Ciano was born in Livorno. After receiving his law degree, Ciano served as an attache in Rio de Janeiro. In 1930, he married Edda Mussolini, with whom soon left for Shanghai. Back in Italy, a few years later, he became the minister for the press and propaganda, then later for foreign affairs. In this position, he replaced Dino Grandi, who had been presenting, to foreign diplomats, a less martial position than what Mussolini wanted (Grandi was sent to London as an ambassador).
Ciano had gained a little confidence with Humbert II of Savoy, the son of the king, with whom he shared a certain mentality and a notable charme, even if Ciano was certainly less discrete than the prince. He became the favorite correspondent between Humbert (and Maria José) and the Fascist movement. This was equally considered a productive friendship, both by the king and the dictator, because the two would have one day been the respective heirs of the crown and of the government. The king had honoured him with the "Collare della Santissima Annunziata", one of the highest royal recognizements.
It probably was with a certain approval from Humbert that Ciano kept Italy distant from Hitler's Germany as long as possible, with the extraordinary help of the ambassador at Berlin, Bernardo Attolico. He sensibly perceived the danger that Hitler represented for Italy too when nazis killed the Austrian premier Dollfuss, who was in close relationships with Mussolini's family (Dollfuss' wife was in Italy when he was murdered), and could see in this act the sign of an icy warning about the Fuehrer's intentions. Little by little, after a sequence of meetings with Ribbentrop and Hitler which followed the subscription to the "Steel pact", Ciano increasingly consolidated his doubts about the allied country, and had several violent discussions with his father-in-law. In the end, he wrote in his diaries, he was not so sure whether he would have wished Italians "a victory or a German defeat".
In the meanwhile, Italy had "conquered" Albania, and Ciano was named vice-king of those territories. His rule was considered rough and cruel, while his personal fortunes "strangely but sensibly" grew up.
At the beginning of the war, when his anti-German positions had became more evident (Hitler had once warned Mussolini: There are some traitors in your family), he was sent to Vatican as an ambassador. It is at this moment that his relationships with Msgr. Montini (later Pope Paul VI) reached the highest intensity, keeping Fascism in contact with all the major international powers trough the mediation of the influential priest.
During the war, in contrast with his previous hostility to the alliance with Germans, Ciano proposed the campaign against Greece, which result was a (foreseeable) disaster.
On July 25 1943, when internal opposition was going to finally defeat Mussolini, Ciano joined them, and voted against his father-in-law. However, he followed Mussolini north to Salò, where the Italian Social Republic (called RSI, for Repubblica Sociale Italiana) had been founded, in opposition to the Pietro Badoglio government, which had switched over to the Allies. Vainly his wife Edda had tried to arrange a protected exile for their family, having Vatican refused to hide them. Appearently, Germans seemed to help them to reach Spain, but arrested them instead, and sent the former minister to Verona.
Ciano's vote against the Duce was considered severe treason and, after a dramatic public trial, he was found guilty and soon after shot. It has been much discussed a lot whether this showed that Mussolini did not want to protect his relative, or simply could not. Many observers note that if Mussolini had avoided his capital punishment, he himself would have lost any credibility. It is known that when informed, Edda, sincerely in love with Ciano, crossed half of the country with emergency vehicles, also risking of being raped, to reach the republic's headquarters first and the prison immediately after, but her attempts at rescue were vain.
However, afterwards Edda Ciano escaped to Switzerland, disguised as a peasant woman. She had Ciano's wartime diaries hidden beneath her skirt, and was given special consideration as a pregnant woman by frontier guards who were supposedly on the lookout for the fugitive. War correspondent Paul Ghali of the Chicago Daily News learned of her secret internment in a Swiss convent and arranged the publication of the diaries. They reveal much of the secret history of the Fascist regime between 1939 and 1943 and are considered a prime historical source. (The diaries are strictly political and contains little of Ciano's personal life.)
Ciano's figure is one among the most controversial of the whole regime: he was a fatuous enfant gaté, a snob, a man of little depth, open to bribery and cruelty (his behaviour in Albania was always considered this way) and he was even a traitor, in the end; still he was the only one who seriously fought the dangerous alliance between Italy and Germany. And, also, he perhaps showed a certain courage in voting against his relative, exposing himself to a quite certain personal isolation. The paradox being that this man of moderate moral qualities, but undoubted intelligence, had a keener political vision than the Duce and a stronger personal courage than the king.