramount aspect of Italian culture represented by Silvio Berlusconi. The developing importance of soccer as a defining feature of everyday Italian life can be strongly connected to Berlusconi and his personal dominance in bringing the sport to the forefront of Italian culture. Calcio itself represents unification and nationalism in Italy, like television being able to break through all social barriers that wealth and localities create. It is the most popular sport in the country and attracts great passion from Italians of all ages. Silvio Berlusconi used this popularity and passion as a strategic aspect of his political campaign when competing for public acceptance and relatability. He formed his network of political ‘clubs’ around the concept of football clubs, using sports terminology in an attempt to make politics more accessible and interactive to the public. Examples include his frequent use of ‘Scendere in campo’ (to enter the field) in reference to Berlusconi entering politics and calling political battles a ‘Partita’ (match) “(so I felt that the match was becoming dangerous, that it was all being played in the penalty areas and that midfield was sadly empty … and we said to one another that we could not leave that vast space free …). His often regular use of references to the national team also show a deliberate attempt to politically manipulate what is arguably the clearest symbol of Italy's national unity and identity. This clever use of calcio vocabulary has allowed Berlusconi and his political allies to avoid any use of what is deemed traditional political terminology and references, which have the potential to trigger social and historical fractures of the now discredited political class. Instead by using football, they have exploited the positive and respectable connotations that surround the most popular Italian sport. An obvious example of Berlusconi's commitment to football and his belief of its cultural and political impact is his ownership of A.C Milan which he acquired in 1986. Under his presidency, A.C Milan was able to win the league four times and is largely considered the most successful Italian team. The success of the team and his association with it was an advantageous relationship for Silvio Berlusconi in building his public image and reputation. By succeeding in the sport most loved by Italians, he was able to show his potential for success in other avenues. “He achieved this by selling himself as a personification of the consumer economy, as the person who had satisfied his own desires, achieved wealth and celebrity, and as Prime Minister could do the same for Italy.” His image as a result came to represent success and wealth that could be attained and passed on from his various businesses to his persona and in due course to his voters. Though his intentions may have been self-serving and for political and personal gain, his contribution to the sport has allowed football to thrive as an instrumental Italian cultural standpoint. It remains a rare unifying feature of Italian nationalism that converges past social and political fractures of the past.
Using the political fractures of Italy’s’ agonizing historic governing system, Berlusconi used this disdain for his own advantage. By using his influence and power in television with the popularity and unifying symbols of football, Silvio Berlusconi strategically sculpted his image around instrumental and key features of Italian culture. Though his intentions may be selfish, his contribution to revolutionising Italian culture and bringing media and sports to the forefront of its identity as a nation is undeniable. Through his media and football involvement and ambitious political feats, Berlusconi represents a converging of political, social and cultural embodiment of Italy and its shifting culture.
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