Giovanni Agnelli

Foreword for Book on Giovanni Agnelli

During the last two decades of his life, no one was closer to me than Gianni Agnelli. We spoke on the telephone three or four times a week and whenever something interesting happened in either of our lives. We spent time together when either of us traveled to the other’s country, which was every month or so.

Gianni was, of course, a man of legendary charm. While he talked to you, he could evoke the feeling that nothing else was of equal importance to him. And that was not a pose; he had an unusual empathy with others, an extraordinary ability to intuit their feelings to a point where one had to assume a conversation with Gianni included one’s hidden thoughts. His standards for conveying this special attention were high; he was easily bored. Individuals who could not sustain his interest would find meetings with him increasingly rare. He sought to avoid social occasions which featured mostly small talk unless they included aspects that appealed to his sense of the unusual.

But these qualifications did not apply to his friends or to his family. For them he was always available; with them he was inexhaustibly interested without ever being demanding.

I do not know how one entered the small circle of those whom Gianni considered friends. It was not a position for which one could apply. Flattery was useless; Gianni was too intelligent and too subtle to be susceptible to ulterior motives. He bestowed his commitments; they could not be evoked. At least in my case, he suddenly appeared as one of the most important experiences of my life; I cannot date the friendship to a specific event.

Gianni was a lot of fun. He was a Renaissance man with interests ranging from an intense devotion to art to a great passion for football – especially for Juventus Turin. He was fascinated by politics and diplomacy; and his position obliged him to participate in a leading role in the economic field. He had a knack for bringing people together and encouraged their interaction by raising unconventional topics from a new perspective. Gianni disliked self-righteous posturing; in his view, the fundamental challenges spoke for themselves without the need for histrionics. Dealing with Gianni was like absorbing a Mozart symphony – frothy at the surface; serious, perhaps even somewhat melancholy, underneath.

Gianni always had a marvelous time. Because of the breadth of his interests and his boundless energy, our meetings in Europe often turned into an adventure. One Sunday, Gianni arranged for us to see the original model of St. Peter in Rome in a basement under the cathedral; he wanted to show me the nuance between the great and the merely good by the manner in which the very few changes introduced by Michelangelo had exalted the original design by Bramante. We then flew to Turin for a football game and ended the day with dinner at Villa Perosa for the long conversation that was the purpose of the meeting in the first place.

For almost every encounter in Europe, Gianni found an artistic or historic setting. Since his interests were so wide, there was an inexhaustible supply of fascinating things to see: museums, exhibits, old palaces with rare art not yet open to the public and, on one occasion, a pool with sulfur water used by early Roman emperors, which Gianni insisted that we try together – he with greater enthusiasm than I.

Gianni liked to live at the edge of danger. When he drove the car, it was in defiance of speed limits and traffic regulations including, occasionally, one-way street signs. Landing with him in St. Moritz was another dreaded experience. Coming in through the mountain pass is forbidding, even in good weather. Under cloud cover most planes turn back and wait for another occasion. Gianni would instruct his pilot to circle until a temporary break in the clouds enabled him to dive through it. All this was not so much daring as fatalistic. Only towards the end of his life, Gianni reflected on how strange it was that when he was young, he frequently risked his life when it was still in front of him, while now, at an advanced age, he treasured every day left to him.

Gianni had an extraordinary ability to sum up an event in some pungent phrase that put it into a human perspective. When my mother was found unconscious on the floor of her apartment, he said, “Don’t idealize her too much. If she recovers, she will be as she has always been.” He was right. She recovered. She turned out as she had always been, which, for me, was the most cherished outcome.

On another occasion, Gianni had invited me to the opening of the Palazzo Grassi, which he had donated to Venice as a museum. One of the speakers pointed out that it was a happy partnership between the power of Turin and the culture of Venice. “I am glad,” Gianni commented, “he did not speak of marrying the culture of Turin and the power of Venice.”

Gianni was a genuine cosmopolitan, a supporter of European unity and an advocate of Atlantic partnership – causes he supported with his personal involvement and his resources. Above all, he was an Italian patriot with a special attachment to the city of Turin. At the celebration of FIAT’s 100th anniversary, with the Italian Prime Minister and much of the Italian cabinet present, the accolades which meant most to Gianni were when the head of the FIAT labor union emphasized the Agnelli family’s long-time concern for the workers at FIAT.

In the same spirit, on another occasion, Gianni invited me to Turin so that he could show me an exhibit of the role of Piedmont in the Crimean war – which had established Piedmont as a European power and paved the way to Italian unification. Gianni used that opportunity to take me, together with his grandson John, to see Cavour’s seat in the Piedmontese parliament and the library of the statesman responsible for the forging of the modern Italy.

Gianni had many opportunities to sell FIAT to his great financial benefit. Though he played with the idea, he always shrank from it in the end. “We are a national army,” he said, “I can’t bring myself to turn it into a foreign legion.”

Endowed with all these extraordinary attributes of brilliance, charm and intelligence, Gianni was nevertheless, in essence, quite solitary. Being outgoing and exquisitely polite was his way of keeping others at a distance. He loved to have people around him, but even amidst them – and especially in larger settings – he was essentially alone. This was the opposite of snobbishness; it was his form of noblesse oblige. Having been so favored by fortune, he did not think he had a right to make any demands on others. In the decades I knew him, he never mentioned any personal needs; he never asked for any help with any problem, personal or business. Sometimes, as after the untimely death of his son, I found some words to show understanding for his travail. But I did so in a letter, for I knew he would not want to talk about his grief. He came back to the point a year later in a way that showed he had thought about it deeply without referring to my communication.

Fundamentally, Gianni gave back the blessings bestowed on him by caring passionately for his family and for close friends. He was unobtrusively loyal. He did many small, daily things which showed you that he was part of your life without asking for any reciprocity or even acknowledging that he had organized them. Indeed, since he stated no personal need, one would not have known what reciprocity would consist of.

Nothing in Gianni’s life became him more than its last months. He surely knew he was dying. But he obliged everyone to lead normal lives by pretending that there was some newly discovered miracle drug that would restore him. He never complained about pain or even acknowledged it, though his doctors told me that it was excruciating. I saw him almost every day during his chemotherapy, and he never admitted any discomfort, trying – and succeeding – in conducting conversation about events of the day or interesting subjects that had come to our attention. Towards the end, when he was going blind, Marella told me that his eyesight was returning and he was watching football on television. When I expressed my pleasure at this turn of events to Gianni, I learned that he was only listening to the sound but that he did not want to discourage Marella’s hopes.

Three months before Gianni’s death, there was a ceremony dedicating the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, the beautiful little museum Gianni had built for the city of Turin on top of the FIAT factory to exhibit his exquisite collection of paintings. He was no longer strong enough to participate in the ceremony or any social function. But he received the President of Italy in the library of the museum at a meeting attended only by a few members of his family and me. Gianni was impeccably dressed and, for the nearly two hours of the meeting, conducted the conversation as if it were the most normal daily occurrence.

Much has been written about Gianni Agnelli, the national icon, the uncrowned king of Italy, the powerful personality who was the most influential Italian of his era. It was one of the few examples where myth merged with reality. For those who were close to him, Gianni leaves a void which can never be filled. He ennobled our lives; he brought joy to our activities. He asked nothing of us than to do our best in pursuit of honorable goals – and in the process to make life for those around us somewhat more cheerful.

Much as we miss Gianni, we would not trade places with those whose lives he never touched.