Who is the ideal Robb Report reader? We discuss this frequently asked question at a table in Cipriani of Lower Manhattan, beside windows thrown open to the spring evening. One of my dinner companions is a friend in the Swiss watch industry. The other is Roffredo Gaetani d’Aragona, the largest dealer of Ferraris and Maseratis in the Northeast. Gaetani does not look the part: Immaculate in his ochre-and-olive plaid sports coat, the cuffs of his sleeves crisply turned up, he belongs to the insouciant realm of the Fellini tableau, rather than to the vulgar glare of SoHo. But he is known here. Artists, businessmen, models, many of them Italian, all of them neighbors, approach our table in steady succession to pay their respects, for Gaetani is a man about town in the best sense—cultivated, soft-spoken, an aristocrat who has chosen to make a life for himself in America. As the latest bevy of acquaintances retreats, I offer my answer to the question at hand. “Well, I don’t know who the ideal reader is,” I venture. “But I like to think of our reader’s ideal as someone like Gianni Agnelli.”
“L’Avvocato,” my acquaintance whispers, invoking the nickname by which Agnelli was popularly known. Gaetani smiles sadly. “Yes, l’Avvocato was a force, a spirit,” he reflects, swirling his Chianti glass. “There has never been another such man. He was my friend.”
Gaetani’s friendship with the Italian magnate, who died of cancer in January at the age of 81, should come as no surprise. In the man across from me, as in the legend, one observes a mercurial mélange of machismo, intellect, reckless indulgence, polished urbanity, and, always, great style. This trait—a passionate pursuit of perfection in all forms—perhaps best encapsulates the life of Giovanni Agnelli. His accomplishments (and failures) as a businessman are well known, from his ascension in the 1960s to managing director of Fiat, his grandfather’s company, founded in 1899, to the time of his own demise, when the enormous though struggling conglomerate would include not only Ferrari, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, but also interests in Club Med, an Asian telecom company, a professional soccer team, and Château Margaux. Well documented, too, is his succession of love affairs. Yet Agnelli’s jet-set bravado in the 1950s and 1960s endeared him less to his countrymen than did his own personal gravitational pull—a combination of wit, an unrelenting poise, and a discerning eye for beauty in all its varied incarnations. His unconventional charisma expressed itself in his classically idiosyncratic mode of dress, imitated the world over. Few businessmen who could claim David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger as friends, Muammar Qaddafi as a business partner, and Nikita Krushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev as allies could, in the same stroke, lay claim to status as a fashion icon. But Agnelli’s taste for Brioni suits, tailored Brooks Brothers shirts with open collars, and for wearing his Cartier watch over his cuff made him an haute culture star of the first rank.
“Grace, confidence—this is Agnelli,” Gaetani explains as we talk later in his apartment. “You cannot say precisely what it was, but in its presence, you felt it.” Certainly one feels it in Gaetani’s home, a cavernous memento that resembles—with its colossal stone fireplace, coffered ceiling, and 15th-century wine press belonging to his family—the great hall of a Renaissance palazzo. On the lower level, however, antiquity gives way to gleaming stainless steel surfaces and severe postmodern angles. There is a 21st-century kitchen, a gym (Gaetani was once a boxer), and a walk-in closet in which hang dozens of beautifully tailored suits and coats, the majority made for his grandfather in the 1930s and 1940s. “I wear these because they have great lines,” he tells me, noting that the sports coat he wears this evening was also his grandfather’s. “This is the mark of quality: style that perseveres.”
These comfortable juxtapositions of past and present are, I consider, one of the many legacies of l’Avvocato. Agnelli’s legend results only in part from his hegemony over postwar Italian industry; principally, it stems from his modernity—his awareness that Europe stood at mid-century on the brink of a global era. In his own way, he bridged the old Italy of his fathers, deeply rooted in tradition, with the more progressive, contemporary vernacular of the new age. Agnelli symbolized Italy as an economic power, but he also personified Italy as we know it today: an international tastemaker, an accent of timeless elegance in an inelegant world—a style that perseveres.