The personal history of Giovanni 'Gianni' Agnelli

Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli, head of Fiat and an icon of Italian political and economic affairs, was a force to be reckoned with.

A man of many names: L’Avvocato, Prince of Italy, King of Italy, and the Rake of the Riviera, Agnelli was not only a symbol of economic growth and Italian excellence but of an unwavering reckless passion for life. On his 100th birthday, Agnelli remains a defining figure in Italian history.

Early life

Agnelli was born on 12 March 1921, in Turin, to parents Edoardo Agnelli and Virginia Bourbon del Monte. He was named after his grandfather, Senatore Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of the Fiat S.p.A. automotive company. The eldest son of seven children, Agnelli grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and high tastes. All of the Agnelli children were expected to behave well, but Agnelli was a mischievous child. In Nick Hooker’s 2018 documentary Agnelli, Gianni’s sisters describe him as a playful trickster with a good heart.When Agnelli was only 14 years old, his life took a fateful turn: his father was killed in a gruesome plane crash. It was a tragic event in the Agnelli family that would mark the beginning of a legacy of strange tragedies, but the death of Edoardo solidified Gianni’s legacy as an Italian business magnate As the eldest Agnelli son, he became the immediate heir to the Fiat company.After his father’s death, Agnelli was raised by his grandfather. Like a prince being inculcated for the throne, Agnelli was instilled with the skills and tools of an industry leader. He learned to negotiate and orchestrate from an early age. Luckily for Agnelli, he was born with charisma and magnetism that would serve him for the rest of his life as a playboy, a businessman, and a national icon. As a young man, he studied at Pinerolo Cavalry Academy. He was greatly influenced by his early trips to the United States, beginning in 1938. He was struck by the modern landscape of the country, which seemed years ahead of Italy. He was inspired by the fast-paced, chaotic atmosphere of New York City, and admired Detroit for its industrial might. Even as a teenager, he knew he wanted to help Italy progress and prosper.

A passionate young man

As Agnelli grew into a dashing and refined man, a larger change was unfolding on the world stage: World War II. He was only 18 years old when the war began.In the early years of the war, Agnelli did the things he was supposed to. He attended the University of Turin, where he earned a degree in law as well as his nickname “L’Avvocato,” the Lawyer. He was en route to take a job at Fiat when he had a swift change of heart and decided to join the war effort.

His grandfather urged him to stay in Italy and work for Fiat so he wouldn’t risk his life, but Agnelli was stubborn. The patriotic loyalty that inspired him to help Italy prosper also motivated him to fight for it--and as the war raged on, he thought there was only one way to do that. He joined the army in 1941.

Gianni Agnelli in WarAccording to New York Times reporter John Tagliabue, Agnelli fought as a lieutenant in Russia and North Africa before he was injured and taken out of combat. Later, Tagliabue writes, “He rejoined the army after Italy's surrender to the Allies so that he could help drive the Germans from his country.” Ph: Gianni Agnelli in North Africa. He was fluent in English, which made him a useful liaison for communicating with American allies. Agnelli’s time in the war would later legitimise the mythos of his character: not only was he a charming business magnate, he had patriotic backbone. 

A political playboy

After the war, Senatore Giovanni Agnelli was accused of being a Fascist collaborator. Though the accusations would later be disproven, at the time, he was forced to give up his leadership of Fiat. Gianni Agnelli was, of course, the natural successor, but he wasn’t ready to become the head of Fiat. Instead, he took the position of vice-chairman, allowing Vittorio Valletta to run the company, which he successfully did for the next 22 years.Valletta helped Fiat become a symbol of postwar economic perseverance: in Turin, Fiat offered its workers numerous benefits such as housing, medical insurance, and childcare, as Tagliabue describes. The company was called “La Mamma” by Turin residents, for nurturing the city back to health. But Fiat’s heyday was still years away, waiting for Agnelli.While Valletta headed Fiat, Agnelli retreated to the French Riviera, the Côte d’Azur, where he earned a reputation as one of Italy’s leading playboys and his nickname “the Rake of the Riviera.” After surviving the chaos of the war, Agnelli wanted to experience the good life, and he did just that. If Agnelli’s life could be split into chapters, the 1950s would be his golden years for romance. Surrounded by luxury, fine arts, and fast-paced sports, Agnelli was a regular Casanova. Along with fellow playboys like Aly Khan, Porfirio Rubirosa, and Gunter Sachs, he enjoyed a life of luxury, drugs, sex, and glamour.He romanced countless women in the French Riviera, including actress Anita Ekberg and Winston Churchill’s ex-daughter-in-law Pamela Harriman. As Nick Hooker explores in Agnelli, Agnelli and Harriman’s fling turned into a symbiotic social-political relationship. They enjoyed each other’s company, but they also enjoyed each other’s social benefits. Ph: Gianni Angelli and Jaqueline KennedyAccording to writer Nick Foulkes, “When [Winston Churchill] first heard of the liaison, he reputedly asked, ‘What’s this I hear about Pamela taking up with an Italian motor mechanic?’” But Agnelli quickly grew on the prime minister. Through Pamela, Agnelli solidified an amicable relationship with British and American political leaders including the Churchills and the Kennedys that would pinpoint Agnelli, Fiat, and Italy as sophisticated players in global politics.

