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Marina Berlusconi: the discreet Italian heiress running her family empire

Every Monday for the past 30 years, Marina Berlusconi and her brother Pier Silvio discussed business and politics over supper with their father and his closest entourage at his residence outside Milan.

This week, there was no such dinner at Villa San Martino, an 18th-century estate. Instead, Marina, the eldest of Silvio Berlusconi’s five children, was woken at dawn by a call from her father’s latest companion, Marta Fascina, who told her the three-time prime minister and media tycoon was in his final hours and she should rush to the hospital, according to people close to the daughter. He was pronounced dead later that morning.

Marina, 56, who has been chairing the €4bn family holding company Fininvest for over two decades, has struck an unlikely alliance with his father’s 33-year-old partner, who is a lawmaker in his party, Forza Italia, and had been together with the octogenarian since 2020.

The two women, who on Wednesday held hands and were visibly distraught during Berlusconi’s state funeral, were both regulars at the Monday dinners, which also included former cabinet secretary Gianni Letta and childhood friend Fedele Confalonieri, who chairs the family’s media group, Mediaset, which is run by chief executive Pier Silvio.

A motherly figure, Marina was once described by Berlusconi as the woman who had taken the place of his beloved mother Rosa after her passing in 2008. Her name has been floated again since his death as an obvious political successor, but aides and confidants say her recent involvement in behind-the-scenes political discussions was only prompted by her desire to “protect” her ill father. After a bout in hospital in April, Berlusconi’s doctor said he had been battling with leukaemia for some time.

The former prime minister, according to one person close to the family, often asked Marina to run for parliament so as to eventually succeed him at the helm of the party. “But she would repeat that the leadership of a political party is not something you can inherit like a company,” said the person.

Marina’s “close and affectionate relationship” with Fascina, according to a close confidante, was also motivated by her desire to insulate the elderly tycoon from “political vultures”. Fascina “was absolutely devoted to Silvio”, the confidante said. “Marina trusted her more than her father’s political allies,” said Lorenzo Castellani, a professor at Luiss University.

A former public relations manager at football club AC Milan, which Berlusconi owned until 2017, Fascina rose through the party’s ranks and overhauled its upper echelons with Marina’s support.

In one example of the daughter and girlfriend’s co-ordinated efforts, they succeeded in limiting the access to Villa San Martino of Berlusconi’s closest political aide Licia Ronzulli, analysts say.

Ronzulli, a former member of the European parliament and a Forza Italia lawmaker, was for years the most influential party member alongside foreign minister Antonio Tajani.

But after several political mishaps that led to public tensions between Berlusconi and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the early days of her government, Marina and Fascina advised the elderly tycoon to oust Ronzulli from his inner circle.

Marina took it into her own hands to mend ties with Meloni, with whom she has since built a close working relationship, according to people close to both women.

She is expected to use this new connection to secure her family’s grip on the media empire, which extends beyond television to publishing and production and has struggled amid structural changes to the industry and increased competition from streaming platforms. A 2016 takeover by French competitor Vivendi, which the Berlusconi family dubbed “hostile”, highlighted those struggles, though it has since been reversed.

With potential new takeover bids in the wings, Marina was expected to play a decisive role in approving or blocking such attempts, said Castellani.

Marina is married to former ballet dancer Maurizio Vanadia and has two children, one named after her father. She and her four siblings each own between 7 and 8 per cent stakes in Fininvest. The holding company also controls publisher Mondadori and lender Banca Mediolanum.

Berlusconi had guaranteed Forza Italia’s debt and is now owed €90mn from the party, according to its treasurer Alfredo Messina meaning that the party could face bankruptcy if the heirs, all longtime donors, were to claw back that money. “Forza Italia’s financial health is hinged on Marina and her siblings,” said Castellani.

Born from Berlusconi’s first marriage to Carla Elvira Dall’Oglio, whom he met at a Milan tram stop, Marina and Pier Silvio are set to inherit half of Berlusconi’s 60 per cent stake in Fininvest. The children from his second marriage to actress Veronica Lario — Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi — would end up with equal stakes of the remaining 30 per cent.

Such an allocation would give Marina and Pier Silvio greater control over the family’s business, which they have run for years. In a statement Fininvest said there would be absolute “continuity” following its founder’s death.

One of the people close to the holding company said the late former prime minister trod carefully to prevent family feuds over money after his death.

“He was shocked by the Agnelli family’s infighting and wanted to avoid it at all costs,” said the person, in reference to the ongoing legal battle between the heirs to the fortune of automaker Fiat.

Berlusconi’s estate includes worldwide properties, yachts, Monza football team and other assets worth an additional €2bn, which will also be divided between his children and — if she is included in the will — Fascina, to whom he was not legally married.

“Marta has overseen everything including on the political front,” said one other person close to Fininvest. “Marina is very appreciative of what she’s done for her father,” the person added.

Fascina assisted the former prime minister through all the hospital stints, including the final one. “She went into the hospital with Silvio and only came out with him,” said the confidante.

In May, when Berlusconi was wheeled out of the hospital through a backdoor, Fascina was seen in a video nudging security to shield her feeble partner from the paparazzi hidden on a tree top.

Long gone are the days when Berlusconi, then a serving prime minister, made headlines across the world for his so-called bunga bunga parties. This year a court cleared him of any wrongdoing in the case involving underage women, which to the family was an enormous relief. After the decision Marina said the “accusations were infamous and baseless”.

The bigger concern now is to secure lasting peace within Berlusconi’s extended family, his business empire and his creaking political party.

“Everyone realises it’s ultimately up to Marina, the Berlusconi family matriarch,” the confidante said.

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