Italy weeps as Agnelli dynasty's brave new hope dies at 33

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He was the great hope for the future of the Agnelli dynasty; young, smart, good looking and, at 33, already well on his way to the top of the Fiat industrial empire. But this weekend Giovanni Alberto Agnelli died of a rare form of intestinal cancer, plunging Italy into the sort of mourning usually reserved for princes and film stars. He was every Italian mama's dream child: industrious, discreet, well turned-out and always even tempered. Being an Agnelli, and thus a member of the closest thing Italy has to a royal family, Giovanni Alberto - Giovannino to his friends and the Italian media - was also an emblem for a whole generation of young people and their hopes for the next century.

Certainly he was born to unlimited privilege and owed much of his youthful prominence to his wealth and family connections. But in a country where power is jealously guarded by old men, Giovannino stood out as just about the only worthwhile public figure under the age of 40.

He had taken over his mother's company, the scooter manufacturer Piaggio, and steered it out of the doldrums to renewed prosperity. Two years ago his uncle, the outgoing Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, and his father, Umberto Agnelli, officially anointed him as the man who would lead Fiat into the third millennium.

Giovannino seemed to be a person who could do no wrong. Just about the most scandalous thing he ever did was pose for a press photographer with his feet on his desk. Although the media was forever sniffing around for romantic gossip, he gave them no satisfaction and ended up marrying an old flame from his college days in the United States, Avery Howe.

Giovannino began to feel ill on his return from a much postponed honeymoon to India in February this year. Two months later he gave an interview to the paper owned by his family, the Turin daily La Stampa, and made two announcements. The first was that his wife was pregnant. The second was that a rare form of tumour had been found in his peritoneum, and he would be spending several months undergoing treatment in New York.

"It won't be a brief process, but I have every reason to believe I will overcome it," he said at the time.

True to his discreet nature, he never uttered another word about his illness, and once he returned to Italy in August one could have been forgiven for assuming he was cured. But Giovannino did not return to his office at Piaggio, staying instead within the family cocoon in Turin as he underwent further treatment.

His last public appearance was on Wednesday, to see his beloved football team Juventus overcome Manchester United 1-0 in the European Champions League.

His condition worsened the next day, and his body finally gave up at lunchtime on Saturday. He was buried in the Agnelli tomb at dawn yesterday in a ceremony attended only by his closest family, including his three- month-old daughter Virginia.

Giovannino's illness had been casting shadow over the succession at Fiat. The present chairman, Cesare Romiti, is due to retire next year although he may be asked to stay on until Fiat's centenary in 1999.

A few names for a successor have been bandied about, notably that of the former General Electric manager Paolo Fresco.

The prospect of an Agnelli taking the helm again soon look dim indeed. The only person approaching Giovannino's talents and promise is John Elkann, Gianni's grandson by his daughter Margherita. But Elkann is still at college, too young to be a safe bet. It could be that Giovannino's tragic death spells the end of the Agnellis as an industrial dynasty, and that Fiat is destined to become just another European car company.

Obituary, page 16