The Big Question: What is behind the war dividing Italy's greatest business dynasty?

Why are we asking this now?

Margherita Agnelli, the only surviving child of Gianni Agnelli, the patriarch of the Fiat empire who at one time controlled 4 per cent of Italy's GNP, this week won a key battle in her war with the rest of the family. Italy's highest court ruled that the family's legal dispute over Gianni Agnelli's will could not be heard in Switzerland, as the rest of the family want, but in Italy, in accordance with Margherita's wishes.

So what is the dispute about?

Margherita is furious because she feels she was cut out of arrangments following the death of her 81 year-old father in 2003. After Gianni's death , his widow, Marella, Margherita's mother, transferred to her grandson John, Margherita's son, a controlling stake in Fiat. Margherita says that the shares should have gone to her first. More seriously, in her view, she was never told what her father's fortune was worth at the time of his death.

Details of his Italian patrimony were made public, but the fortune he had squirreled-away in foreign bank accounts, which some believe might amount to billions of dollars, have remained a secret closely held by Gianni's retainers: Franz Grande Stevens, Gianluigi Gabbetti and Siegfried Maron. What makes it all much worse is that Margherita claims these three advisors have treated her with contempt. She claims Mr Gabetti told her at one tense family meeting: "You are not worthy to be Gianni Agnelli's daughter. You are not worthy even to wish it."

So Margherita was left poverty-stricken on her father's death?

Well hardly. Feel free to put away your hankies. Her mother says that Margherita obtained "abundant compensation from me, sufficient to

guarantee a serene future for her and her children". Margherita, who lives in Geneva with her second husband, a count of Russian origins called Serge de Pahlen, does not dispute that. She has said repeatedly that this is "nothing to do with money". "I am in need of information," she said last year, when the case erupted in the courts. "I have never received, despite repeated requests, the details of the inheritance of Gianni Agnelli.

"I only ask – I who am, along with my mother, the only direct heir – to be told the situation regarding the inheritance left by my father." Despite the vast wealth, the temptations of self-indulgence of every sort and the presence of a rich cast of wild men and eccentrics, the Agnellis retained an impressively united front, at least in public, up to the time of Gianni Agnelli's death.

How did the family firm become so rich and important?

Like the other moguls of the motor industry around the world, they got in on the ground floor. Gianni's aristocratic grandfather Giovanni, born in 1866, founded Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino in 1899, initially to manufacture motorcycles under licence from a French company, and found himself in the thick of the motor car boom. Within a few years Fiat had become the predominant Italian auto firm.

So the empire dropped into Gianni's lap?

It wasn't quite that simple. Gianni was certainly born with the proverbial silver spoon, but both his paternal grandparents and his parents died in accidents – his parents when they were still in their forties. Gianni, who had carved a swathe through the drawing rooms of the Western world as Italy's most eligible playboy, was suddenly forced to turn serious. By the age of 45, in 1966, he was chairman, a position he retained for the rest of his life, becoming Italy's uncrowned king, a permanent and profound influence on Italian economic and industrial policy, and a symbol of style and success for generations of Italian boys.

What did he achieve?

First and foremost, the Fiat 500 – which the company attempted with some success to replicate earlier this year with the launch of the new 500 – was developed under his leadership. This was one miniature stroke of genius in an industrial empire of stupendous proportions. At its height the firm had ten major divisions and included hundreds of companies involved in areas as diverse as banking, insurance, real estate, chemicals, aerospace, telecoms, defence electronics and armaments, confectionery and Vermouth. Fiat also owned Juventus, the most successful football team in Italian history.

What was his management style like?

He certainly worked hard, and his feet barely touched the ground, but at the same time he contrived to perpetuate the image of the ultimate pleasure-loving jetsetter with his magnificent yachts and friendships with the likes of the Kennedys and Henry Kissinger. Yet the future of the family was dear to him and he presided over the creation of heady dynastic liaisons with the Furstenbergs from Bavaria and the Brandolinis from Venice. At the same time, Fiat became the ultimate paternalistic employer, "La Mamma" as it was known in Turin, pampering tens of thousands of employees with free housing, health care, holiday resorts and kindergartens.

Did he have much time left over for his family?

Margherita does not complain that he was neglectful. "It's not true that he was an absent father," she said last year. "He was present like all fathers of his generation, for whom child-raising was the exclusive task of the women. But I have many memories of his tenderness. And I treasure them."

So until Margherita's lawsuit it was just one big happy family, right?

Sadly not. Being born into the Agnelli clan meant one was expected to shine. Those who proved they were worthy of the name were accepted. But those who were not could be cruelly discarded. Most tragic of the failures was Edoardo, Margherita's elder brother and Gianni's only other heir. After he gave an interview to Italian press in which he claimed that he was Fiat's heir apparent, Gianni announced that his own brother Umberto would be his successor and later restructured Fiat to keep it out of Edoardo's hands.

Aged 46, Eduardo committed suicide, throwing himself from a bridge in Turin.

Was family warfare brewing during Gianni's lifetime?

Possibly below the surface, but his autocratic, oversize personality succeeded in holding the clan more or less compact through every difficulty it encountered. As his relative Delfina Rattazzi has said: "It is a family for the strong."

So has the legal wrangling disgraced the family name?

Margherita claims otherwise. After launching the lawsuit against her closest relatives and their advisers, she said: "I'm sure my father would be very proud of me."

Can the Agnelli family settle their differences?

Yes...

* The rest of the family will finally see off their presumptuous retainers

* With the Fiat share price dropping again, Margherita will lose interest in the family fortune

* Gianni's rule of family unity, deeply entrenched over generations, will prevail in the end

No...

* It is a feud that had been brewing for years before it erupted

* The sums of money are too colossal for either side to back down or try to reach an amicable settlement

* The rupture has gone too far – which is why the rest of family now refer to Margherita as "Signore de Pahlen"

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

Test Analyst - UAT - Credit Risk

£280 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Test Analyst, Edinburgh, Credit Ris...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little