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Agnelli: The playboy industrialist

By CNN's Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci

Agnelli, known as l'avvocato, right, with Italian leader Berlusconi
Agnelli, known as l'avvocato, right, with Italian leader Berlusconi

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TURIN, Italy (CNN) -- Giovanni Agnelli, who has died at the age of 81, was born into wealth and groomed to take over the car company his grandfather founded, which he did in the early 1960s.

His dynasty grew so big that at one time Agnelli, usually known as Gianni, was in control -- directly or indirectly -- of a quarter of the entire Italian stock exchange worth $25 billion dollars.

"Agnelli was a man of the old school. He grew up in an environment where politicians and Fiat could intermingle their interests. He grew up in a kind of baron landscape of winner takes all," said his biographer Alan Friedman.

In the 1970s and 80s Agnelli's influence and powers appeared boundless and he was the personification of Italian business.

He relied for years on a well-protected Italian car market. Above all Agnelli -- also known as "l'avvocato " or the lawyer -- was always a man able to shape national policy behind the scenes.

"What was important was his private conversations -- you know ... everybody say the l'avvocato told me, l'avvocato suggested me, I met the l'avvocato, I had a call in the early morning from the l'avvocato... to be in touch with him ... to be related to him ... was a state symbol for everybody," journalist Carlo Rossella told CNN.

For much of the 70s and 80s Agnelli was also the symbol of Italian manhood: he was married to a princess, but his love affairs were never kept secret.

His fashion styles -- wearing a watch over the cuff of his shirts and button-down collars never buttoned -- became trends and the paparazzi would trail him from the French Riviera to Swiss ski resorts.

But Fiat was slow to adapt to a more competitive market after the gradual removal of trade barriers. Agnelli's star no longer burned quite so brightly.

Agnelli mixed with leading figures in Italy
Agnelli mixed with leading figures in Italy

"Gianni Agnelli's life story is really a parabola. He went up in the 1950s and 60s as a playboy turned industrialist. He reached his peak of power controlling newspapers, insurance companies and car manufacturers. He went down from the late 1980s when Italy no longer had a protectionist market, Fiat products were no longer successful," said Friedman.

Agnelli left the day-to-day operations of Fiat in 1996 after 36 years to become its honorary chairman.

There was a tragic side to Agnelli's life: his only son committed suicide and his nephew, who was in line to succeed him, died of a brain tumour at the age of 33. He is survived by his wife Marella, his daughter Margherita, and more than 150 cousins, nephews and nieces.


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