Italy first family
"Today, at 79, Gianni Agnelli
is still undeniably the person reigning above the family and the empire."
most intriguing family in Europe are the Italian Agnellis, who are also the most
numerous in the European Rich 400 with 10 members. Their make up and heritage is
Timeline: 16 November 1999.
Fiat's founder, Giovanni Agnelli, was born in Turin on 13th August 1866. Like
many sons of the Piedmontese upper-middle classes, he was given a military
training and soon became a lieutenant in the cavalry. In 1889 he married Clara
Boselli, the Florence-born sister of a naval officer. The newly-weds were
stationed in Verona.
Giovanni was a formal man, always immaculate in a dark suit. His stern manner
and intensity often aroused fear in subordinates. At the age of 26, he abandoned
the life of a cavalryman in Verona and returned to the family mansion in Turin.
These were years of economic crisis, of numerous bank scandals. In that period
Giovanni's heir, Edoardo, was born in 1892 and Aniceta, his daughter, not long
Edoardo and Aniceta formed the basis of the Agnelli dynasty. But after the
children arrived Giovanni Agnelli did not know quite what to do with himself.
Then, out of the blue, there came news of the invention of the horseless
carriage. Immediately Agnelli saw an opportunity. In 1898, he met Count Emanuele
Bricherasio di Cacherano, an eccentric Turinese nobleman who was looking for
investors for his horseless carriage project. Few investors were interested but
Agnelli sensed the opportunity. On 1st July 1899, four years before Henry Ford
set up his company in America, Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino was
incorporated. The name was naturally soon shortened to Fiat. Giovanni Agnelli
was managing director at the age of 30.
Almost from the start Fiat was known for the talent and creativity of its
engineering staff, and the first car was soon launched. By 1903 the company had
made a modest profit and produced 135 cars; in 1906 production had increased
more than eightfold to 1,149 cars, of which 300 were exported. Fiat then went
public on the Milan borsa and Agnelli began to buy any shares that became
available to add to his holding.
But in August 1908, a scandal broke that forced Agnelli and the entire board to
resign. The Turin state prosecutor charged Agnelli and his fellow directors with
circulating falsely optimistic news to push up the Fiat share price, engaging in
fraudulent share dealings and falsifying the company's accounts for 1907.
However, Agnelli was acquitted at the trial and returned to his post as Fiat
managing director, taking effective control of the company. In 1907 he was
awarded the cavaliere al merito del lavoro, the Italian equivalent of a
knighthood. During the First World War Fiat reaped a windfall of government
orders for military vehicles and equipment. The company also perfected its first
airplane engine, a 50-horsepower model.
Thus began the fat years for Fiat. The company grew faster and faster on the
back of war profits. By 1914 it was producing more than 4,000 vehicles a year.
The company, which had begun life in 1899 with 50 employees, now had a workforce
of more than 4,000. This reached the 10,000 mark by the end of 1915. During the
war years Fiat jumped from being the 30th biggest company in Italy to become the
third biggest. In the twenties Agnelli diversified and bought La Stampa, the
During this period, his heir, Edoardo, fathered a son, the second of seven
children. He was born on 12th March 1921, and was given the name of his
grandfather, soon shortened to Gianni. He was destined to eventually inherit
Fiat. At the age 14 Gianni's father, Edoardo Agnelli, was killed in an air crash
and his mother died just three years later. He was brought up by his
grandfather, together with his six brothers and sisters. The seven Agnelli
children were Clara born in 1920, Gianni born in 1921, Susanna born in 1922,
Maria Sole born in 1925, Cristiana born in 1927, Giorgio born in 1929, and
Umberto, who was born in 1934. Gianni secured a law degree from the University
of Turin in 1943, but his studies were interrupted by the start of the Second
World War and he joined the Italian army in true family tradition.
During the war Fiat reaped the benefits of big government military orders.
Lieutenant Gianni Agnelli, meanwhile, distinguished himself in the winter of
1941-42, fighting for Mussolini's army at the Russian front. Shortly thereafter
he was transferred to North Africa, where he fought with valour in Tunisia. When
it later became clear that the Fascists had lost, Gianni Agnelli switched sides
along with many other Italians, to welcome the Allies and fight for them.
