Often called Italy's uncrowned king, Giovanni Agnelli, 82, has long presided over one of Europe's most powerful industrial dynasties. The Avvocato, or "the Lawyer," has mesmerized an entire nation with his wit, urbane style, and aristocratic demeanor. In his younger days, he lived a fantasy lifestyle, mingling easily with Hollywood celebrities and the political elite, from Ava Gardner to John F. Kennedy. He wielded autocratic control over the family's empire and exercised extensive influence over Italy Inc.'s feudal network of power. He even admonished prime ministers when he chose. Above all, "Gianni" reigned supreme in the extended clan. "No one dared to get in his way," says one banker who knows the family well.
Now, more than a century since Giovanni's grandfather founded Fiat with $400 in capital, the Agnelli court is short on family members interested in the car business. Some 100 descendants dabble in everything from fashion design to private banking. Gianni's niece Priscilla, for example, is a photographer and author of a recent book on life in the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. Priscilla, the daughter of Gianni's sister Susanna, married flamboyant American entrepreneur Christopher Whittle. Other family notables include Milan fashion designer Prince Egon von Furstenberg, the son of Gianni's sister Clara.
Yet a leader for the next generation is emerging. Last year, Gianni knighted his grandson John Philip Elkann, 26, managerial successor to the family empire. The son of Gianni's daughter Margherita and French-born writer Alain Elkann, John Philip has already cut his teeth on the Fiat-500 assembly line in Poland and in sales and marketing in France. He sits on the Fiat (FIA) group board, which includes former General Electric Co. Chairman Jack Welch, who helped arrange a job for Elkann on GE's corporate audit staff.
The choice of Elkann, who studied at Turin's Polytechnic University, skips a generation in the House of Agnelli. Gianni's brother Umberto had a son, Giovanni Alberto, who ran Fiat's motor-scooter subsidiary. The nephew was Gianni's chosen successor, but he died of cancer at 33. Gianni's own son Edoardo, who preferred Eastern religions to business, committed suicide in 2000 at the age of 46.
Looking over Elkann's shoulder will be uncle Umberto, 67, who chairs the two holding companies, IFIL and IFI, that control Fiat. Umberto spent decades at the helm of the family's empire, first as chief executive of Fiat group and later as chairman of Fiat Auto. Umberto favors the sale of the auto maker. His successful diversification of the Agnelli holdings has given Umberto more sway in the family, according to one board member, who says: "I can imagine them selling Fiat Auto now."
Even if they do, the $52 billion Fiat group will still confer plenty of clout on the Agnellis. And if John Elkann's role as heir apparent seems a challenge for his tender age, it's not a first. Gianni himself took the mantle from his own grandfather, joining the board in 1943 at age 22. By Gail Edmondson and Kate Carlisle in Rome