The Autumn/Winter of The Patriarch: Gianni Agnelli

All hail Gianni Agnelli, ‘The Rake of the Rivieria’. We revisit his life, influence and lasting impact on the culture that underpins our magazine.
Gianni Agnelli, 1968. Photo by David Lees/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

To celebrate the imminent fiftieth issue ofThe Rake, we look at three of the magazine’s most potent inspirations, spiritual founding fathers whose influence only emboldens during these turbulent times. Where better to start than the “King of Italy” himself, the richest man in modern Italian history and the "Rake of the Riviera" after whom the magazine was originally named. Patriarch of car manufacturer Fiat and owner of Juventus Football Club, he was made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1967, Knight of Labour in 1977 and a Senator for life in 1991. Such sway did he hold that, according to The Telegraph, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once took him aside, amongst a gaggle of Italian cabinet ministers, and said: "I want to talk to you because you will always be in power. That lot will never do more than just come and go." He is, of course, Giovanni "Gianni" Agnelli.

Born and raised in Turin, he studied law at the city’s university (hence another nickname, L’avvocato), but a reputed allowance of $1,000,000 a year allowed him to spread further afield. In addition to properties in New York and St Moritz, he threw mythical parties at the sumptuous 28-room Villa Leopolda on the Côte d'Azur, which in 2008 sold for 500 million euros, then the most expensive house in the world. Prince Rainier, JFK and Errol Flynn were amongst the regulars, and Agnelli's high-profile dalliances included Jackie Kennedy, Rita Hayworth, Anita Ekberg and socialite Pamela Churchill Harriman (after a row with whom he smashed his Ferrari into a meat lorry at 120mph).

Described by Life as having "the sculptured bearing of an exquisitely tailored Julius Caesar", Agnelli soon settled, relatively. In 1953, at the chapel of Osthoffen Castle, he married Donna Marella Caracciolo dei principi di Castagneto, a half-Neapolitan, half-American fabric designer, tastemaker and later Vogue model, she in Balenciaga, he on crutches after another car accident. In an excellent piece for Vanity Fair after his death, Marella described the Agnelli universe as less immoral than “freely amoral”, affairs and haute couture cheek-by-jowl with interminable philosophical disquisitions in crumbling Florentine villas. The seven siblings had a “tribal aura”: everyone looked the same, talked the same and laughed at the same jokes. Truman Capote would do gymnastics on their yachts and visit them in Verbier, before duplicitously mocking their way of life in his novel Answered Prayers.

All families, royal or industrial, are racked by succession problems (as an Observer profile of Agnelli noted) and Fiat was no different. Gianni was the grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni, after whom he was named. When grandfather Giovanni heard that the widow of one of his sons was having an affair with another man, he responded by kidnapping her children until Mussolini personally intervened to stop him. From a young age, Gianni slid through life with a Tolstoyan nonchalance, once teasing his lovelorn sister Susanna: “In love? I thought only servants fell in love!”


February 2017


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