Wednesday 23 October 2019

Obituary: Marella Agnelli

Socialite and garden designer who bestrode high society with her husband Gianni, the head of Fiat

Chic: Italian style icon Marella Agnelli. Photo: Getty
Chic: Italian style icon Marella Agnelli. Photo: Getty

Marella Agnelli, who has died aged 91, was an Italian style icon, a talented gardener and an elegant doyenne of international high society. Her husband Giovanni, or Gianni, frequently known as "l'Avvocato" (the Lawyer), had inherited the Fiat manufacturing empire from his grandfather, taking control of the company's assets in 1966. Under his aegis Fiat weathered economic storms and expanded its involvement into banking, publishing and sport.

Meanwhile, the Agnellis established a reputation for high elegance and exquisite personal taste. Truman Capote, writing in Vogue in 1969, described the couple as "lively and sophisticated, like a fast game of chemin-de-fer". Their various houses around the world were decorated by the interior designers Stephane Boudin and Renzo Mongiardino; Boudin's friend Russell Page helped Marella Agnelli with the garden on her estate, Villar Perosa, near Turin.

An abiding love of roses led her to create several celebrated rose gardens, with one pink variety - Donna Marella Agnelli - being named for her.

Following the death of her husband in 2003, she channelled her energies into the restoration of a villa in Marrakesh. Enlisting the help of the American garden designer Madison Cox, she cultivated a simple aesthetic, using wicker furniture cushioned in bright colours and adding a sense of history by planting mature olives and vines taken from farmland that was about to be redeveloped.

"Mrs Agnelli's mantra was 'Let's have fun!'" Madison Cox told Vogue in 2006, reflecting with admiration on the then 79-year-old's remarkable vitality: "It's wonderful to be able to work with someone who has lived it all... and who has such a passion for this - a true, heartfelt passion."

Marella Agnelli was born Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto in Florence on May 4, 1927. Her father, Filippo Caracciolo, was from a Neapolitan noble family. He was made an undersecretary in the post-war Italian government and would later become secretary general of the Council of Europe. Her mother, the former Margaret Clarke, was a wealthy Anglo-American expatriate.

The young Marella attended school in Switzerland before heading to France to study art and design with the Academie des Beaux-Arts and Academie Julian in Paris. In 1949 she featured in Vogue as a 21-year-old debutante, attracting much admiration for her elegant long neck.

She and Gianni had met when she was 18, and despite her being initially intimidated by the size of the Agnelli clan - "seven siblings who all looked alike, talked alike and often laughed at the same jokes", as she recalled - the pair were soon on close terms. Tales of Gianni's army exploits (he had won the Cross for Military Valour while serving in North Africa) served to heighten his appeal further.

They married in 1953, Marella wearing a white satin Balenciaga dress. Later that year, the Vogue photographer Richard Avedon shot Signora Agnelli in a half-profile portrait that showed her in a strapless white gown. The image became a sensation, appearing in Harper's Bazaar as part of a feature on 'Beauty of Our Time'. For his part, Avedon considered Marella Agnelli to be the most beautiful woman he ever photographed; they would work together several more times.

For a time Marella Agnelli dabbled in fashion journalism and photography. A line of fabrics she designed for the Swiss textile house Abraham-Zumsteg proved a great success. But her real passions were for gardening and for the maintenance of an unpretentiously luxurious lifestyle.

Her respect for what was old and beautiful was expressed through her work with the Italian Environmental Fund, an organisation dedicated to preserving historic landscapes. She also co-wrote two books on landscape architecture, Gardens of the Italian Villas (1987) and The Agnelli Gardens at Villar Perosa: Two Centuries of a Family Retreat (1998).

Although Gianni had a roving eye - he described himself as "a devoted, rather than faithful, husband" and numbered the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg among his many lovers - the marriage was solid.

"He knows how to make boredom disappear, more than anyone else I know," Marella Agnelli said. "I knew Gianni would come and go, but he would always come back. Who was the wife of Ulysses? Penelope? I was like that."

In 2002 the Agnellis founded Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, a gallery displaying works by, among others, Manet, Matisse and the Italian futurist Giacomo Balla.

The following year Gianni died aged 81. Their son, Edoardo, had died in 2000 when he fell from a bridge near Turin.

Marella Agnelli, who died on February 23, is survived by her daughter.

© Telegraph

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