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Giovanni Agnelli

Giovanni Gianni Agnelli was born on March 12, 1921 in Villar Perosa (not far from Turin), a village that had been the home of the Agnelli family for centuries. He was born to the marriage of the industrialist Edoardo Agnelli and princess Virginia Bourbon del Monte, daughter of the prince of San Faustino, Carlo del Monte. Gianni was his nickname, while his real name was Giovanni after his grandfather, the founder of FIAT.

Giovanni obtained his education in Pinerolo. He fought at the Russian, and afterwards at the North African front, where he was injured by a German soldier in a fight over a woman. Giovanni, son of a princess, married a princess himself in 1953 – Marella Caracciolo, with whom he had a son. His life fully blossomed in 1966, when he inherited the family business and took over the management of the company we all know as Fiat. He led the company through the crisis-ridden years until it became a corporation, at one moment being worth a twentieth of the entire Italian economy.

Giovanni did not begin to work until he was 46 years old; he did inherit a lot, but he also contributed a lot to the company. He was responsible for the development of Fiat at the end of the 1960s by putting the whole country of Italy on four wheels, thus adding a national dimension to the company. He bridged the worst crisis during the seventies by selling 15% of the company to the Libyan leader Gaddafi and determinedly preventing the terrorist organization, Red Brigades, from infiltrating Fiat’s 300,000 workers. At the end of the eighties, which were years of huge profit, Agnelli ventured into various other businesses (from tourism to finance), but the automotive industry remained his primary business – after all, he achieved a monopoly status through buying up all his competitors in Italy.

Fiat spread over most aspects of life in Italy, starting from the automotive industry, among which is, of course, Fiat and the automotive companies Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari, Lancia, continuing with energetics (Ital Energia), tourism (the chain Club Méditerranée), sports (the football club Juventus and the Formula 1 team), the media (the renowned daily newspaper Corriere della sera and La stampa), all the way to fashion, where he had a share in the fashion label Valentino and the sports brand Fila.

With the development of FIAT, the Italian economy, as a whole, bounced back on its feet. Gianni managed to lead the national economy destroyed by war and its catastrophes back to stable grounds – Italy was the fifth world economic power during the 1970s.

Gianni´s greatest passions were the two most successful Italian sports companies: Juventus and Ferrari. Out of 26 Italian football champion titles, 24 have been achieved with the Agnelli family at the head. Gianni was especially fond of seeing imaginative players like Sivori, Platini, Zidane and Baggio in the black-and-white sports jersey. He adored Ferrari race cars. Thus, he partnered up with his friend, Enzo Ferrari, at the end of the sixties and bought up the rest of the assets after the founder died. Giovanni Agnelli has also been characterized as a style icon defining the 20th century with his looks, his dress style and his lifestyle. His good fashion taste was confirmed by Time magazine in 1967, which described him as a man always wearing a suit, tailor-made to his measures. He is still remembered for always wearing his watch over the sleeve of his shirt.

Gianni Agnelli would call his private pilot, first thing in the morning, to ask him which part of Europe was sunny (in order to go there for a one-day-trip). When Giovanni was supposed to be taking over the company in 1966 because of the termination of Fiat´s chief of staff, who was Giovanni’s deputy while he himself was enjoying life, he was on a yacht somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, which is why he could not be informed until a few weeks later...

Agnelli’s favorite country was America, where his mother Virginia came from... He was one of the first to realize that Italy’s welfare depended on the United States, which is why he spent a lot of time there, knew all the American presidents, from John Kennedy up to his time, and intended to fuse Fiat with General Motors. “Johnny the Handsome”, as he was called by the Americans, was a family friend of the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Rockefellers, and he was close to Andy Warhol. When he went to the dangerous Harlem district, to listen to blues, the Rockefellers would employ world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis as his bodyguard. Being the icon of Italian style and charm, he allowed himself to call the head of the CIA, in the Langley headquarters, a “jerk”. Gianni Agnelli met with Fidel Castro, Mao Zedung and Josip Broz on a regular basis, and one of his best friends was Henry Kissinger.

The Agnelli family tragedy

Gianni’s status and wealth did not protect him from terrible family tragedies. In November 2000, his son Edoardo Agnelli committed suicide, jumping into an abyss. Despite the great family wealth and the prestigious social status, the life of Edoardo Agnelli had been full of painful experiences. His friends spoke about him as a man who “shone with a special light” and his personality differed considerably from the impression many had of him. He was very close to his cousin, Giovannino, the son of Umberto Agnelli who should have become the manager of Fiat at some stage. Unfortunately, Giovannino died of cancer on December 13, 1997. It is said that Edoardo and Giovannino Agnelli were very close and confided in each other, even if they had completely different characters and ways of life. It is further said that his cousin’s death was a very harsh blow for Edoardo. Even if Edoardo’s friends reported that he did not show any signs of deep depression during his last days, the autopsy confirmed the presumption of suicide, almost without a doubt.

The whole Agnelli family – more than seventy children, grandchildren, spouses, heirs of the Fiat founder, Giovanni Agnelli senior and his wife Clara Boselli, gathered at the family grave, on the occasion of young Edoardo Agnelli’s death. The Fiat founder and his wife had two children: their son Edoardo and daughter Niceta. The Agnelli dynasty began to spread when son Edoardo married Virginia Bourbon del Monte. They had seven children, among whom are Gianni and Umberto, former owners of Fiat as well. Gianni Agnelli and his wife Marella Caracciolo, in addition to their tragically deceased son Edoardo, have a 43-year-old daughter named Margherita, who lives in Paris with her second husband Serge de Pahlen, with whom she has five children. She also has three children from her first marriage with Alain Elkann. Aside from deceased Giovannino, Gianni’s brother Umberto Agnelli has two more children from his marriage with Allegra Caracciolo. Gianni Agnelli, except for his brother Umberto, has four sisters. The third brother, Giorgio, died after a long and severe illness at the age of 36. One of the Agnelli sisters, Susanna, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Italy, has seven children.

The death of his son hit Giovanni very hard, as well as the preceding death of his nephew Giovannino, who had died of cancer and who was meant to inherit the whole empire.

After all these family tragedies, Gianni Agnelli chose his eldest grandson John Elkann, the son of his daughter, as his heir.

Giovanni Agnelli died in January 2003, at home, surrounded by his numerous family members, in traditional Italian style. He was buried in the family tomb with all the honors, the most popular Italian of the last century deserves.