The road from reckless playboy to married man

Agnelli contrast his romantic conquests with an intellectual love of the arts and a chaotic passion for sports. He surrounded himself with artwork he enjoyed and became an early style and taste influencer. He was known for his effortless sense of style: slick wavy hair, a watch worn over a jacket sleeve, slightly unbuttoned shirts, and shortened neckties. In Agnelli, even designer Valentino admits to being inspired by Agnelli.Writer Arbër Sulejmani for JUVEFC says, “It is also not considered an exaggeration to say that to Italians, Gianni represented the ‘bella figura’, and was also the ideal example everyone would like to follow: intelligent, successful, rich and handsome.”

Agnelli matched his external suaveness with an all-consuming passion for excitement. He threw himself into his activities and carried himself with natural grace. He loved skiing, sailing, riding horses, football, and car racing. He made a hobby out of jumping out of helicopters into the ocean. He was known by everyone from his sisters to Henry Kissinger to be a dangerous driver--a quality that would leave a permanent mark on him in a 1952 car crash. 

He survived the car accident with seven fractures in his leg and developed gangrene in the hospital. He would be reluctantly crippled for the rest of his life, but he continued to ski and sail. One of the women who visited him during his recovery was Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, a good friend of Agnelli’s sisters and a daughter of Neapolitan aristocracy. The two fell in love and were married in 1953.

Marella was an icon to match Agnelli: she was graceful and mysterious, with a swan-like beauty that made her a muse for artists like writer Truman Capote and photographer Richard Avedon. Together, the Agnellis were an image of classic Italian beauty. They had two children: Edoardo and Margherita. Edoardo died in 2000 from an apparent suicide. Ph: Gianni Agnelli and Marella CaraggioloGianni and Edoardo AgnelliPh: Gianni Agnelli and his son Edoardo. 

Agnelli: the face of Fiat

Agnelli served numerous roles in Fiat before he became president of the company. According to Tagliabue, Agnelli became chairman of Fiat’s holding company, Istituto Finanziario Industriale in 1959. In 1963, he transitioned to the managing director of Fiat. In 1966, he finally assumed his pre-destined role as president of Fiat.Under Agnelli’s leadership, Fiat was the most successful automotive company in Europe and the largest private employer in Italy. Agnelli became the wealthiest man in Italian modern history. He prioritised domestic wellbeing while making international trades and partnerships; he revitalised manufacturing systems and revamped the company to be an efficient international entity.

He orchestrated the company’s expansion by opening plants across the world, including in the Soviet Union and South America.Fiat put the whole of Italy on four wheels,” says Maria Sole, Agnelli’s sister, in Agnelli.

Agnelli also expanded the Fiat name to numerous non-automotive endeavors, including newspapers La Stampa and Corriere della Sera, Chase Manhattan Bank, insurance companies, and more, as well as beloved Italian automotive companies Ferrari and Lancia. Eventually, the Fiat name would also acquire Alfa Romeo.At the height of Fiat’s success, as Tagliabue describes: “Mr. Agnelli controlled more than one-quarter of the Italian stock exchange, or around $25 billion worth of quoted companies, a control unparalleled on any world stock market.” At the time of his death, his personal fortune was estimated to be around $2 billion, equal to around 1.7 billion euro today.

The heart of Juventus

Agnelli had a passionate commitment to the Juventus Football Club. Today, Juventus is the most successful football club in Italy. It has the most Italian league championships out of all the football clubs in Italy. While the Agnelli name has financially backed the club since the 1920s, Gianni Agnelli personally ran it from 1947 to 1954.According to Britannica’s Clive Gifford, “The financial support of the Agnelli family has enabled Juventus, on occasion, to sign some of the world’s best footballers.” JUVEFC’s Sulejmani describes that Gianni Agnelli was the decision-maker behind football superstar Michel Platini’s move to Juventus in 1982.Throughout his life, Agnelli maintained a close relationship with the Juventus team and its players. For many Italians, his passion for the club made him synonymous with it. He famously told a La Reppublica interviewer, “I get excited every time I see the letter J in a newspaper headline. I immediately think of Juventus.” He was 76 at the time. Agnelli’s brother Umberto took the position of Juventus chairman in 1955, but Agnelli remained an honorary chairman for the rest of his life. His support for the club was unwavering, which made him a unifying figure even for Italians who disagreed with his capitalist politics. Today, his legacy is intertwined with Juventus; he remains a cherished figure for countless fans.

A social and political patriarch

Agnelli’s commitment to Italian prosperity preserved his image as a national hero for many, even amid controversy and crises. Notably, he remained in Italy during the so-called Years of Lead, a period of intense political tensions and domestic terrorism that reached its peak in the late 1970s.During that time, many Italian political figures were targeted with violence and killed by the terrorist group the Red Brigades. As explored in Agnelli, some prominent Italian figures fled the country for their safety, but not Agnelli. Perhaps brave or perhaps crazy, he remained in Turin, where he insisted on driving his Fiat to work and maintaining an image of perseverance through normalcy. “He was convinced that it would signal to other people in the world that he believed in Italy, and therefore they would believe in Italy,” says Lupo Rattazzi, Agnelli’s nephew, in the documentary. As always, Agnelli’s sights were set on a future of prosperity for Italy. In recognition of his economic and social contributions, in 1991, Agnelli was appointed to the honorary position of Senator for Life by President Francesco Cossiga. In 1996, he retired from Fiat at the age of 75, in accordance with Fiat’s mandatory retirement policy. He remained the company’s honorary chairman until his death.

Death

After Edoardo’s death in 2000, Agnelli’s mental and physical health took a stark downward turn. He died of prostate cancer on 24 Jan. 2003. He was 81 years old. His funeral was held in Turin, where tens of thousands of people gathered to mourn his passing.