In November 1945, 79-year-old Giovanni Agnelli died, leaving his grandchildren
Fiat, then said to be worth 1 billion, although that sounds unlikely.
Twenty-four-year-old Gianni thought himself too young to run the company and so
left it in the capable hands of Professor Vittorio Valletta, a former professor
of banking. He preferred the fast life and earned a reputation as a playboy. But
a car crash made him reevaluate his life and in 1966, after 21 years of enjoying
himself, he took over as chairman of Fiat. More than 30 years later he is still
at the helm, as honorary chairman.
Most of the third generation of Agnellis married well. All but one of Gianni
Agnelli's brothers and sisters married into royalty. The one exception was
Giorgio, who died in 1965 at the age of 35. Gianni's elder sister, Clara,
married Tassilo von Furstenberg, the son of German aristocrats whose bloodlines
go back to the year 1070. Despite this heritage Tassilo had no personal wealth,
as his uncle had taken over as the family patriarch, inheriting the von
Furstenberg fortune. The union of the Agnelli and Furstenberg bloodlines
produced two of contemporary Europe's most prominent socialites – fashion
designer Egon von Furstenberg and his elder sister Ira.
Gianni was to make the best marriage of all – to Marella Caracciolo di
Castagneto, an exquisite Neapolitan princess whose family's ancient heritage
puts her on a par with the Bourbon del Montes. The beautiful Marella became the
ideal wife for the heir to the Agnelli fortune. She was said in royal circles to
have the longest neck in Europe and the writer Truman Capote once observed
that if she were a jewel in the window of Tiffany's, she would be extremely
Of all his family it is with his younger sister Susanna that Gianni has always
had the closest rapport. Born 13 months after Gianni, she was the closest to him
in spirit and temperament. But while her brother wed the elegant Marella,
Susanna married and later divorced an extraordinary adventurer. His name was
Count Urbano Rattazzi and he came from a noble but not especially wealthy
Piedmontese family of lawyers and politicians.
The fourth of the Agnelli children, Maria Sole, was a shy girl who ended up
marrying two counts. The first was Count Ranieri Campello della Spina, the scion
of an antique Umbrian family, who died in 1959. Her second husband was Count Pio
Teodorani Fabbri. He not only came from the land of Benito Mussolini's birth,
but was also related indirectly to il Duce (the count's cousin was married to
the niece of Arnaldo Mussolini, the dictator's brother).
Cristiana Agnelli, the sister of Gianni who was said to enjoy life the most,
married Count Brando Brandolini d'Adda. He was a patrician noble from the
fabulously wealthy Veneto-based Brandolini family.
Umberto Agnelli, the youngest, first married the semi-noble Antonella Bechi
Piaggio. They later divorced. His more successful second marriage was to Allegra
Caracciolo di Castagneto. She was Gianni's wife Marella's first cousin and a
niece of the famous film director Luchino Visconti.
The other side of the Agnelli axis is the Nasi family, which descends from
Giovanni Agnelli's daughter Aniceta. She married Carlo Nasi. Aniceta died whilst
giving birth to her youngest child, leaving her five children – Clara, Laura,
Giovanni, Umberta and Emanuele – to inherit her share of the Agnelli fortune. It
made 11 modern-day principal heirs to the Agnelli empire. They each had a
percentage of a company called Giovanni Agnelli e C. The fortune principally
rests with the survivors today.
Two of the main beneficiaries from the Nasi side of the family, Laura and
Giovanni Nasi, died leaving their inheritance to their own children. Laura, who
married Giancarlo Camerana, had seven children; Vittorio, Cristina, Carlo,
Oddone, Marco, Consolata and Daniela. Giovanni Nasi left his share to his
children – Andrea and Tiziana.
Of all the Nasis it is Tiziana who has earnt herself a strong reputation.
Remarkably she is the only female member of the family to have worked at Fiat.
She has also been extremely dedicated to running her father's holding company
Today, at 79, Gianni Agnelli is still reigning above the family and the empire.
There is no doubt that his succession plans were shattered when Umberto's eldest
son, Giovanni Albert Agnelli, died of cancer. Now his grandson, 23-year-old John
Elkann must take up the burden of leading Fiat for the next 50 years. He will
not have the option of taking 20 years off to have fun like his grandfather.
Author: Catherine Monk