He was named Giovanni after his grandfather, the founder of FIAT, but throughout his life he was known by everyone as Gianni, or rather, as “l’Avvocato” (“the Lawyer”), a nickname he had earned when he graduated in law.
Fascinating, rich, a lover of sports and the arts, he was the outstanding representative of the Italian economy in the world – the uncrowned king of Italy, as they liked to call him, and one of the most admired of men because of his unmistakable style and his innate elegance.
Gianni Agnelli was born on 12th March 1921 in Turin, the second of seven siblings.
His father Edoardo died tragically in a plane accident in 1935 when Gianni was just 14, and this led him to have very close ties to his grandfather Giovanni, the founder of FIAT (which stands for “Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino”). The relationship between the two never became strained, even during the difficult years when senator Giovanni opposed his daughter-in-law, Virginia Bourbon del Monte, who was guilty of engaging in a relationship with the journalist Curzio Malaparte. The dispute was resolved with a compromise signed in 1937, on the basis of which custody of the seven children went to Virginia who, in fact, gave up her idea of making a second marriage to her lover. Virginia Bourbon del Monte died a few years later, in 1945, following a car accident. Senator Giovanni Agnelli died in the same year.
The leadership of the FIAT company did not pass immediately to Gianni Agnelli, but to Vittorio Valletta, a managerial figure of some depth who would lead FIAT for around 20 years laying very solid bases for the growth of the Turin firm, especially in the years of economic boom. For the time being, Gianni Agnelli was given honorary and representative duties, which served as his apprenticeship, and the Chairmanship of Juventus, the football team his father Edoardo had made successful.
The young heir to the Agnelli dynasty, in fact, chose to follow his grandfather’s advice to take a few years off before getting involved in the company’s affairs. He obtained a Law degree at the University of Turin and, while still very young, he was active in the second world war, as a recruit in the 1st “Nizza Cavalleria” regiment. He thus began to enjoy his youth by travelling countless times, frequenting the places peopled by the elite and figures in the international jet set: actresses, princes and politicians (it was during these years that his friendship with John Fitzgerald Kennedy started).
In 1953 Gianni Agnelli married Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, to whom he remained close for the whole of his life, although the gossip and certain statements made while he was alive by the “Avvocato” himself (see the section on “Aphorisms”) lead one to believe that there were marital infidelities. The couple had two sons, Edoardo – who died unmarried, probably by committing suicide, in 2001 at the age of 46 – and Margherita, who married first of all Alain Elkann, by whom she had three children, John Jacob, known as Jaki – the heir-designate to the head of the group – Lapo and Ginevra, and secondly the Russian nobleman Serge de Pahlen, with whom she had 5 children.
It was in 1966 that Gianni Agnelli finally took over the reins of the FIAT group. The years of Italy’s economic miracle were by now over, and “l’Avvocato” found himself having to manage a delicate situation, marked by strong social tensions, known as the “hot autumn”. In the balance was the renewal of the metalworking and mechanical engineering workers’ employment contract – which was signed in 1970 after a long series of strikes – but there were also problems connected with the industrial (land/sea/air) policy of Vittorio Valletta. Gianni Agnelli thus decided to sell off some shares in the Sea Division and the Fiat Aircraft Division productions and to concentrate on the motor-car sector: between 1969 and 1970, Ferrari and Lancia were purchased, an ambitious project was started up to make the FIAT brand internationally known, and production units were opened in Poland, Spain, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey.
In 1974 he was elected President of Confindustria (the Italian Manufacturers’ Association) as a leader required by the industrialists to be reliable and authoritative, and he held this appointment until 1976. In 1979 a new, deep economic downturn, which had started some years earlier, reached its climax, to the extent that there was talk of as many as 14,000 employees to be dismissed in the FIAT company alone. The confrontations between the company, on the one hand, and the trade unions and Communist Party on the other, became extremely heated: the Mirafiori site gates were “blocked” for 35 days, until the moment, on 14th October 1980, of the so-called “march of the forty thousand”, after the supposed number of workers claiming the right to be able to go to work. FIAT, under pressure, gave up the idea of dismissals and made 23,000 employees redundant. It was a historic defeat for the union and a victory for Gianni Agnelli that would finally mark a decisive turning point for FIAT.
Backed by Cesare Romiti, Agnelli relaunched Fiat internationally and, in very few years, transformed it into a holding company with differentiated interests, that were no longer limited just to the car sector (into which Alfa Romeo, among others, had now also been absorbed), but ranged from publishing to insurance.
This choice was a successful one and the 1980s turned out to be some of the happiest years in the company’s history. Agnelli became established more and more as an outstanding Italian figure in the eyes of the world – an uncrowned king and a man of great style. His mannerisms, his extravagances on the style-front became symbols of elegance and refinement, starting with his often-imitated French-style pronunciation of the letter “r”, right down to his wristwatch on top of his cuff.
Interviewed by magazines from all over the world, he could allow himself to make ironic and sometimes cutting judgments on anyone, from politicians in office, to football players – especially players in the Juventus team, of which he was a passionate supporter even though, curiously, he was usually present in the stadium for only half of a match – the first.
In 1991, Gianni Agnelli was appointed senator for life by Francesco Cossiga. In 1996, when he reached the age of 75, in compliance with the company’s statutory regulations he passed on the chairmanship to the former managing director Cesare Romiti who was then succeeded in 1999 by Paolo Fresco. Gianni Agnelli had actually appointed as his successor and the future leader of FIAT his nephew Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, known as Giovannino, the son of his brother Umberto and former chairman of Piaggio, but he died of a brain tumour in December 1997. In his place, Gianni Agnelli appointed John Elkann, the first-born son of his daughter Margherita, as his successor.
On 24th January 2003, Gianni Agnelli died in his hillside residence of Villa Frescòt, following a long illness. He lay in state in the Lingotto picture gallery, according to the ceremonial rites of the Italian Senate. The funeral, broadcast live by the Rai Uno television station, took place at Turin Cathedral, attended by an enormous crowd. Gianni Agnelli was buried in the monumental family chapel in the little cemetery at Villar Perosa near the Agnelli family’s ancient summer residence.