At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Marella Agnelli - noblewoman and socialite

Married for 50 years to Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli


Marella Agnelli enjoyed a lifestyle  of wealth and privilege
Marella Agnelli enjoyed a lifestyle
of wealth and privilege
Donna Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, the noblewoman from an old Neapolitan family who married the jet-setting chairman of car giants Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, was born on this day in 1927 in Florence.

Simply known as Marella Agnelli, she was propelled by her marriage at the age of 26 into a world in which she became a socialite and style icon, devoting her life to collecting art, decorating the numerous homes she and her husband kept in Europe and beyond, and attending and hosting lavish, exclusive parties.

The couple would eventually have homes in Rome, Paris, New York,  Corsica and Saint-Moritz, as well as several houses in and around Agnelli’s home city of Turin, including the Agnelli estate in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

As member of the House of Caracciolo, she was regarded as high Italian nobility, although she admitted that the conservative aristocratic circles in which she grew up were a long way removed from the new life she took on at Agnelli’s side.

Her father was Don Filippo Caracciolo, 8th Prince di Castagneto, 3rd Duke di Melito, and hereditary Patrician of Naples, who married an American whiskey heiress, Margaret Clarke. One of her brothers, Don Carlo Caracciolo, founded the newspaper La Repubblica.

She and Agnelli met when she was 18. Marella was familiar with him both through the gossip columns - he was a notorious playboy - and through the tales she heard of his wartime exploits as part of a tank regiment on the Eastern Front and in north Africa.  He was 24 and, after his parents had both died young, became head of the Agnelli family.

Marella and Gianni Agnelli arriving at a function in 1966
Marella and Gianni Agnelli arriving at a function in 1966
The couple did not become engaged until the summer of 1953, marrying in November of the same year in the chapel of Osthoffen Castle, just outside Strasbourg, the French city where her father was based as secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

Before they were married Marella had been developing her photography skills in the New York studio of Erwin Blumenfeld and returned to Italy as a correspondent for the upmarket magazine publisher Condé Nast but effectively gave up her career to be a wife and society hostess.

She and Agnelli’s lives revolved around late autumns in New York, the skiing season in Saint-Moritz and summers on the French Riviera, entertaining a circle of friends that included the Kennedys, the Kissingers, the Rockefellers.

Their son, Edoardo, was born in New York in 1954, their daughter, Margherita, in Lausanne the following year.

Each year, from mid-August until the end of September, while Gianni attended to business in Turin, Marella and the children would be based at the Agnelli family estate at the foot of the Alps at Villar Perosa, 40km (25 miles) from Turin. It had been home to the family since the early 19th century.  She and Agnelli also had a city residence in Corso Matteotti in Turin.

Marella Agnelli became known for elegance and style
Marella Agnelli became known for elegance and style
Their homes were known for their elegance and style, much of it the work of Marella, for whom the artistic talents that might have flourished had she maintained her budding career in photography were channelled into interior design, whether at Villa Frescot, in the hills above Turin, their duplex apartment on Park Avenue in New York, or the country estate, where Marella enlisted the garden designer Russell Page in transforming the grounds into a living work of art.

It was their love of art on canvas that drew the Agnellis to New York, where they became friends with Leo Castelli, the contemporary art dealer from Trieste who had emigrated to New York, who introduced them to upcoming young artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselmann, Frank Stella and Robert Indiana, whose paintings they collected with such enthusiasm they had an apartment in Milan designed by Gae Aulenti, the architect who designed the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, specifically for their collection.

Among the circle of friends they built in New York was the author Truman Capote, who famously who dubbed Marella and a group of elegant and beautiful socialites of the time, including Barbara “Babe” Paley, Lucy Douglas “CZ” Guest and Nancy “Slim” Keith, as his “swans”.

Marella and Capote became very close, the American spending much time in Italy as well as keeping their company in New York, but they fell out eventually after Marella saw a chapter of his novel Answered Prayers, in which he  exposed the lives and secrets of many people who had regarded him as a confidant.

After Gianni Agnelli’s death in 2003, Marella acquired Ain Kassimou, a villa in Marrakech, Morocco, that had been built in the 19th century for a relative of Leo Tolstoy, and she spent a good deal of her time there.  Nowadays, aged 91, she still lives in the family house at Villar Perosa.

The Agnelli house in Villar Pelosa has been in the family
since the early part of the 19th century
Travel tip:

The country house and estate at Villar Perosa, a 45-room stuccoed rococo villa with commanding views of the Alps,  has been in the the Agnelli family since 1811. The Fiat founder, Giovanni Agnelli - Gianni’s grandfather - had been born there in 1866. As well as Russell Page, the English landscape gardener, the Agnellis hired Gae Aulenti to create the timbered pool house.

The Tarot Card Garden at Garavicchio
The Tarot Card Garden at Garavicchio
Travel tip:

The Caracciolo family’s country estate in Tuscany, spread over 500 acres, is near the medieval village of Garavicchio, some 200km (125 miles) south of Florence and 125km (78 miles) northeast of Rome along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast. At the heart of the estate is a 16th century farmhouse positioned so as to enjoy views towards the sea on one side and rolling Tuscan hills on the other.  An unusual feature of Garavicchio is its Tarot Card Garden, a wooded area featuring 22 brightly coloured sculptures inspired by Tarot symbols.

More reading: 

How Gianni Agnelli became the most powerful man in Italy

Giovanni Agnelli - the man who founded Fiat

Gae Aulenti, trailblazer for women in architecture

Also on this day:

1527: Mutinous troops sack Rome

1655: The birth of Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano


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