Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned as Prime Minister on Saturday, is a larger-than-life billionaire with a seductive smile, but his tumultuous love affair with Italians has ended in overwhelming bitterness.

A supremely confident and charming Berlusconi wooed Italy when he burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s. He was seen as a blast of fresh air and energy after a period of political corruption and scandal.

The media tycoon's daring and splashy political debut in 1993 with a new party called Forza Italia (Go Italy) — named after a football chant — was unprecedented, and won him widespread popular support. But while his populist style and championing of the American dream of the self-made man assured him adoration in some quarters, other Italians tired of his sleaze scandals and a series of embarrassing international gaffes.

Driven out of office after his unhappy handling of a fierce financial crisis stripped him of a majority in Parliament, Mr. Berlusconi's latest popularity rating was at an all-time low of just 22 per cent.

Born in Milan in 1936, Mr. Berlusconi was a huge fan of singers Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and spent his school holidays playing the double bass, later taking breaks from studying law at university by performing in Milan's nightclubs.

He did a brief stint as a cruise-ship crooner before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector by making a deal with the head of his father's bank — and skilfully persuading others to invest in him.

The mystery surrounding the sources of funding for Mr. Berlusconi's start in the building business has led critics repeatedly to accuse him of links with organised crime on top of allegations of money-laundering and corruption.

Despite some initial convictions for fraud and lingering accusations of alliances with convicted crooks — including hiring a gangster as his stableman — all cases against him were won on appeal or have expired.

Poor investments

In 1978, Mr. Berlusconi set up Fininvest, a holding company which grew to include several large household names, including Mediaset — with three national television channels — and AC Milan, one of the world's leading football clubs.

But poor investments saw his debts spiral in the early 1990s and critics say that Mr. Berlusconi — fearful a left-wing government would touch his powerful media conglomerate — entered politics not for ambition but to save his empire.

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