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Giovanni Agnelli, better known as Gianni Agnelli (March 12, 1921 - January
24, 2003), was an Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat.
Born at his parents' country house, Villar Perosa, near Turin, Italy as the
son of Eduardo Agnelli (1892-1935) and Donna Virginia Bourbon del Monte
(1899-1945), a half-American daughter of the Prince di San Faustino, he was
more meaningfully the grandson of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Italian
car industry, from whom he inherited the command of the group in 1966, after
a period of temporary "rule" by Vittorio Valletta during which Gianni was
learning how his family's company worked. Agnelli raised Fiat to become the
most important company in Italy, one of the major car builders of Europe,
and developed the accessory business, with minor companies also operating in
military industry. Agnelli and Fiat would soon merge into a common vision,
Agnelli meaning Fiat and, more sensibly, Fiat meaning Agnelli.
He was educated at Pinerolo cavalry academy, and studied law at the
University of Turin, although he never practiced law. He joined a tank
regiment in June 1940 when Italy entered World War II. He fought at the
Russian front, being wounded twice. He went in a Fiat-built armoured-car
division to North Africa, where he was shot in the arm by a German officer.
After Italy surrendered, he became a liason officer with the Americans. His
grandfather, who had manufactured vehicles for the Axis during the war, was
forced to retire from FIAT but named Valletta to be his successor. Gianni's
grandfather died, leaving Gianni head of the family but Valletta running the
company. Fiat began producing Italy's first inexpensive mass-produced car,
as Gianni made female conquests throughout Europe.
Gianni Agnelli became the president of Fiat in 1966. He opened factories
throughout the world, from Russia (at the time Soviet Union) to South
America, and started international alliances and joint-ventures (like Iveco)
which marked a new industrial mentality. In the 1970s, during the
international petrol crisis, he sold part of the company to Lafico, a Libyan
company owned by Colonel Qaddhafi; Agnelli would later repurchase these
His relationships with the leftist forces, especially with Enrico
Berlinguer's Communist Party, were the essence of the relationships between
labour forces and Italian industry. The social conflicts related to Fiat's
policies (some say politics) always saw Agnelli keeping the leading role; in
the 1980s, during the last important attack by trade unions, in a dramatic
situation in which a strike was blocking all of Fiat's production, he was
able to organise a march of 40,000 workers who broke the block and
re-entered the factories resumed work. This marked the end of a power of
trade unions, which would never again be so influential in Italian politics
and economy. It has to be recalled that in the 1970s Fiat and its leaders
became object of terrorist attacks, mostly by Red Brigades, Prima Linea and
NAP; several people working for the group were killed, and trade unions were
suspected of hiding some terrorists in their organizations.
Agnelli was named a senator for life in 1991 and subscribed to the
parliamentary group for the autonomies (?ed.); he was later named a member
of the senate's defense commission.
At the beginning of 2000s Agnelli made overtures to General Motors, with
whom an agreement was reached to progressively let the American company
enter Fiat. The recent serious crisis of Fiat (cars) found Agnelli already
fighting against cancer, and he could take little part in these events.
The figure of Gianni Agnelli was also closely connected with the story of
Juventus, one of the most famous Italian football clubs, which he personally
followed. His phone calls, every morning at 6am, from wherever he was,
whatever was he doing, to the Juventus' president Giampiero Boniperti, were
Nicknamed l'Avvocato (the lawyer) because he graduated in law (but he never
really was admitted to the Order of Lawyers), Agnelli represented the most
important figure in Italian economy, the symbol of capitalism, during all
the second half of 20th century, and by many regarded as the true "king of
Italy". A cultivated man of keen intelligence and a peculiar sense of
humour, he was perhaps the most famous Italian abroad, forming deep
relationships with international bankers and politicians (some of them
became close friends, like Henry Kissinger). He was considered by some to be
an elegant man. He left his extraordary paintings to the town of Turin in 2002.
Though Agnelli enjoyed a reputation as an international ladies' man (his
romances included socialite Pamela Harriman and film star Anita Ekberg),
Agnelli ultimately married Marella Caracciolo, a beautiful half-American,
half-Neapolitan aristocrat who made a small but significant name as a
designer of furniture and fabrics in the 1960s. They were married on 1953
and their only son, Edoardo, was born a few months later (a bachelor, he
died in 2000 after jumping from a bridge in Turin). They also had a
daughter, Margherita, who is the mother of Agnelli's seven grandchildren.
The many detractors underline that in all his activity he mainly followed
his family's interests, despite the eventual damages that these could cause
to the nation. Fiat was always regarded by the italian government as a sort
of "obligations-free" company, for which the national labour and tax laws
could be adjusted according to Fiat's interests. Also, he was seen as a man
who could keep on enriching himself while Italy was getting poorer. Agnelli
never replied to these objections.
It is however to be noticed how he was never personally involved in the many
political economical scandals of the Bettino Craxi government era, even if
bribery was publicly admitted in 1994 by Cesare Romiti, Agnelli's most
trusted aministrator for some 25 years. Number 3 in Fiat's hyerarchy,
Mattioli, was imprisonned for bribery like Papi, leader of Fiat-controlled
Cogefar company. At the time, investigations were started after suspicions
of special relationships with Salvo Lima, a Sicilian DC mp later recognised
as a mafioso.
Gianni's grandson John Elkann, a son of Margherita Agnelli and her first
husband, novelist Alain Elkann, is expected to be the next head of Fiat.