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Italy agog for Gucci `trial of century'

PATRIZIA Reggiani's hatred of her late ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci, was immense, and she made no secret of the fact. "It had become an obsession: I wanted to find a killer for Maurizio, and in 1994 I confessed this to my best friend," Ms Reggiani wrote in a memorandum sent to magistrates last month.

That friend, Giuseppina Auriemma, took Ms Reggiani at her word, and in September 1995 found a hitman to kill the last Gucci to run the famous luxury leather-goods company.

On Tuesday, after a week's delay caused by a lawyers' strike, a court will convene in Milan to decide who was responsible for that murder. Did the former Mrs Gucci's words constitute a serious request for action, as Ms Auriemma insists? Or, as Ms Reggiani claims, were they just a way of verbalising her anger at Gucci's high-handed treatment of their two daughters?

The cards are stacked against Ms Reggiani, who has admitted that the murder left her "with a growing feeling of euphoria. I felt like a monster, but the incident did not cause me pain". But since the morning in January 1997 when Ms Reggiani insisted on wearing a full-length mink coat over her pyjamas before being led off to prison, she has been adamant that her desire to do away with Maurizio was no more than wishful thinking.

Italian papers have already dubbed the hearings the "trial of the century", and the elements are there: the money, power and legendary truculence of the Gucci family; Ms Reggiani's well-documented ire at Maurizio's impending second marriage; his questionable business dealings since selling his 50 per cent stake in the family firm in 1993; even the occult, in which the Guccis, apparently egged on by Ms Auriemma, were known to dabble.

Most gripping of all, however, is the fight between two women whose 20-year friendship has given way to implacable enmity.

Ms Reggiani will be playing the diminished-responsibility card. "My client lost part of a frontal lobe when she had a brain tumour removed in 1992," said her lawyer, Giovanni Maria Dedola. "The woman is seriously ill, and suffers from epileptic fits.In a fair world, she wouldn't be in a prison cell at all."

Ms Auriemma, on the other hand, is aiming to emerge with her head up, occupying whatever high moral ground remains in this squalid tale. "Pina is going to be sent down for life or 30 years, whatever happens," said her lawyer, Paolo Trofina. "But unlike Reggiani, she has admitted to her part and she's willing to pay the price. She is not trying to get herself off the hook at someone else's expense."