Ask any Italian, young and old, who most embodied charm, style, and power in the last century and they will likely think of Gianni Agnelli, L’Avvocato (his nickname, “The Lawyer”). They will think of him in a charcoal double-breasted Caraceni suit, or with a Rolex Daytona clad wrist out the window of a forest green Ferrari Testarossa Spider. Occasionally holding a cigarette in his mouth. Often smiling, or hinting at it.
Gianni was known as Italy’s uncrowned King – the most important industrialist and leader of the Fiat motor company, President and number one fan of the Juventus soccer club, and of course an impossible to resist seductor. As his niece Isabella Rattazzi said, he “was involved in all that Italians loved: sex, cars and sport.” Gianni was part of a generation of jet-setting men, including Aly Khan and Porfirio Rubirosa, who perfected the art of the playboy in the 1950s. All three were known for their handsome looks, sophisticated flair, aversion to boredom, and countless romances with the most desired women across the globe. They would wake up in Gstaad, and be in Venice by nightfall for a party. The carefree French Riviera was their main playground, but wherever they landed the cocktails were flowing and the women were beautiful.
Gianni’s streak of living luxuriously and dangerously was supposed to be a temporary one. His grandfather Giovanni established the multi-industry business dynasty of the Agnelli family by founding Fiat in 1899. He would become the one to raise Gianni when both his parents died when he was very young. He’d also be the one to advise him to have as much fun as he could before taking the reins at Fiat, as he was the next heir to the automotive throne. Until Gianni became president of the company in 1966, Vittorio Valletta would be its leader. So while Valletta was successfully navigating through Italy’s post-war industrial reconstruction, Gianni could be found speeding through the streets of Monaco in one of his many cars or at black tie bashes with the world’s elite, like Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller or John F. Kennedy. He is rumored to have had an allowance of $1,000,000 a year at this stage.
Among the women Gianni is known to have seduced are Anita Ekberg, Rita Hayworth, Linda Christian, and Pamela Churchill, the daughter in law of Sir Winston. Even after marrying Marella Caracciolo, a noblewoman from Naples, it is understood that Gianni wouldn’t change his playboy ways. Something to keep in mind is that he is not considered faultless by Italians, but his humor, success, and gusto for life somehow pardoned any blemishes of character. Another notable relationship would be the one with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The two spent time at Villa Episcopio in Ravello and around the Amalfi Coast in the early 60s. This would lead to rumors, but a romance was never confirmed. “I don’t like talking about women – I like talking to them” he would say.
Worshipped by many for his iconic style, Gianni was the definition of sprezzatura – seemingly effortless impeccable dressing. He took unprecedented fashion risks like pairing a sharp double-breasted suit with distressed combat boots. Otherwise it would be Tod’s mocassins. His friends say that he always added a studied carefree touch to an elegant look, like wearing his tie slightly off center to surprise whoever he had in front of him. Immaculate accessories like classic watches completed his outfits, wearing them over his cuff in what may be one of his most imitated style quirks. When he wasn’t dressed to the nines he would be in designer swim trunks, a towel around his waist, or often nothing at all at the helm of one of his yachts accompanied by a gorgeous entourage. If we look at photographs of him on that vacation with Jackie O, or on other trips to Capri, Positano, or Forte dei Marmi we’ll see where today’s dapper Italian vacationer draws his inspiration: linen button downs, Villebrequin shorts and all.
Gianni was an influencer. The trends he set – from what he wore, to where he vacationed and how he carried himself – continue to be imitated even decades after his death. The popularity of the five star Augustus Hotel & Resort in Forte dei Marmi is no surprise, in fact. The resort encompasses Villa Agnelli – charming Tuscan quarters where the Agnelli’s would discreetly vacation for over thirty years – giving us a feel and taste of what their sun-drenched summers were like. Painted in the most summery pinks, greens and blues the villa dons the same unique and quintessentially Italian decor from that time. Superior Tuscan ingredients can be enjoyed during a lush breakfast in the garden, before spending the day in the sun at the Augustus Beach Club (and when it’s time for lunch, the freshest local fish will be served). The Agnelli family built an underground passageway connecting the garden to the beach in the 50s which is still used by guests and provides extra charm and cool points to this very special place.
Gianni’s lavish lifestyle didn’t end when he took over Fiat, it just became more discreet and balanced. When he was living at Villa Frescot, a helicopter would pick him up and drop him off thirty minutes later at the top of a slope in the ski destination of Sestriere. He’d jump off while it was still in motion, similarly to how he’d jump into the sea before landing at Hotel Du Cap or Villa Leopolda, his estate on the French Riviera. It saved time, he said. He would get to the bottom of the hill (likely wearing a smart looking knit sweater and tailored trousers) where the helicopter would collect him and return him to the family Villa. He’d then race – by car this time – to Corso Marconi in Turin where the company’s offices were located until the late 80s.
Gianni’s great rarity was his ability to balance his passions and lust for life with business acumen and leadership skills. Presiding over the thirty challenging years of trade union turbulence, terrorism, political scandals, and automotive industry ups and downs he managed to turn Fiat into a worldwide conglomerate. When Italy mourned his loss in 2003, people from all walks of life paid tribute. L’Avvocato will be remembered as a symbol of the Italian post-war Renaissance, and of everything Italians were and are.