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Gianni Agnelli

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 liaison 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 shares.

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 trade union action, a dramatic situation in which a strike was blocking all of Fiat's production, he was able to organise the march of 40,000 workers who broke the pickets and re-entered the factories to resume 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 defence commission.

At the beginning of the 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 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, of which he was a fan. His phone calls, every morning at 6am, from wherever he was, whatever was he doing, to the Juventus' president Giampiero Boniperti, were legendary.

Nicknamed l'Avvocato (the lawyer) because he graduated in law (though he was never 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 regarded by many 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 in 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 "obligation-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 accusations.

It is however to be noticed how he was never personally involved in the many political scandals of the Bettino Craxi government era, even if bribery was publicly admitted in 1994 by Cesare Romiti, Agnelli's most trusted administrator for some 25 years. Number 3 in Fiat's hierarchy, Mattioli, was imprisoned for bribery like Papi, leader of the 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.