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Supporters watch scandal-ridden former Italian PM Berlusconi’s controversial state funeral

By Rob Picheta, Antonia Mortensen and Sharon Braithwaite, CNN

(CNN) — Mourners gathered in Milan on Wednesday for the state funeral of Silvio Berlusconi, the divisive and domineering former premier who remained omnipresent in Italian public life for decades until his death this week.

Berlusconi’s coffin left Villa San Martino in Arcore, outside Milan, and was transported through the city center to Milan’s gothic Duomo cathedral for Wednesday’s service. When it left the cathedral afterwards, crowds sang the Italian national anthem.

A day of mourning has also been declared for the ex-premier, but some have contested the frills of the send-off for a colorful figure who was briefly banned from politics following a 2012 tax fraud conviction.

The former leader’s body is expected to be cremated at the Valenziano Panta Rei Crematorium Temple in the province of Alessandria, Piedmont, according to CNN’s affiliate SkyTG24.

Berlusconi, who had a lengthy, scandal-ridden career, died at a Milan hospital on Monday aged 86.

The opulent occasion of his funeral drew crowds from across Italy, including Berlusconi supporters – some of whom waved flags bearing the name of his Forza Italia party – and fans of the AC Milan football team that he owned.

Huge television screens were erected outside the cathedral to show proceedings.

Inside the church, about 2,000 mourners gathered, including Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, and EU Commissioner and Paolo Gentiloni.

In his homily, Archbishop Monsignor Mario Delpini described Berlusconi’s “desire for life.”

“Silvio Berlusconi has certainly been a politician, he has certainly been a businessman, he has certainly been a figure in the limelight of notoriety. But at this time of farewell and prayer, what can we say about Silvio Berlusconi? He was a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy,” the Archbishop said in the homily delivered inside Milan’s cathedral.

“This is what I can say about Silvio Berlusconi. He is a man and now he meets God,” he added, triggering a spontaneous applause from the mourners present.

Other intrigued onlookers also watched from outside. “It’s a historical event for Italy… I think it’s going to be difficult for Italy to adjust to his death,” said Jessica Lana, who joined crowds outside the Duomo di Milano on Wednesday. But Lana opposed the award of a state funeral to Berlusconi, citing the many trials against him.

Art historian and rector of the University for Foreigners of Siena, Tomaso Montanari, wrote on Tuesday that unlike on state buildings, flags would not be flown at half-staff at his university.

On his Facebook page, Monatanari said that as rector, he never thought he would have to take a position on Berlusconi’s death. “He said he was “forced to do so” by Meloni’s decision to afford Berlusconi a period of mourning.

Berlusconi had a recent history of health issues, and was recently diagnosed with leukemia, Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital said. He had been admitted to the hospital previously with breathing problems, and attended a check-up there on Friday, days before his death.

He also left behind a sprawling business empire, and it is unclear how his wealth, built through the ownership of some of Italy’s most recognizable companies, including AC Milan, will be split between his five children.

All hold significant stakes, but it is his oldest child Marina, 56, who has chaired the company since 2005, and who is reportedly the most likely to take control of her father’s business empire.

The Bloomberg Billionaires Index put Berlusconi’s net worth at $7.6 billion as of Monday.

Widely regarded as Italy’s most colorful public figure, Berlusconi was elected prime minister three times and served for a total of nine years, longer than anyone since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

He remained a central figure in Italian public life until his death, having led his Forza Italia party, which he revived in 2013, to victory in a right-wing coalition with Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini in September 2022.

Italy’s first female prime minister, the far-right Meloni, said Monday that her longtime ally was “above all a fighter.”

“He was a man who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs. And it was exactly that courage and that determination that made him one of the most influential men in the history of Italy,” she said.

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