In a paean written to celebrate the life of Donna Marella Agnelli, née Caracciolo from the aristocratic family of princes of Castagneto, the question arises as to where Truman Capote’s “swans” are today? They were a clearly demarcated, symbolic group of women, linked by a common thread: they were perceived as allegories. It was a question of upbringing, an imprinting in which the rigorous etiquette of the Ancien Regime courts persisted, made up of centuries-old rules, flair and sovereign caprice – mixed with an American stylization along WASP lines. Women shielded behind the narrative on a Coromandel Chinese screen, or kept apart from the common people, “the others”, by large gardens and thick velvet curtains. Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, or Babe Paley, who had lost all her teeth in a car accident as a teenager, would go to sleep wearing her dentures, despite the pain they caused, so as not to be slovenly even when asleep. Their lives were sometimes happy, sometimes not, invented, like literary plots, and marked out on chess boards: they knew how to suffer, too, continually raising the bar.
Some of the comparisons that have emerged in the media in recent days have been disconcerting, making out that Marella Agnelli was a sort of forerunner of the blogger and influencer hordes; in fact it is quite the opposite. Marella Agnelli, who was born in Florence on 4 May 1927, pursued an absolute mysticism: that of being unique. “We are a family of Anglo-yobs,” she writes in Ho Coltivato il mio giardino (I cultivated my garden), alluding to their Florence villa “I Cancelli”, followed by villas at Ratzöz, Balta-Liman, Roncaccio and Rome. Her father, Don Filippo Caracciolo di Castagneto, was a diplomat of aristocratic Neapolitan origin. Her mother, Margaret Clarke, came from Peoria, Illinois. Marella’s marriage to Gianni Agnelli at the Osthoffen castle, just outside Strasburg, on 19 November 1953 at twenty-six years old propelled her into a rarefied universe: journeys by private train, houses furnished by Maison Jansen, and Russell Page, the gardener guru. Her surreal swan-like neck and a Pollaiolo-style photographic portrait taken in New York by Richard Avedon, also in 1953.
The Duchess Guermantes is taken to task by her husband for wearing black shoes with a scarlet ball gown: that would never have happened with Marella.
In Turin there are endless fragments of legend told about her: veined with love, with respect for the House of Savoy, and with a poisoned tip. The Agnelli dynasty kept a military-style cavalry school in Pinerolo, that gradually developed into the industrial epic of FIAT. In the late 1960s Marella appeared at an epoch-making exhibition on the “Blaue Reiter” group, enveloped in a knitted cape with an almost electric pattern, like a medieval warrior, with a yellow gold and hazel necklace. She was accompanied by Kandinsky’s widow, covered in emeralds like a Hindu idol: as the French would say, ‘Quelle différence de bouquet’.
With a ubiquitous and almost distracted politeness – so much politeness can only mean distance. With the plus that she would make anyone speaking to her feel valued – for the eternity of a second. A few words, the odd fragmented compliment, that somewhat corrosive English-style humor that recurs in the pages of La Signora Gocà, a journey from childhood to adolescence, published by Adelphi in 2015.
She appeared at a reception at the Quirinale in the early 1970s in an ice-white Forquet suit, a linear hologram. Subtraction, a distinguished purism carried off with the utmost style, that eclipsed all the other women, making them seem over-dressed, with too much make-up, over-elaborate hair, too much jewelry. Excessive. During the 1980s, she caused a sensation in the Agnelli city (Turin) with her fake Persian jacket, perhaps designed by Givenchy. She never wore heels; only moccasins and tapered pants, thrown together with a shell jumper worthy of Pisanello. A skirt of modest appearance but magisterial size, a bourgeois silk shirt and a JAR brooch or bracelet. On formal occasions she only wore one piece of jewelry, the Moghul sautoir with several rows of rubies, pearls and emeralds, which she found in the Gem Palace in Jaipur, on a trip with her husband and her in-laws, Brando and Cristiana Brandolini d’Adda. It was a necklace resembling the dagger slung across the maharajah of Bikaner. They say that unlike the character of Anna Carla Dosioin, who was inspired by her in La donna della domenica, the most Turin-centric of the thrillers by Fruttero & Lucentini, Mme Gianni Agnelli did not know a single word of Piedmont dialect and, so I have been told, did not even know of the existence of Balôn, the famous Turin flea market which is the setting for a crucial scene in the novel.
Melanie Benjamin, in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, insinuates that Marella’s English was less than perfect as regards her accent. During the 1970s, in 1974 to be precise, the TV superstar, Mina, copied her wavy, streaked hairstyle, which, together with her heraldic skinniness, triumphed in the black and white television series Mille Luci. It is quite the contrary of the glasnost of the influencers. Her reserve was protected by her homes, set inside those gardens that she loved. The last one was in Marrakech, at the Palmeraie, designed with Madison Cox.
There are some rare performances that have entered the global collective imagination: her arrival at Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball, at the Plaza in NYC, on 28 November 1966, in a gleaming white Mila Schön caftan, matched with a Venetian-style mask.
They say that the food wasn’t anything wonderful at the Agnelli home, since they were ascetics eternally on a diet. Semolina pasta, crudités and pallid, ultra-chic flans. When comic actor Alberto Sordi was invited for a meal with the Avvocato (Gianni Agnelli), it seems he ended up asking if he could have two strands (of spaghetti). There were very few close companions: a small group of officiants of their cult. Mario D’Urso, Babe Paley, the Kennedys and Gloria Guinness, Marella’s brothers, Carlo and Nicola, their nephews and nieces. In Marella’s youth, Niky de Saint Phalle, and afterwards her cousin Allegra Caracciolo, the wife of Umberto Agnelli, Dino Franzin with his sharp wit, who they went to for updates on news and gossip, including the most salacious pieces, and Alberto Arbasino with his encyclopedic knowledge. Federico Forquet, the Neapolitan couturier, interior designer, collector and eminent gardener, was the minister of style: he designed clothing like mathematical concepts. Among her few female friends were Anna Viacava, Rossella Sleiter and Evelina Christillin.
The 1950s ranged from Balenciaga to Givenchy, and from Emilio Pucci to a less pop-style Courrèges. Together with Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill on the Amalfi coast in the early 1960s, Marella plotted the success of Irene Galitzine’s palazzo pajamas, which became the uniform of the Swans.
The houses. She inserted the understated rattan everywhere, in contrast with the liveliness of the ornamental rococo repertoire, with the monumental Imari potiches, the mirrors and large gilded consoles, as in Villar Perosa. She balanced the 18th century splendor of cabinet-makers such as Carlin, Weisweiler and Jacob, with printed calico covers that she designed herself. The tableware featured Sèvres and Compagnie des Indes dishes, with silver jugs full of sharpened pencils everywhere. Despite the thousands of works of art the family owned, the Baigneuse Blonde by Renoir that hung in the bedroom at Frescot – her favorite house on the Turin hillside, where she died – the works by Balthus, and Fontana’s red, multi-slash artworks in the apartment overlooking Rome, her favorite works were by an intimist painter, Carl Moll, one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement in 1897, with Gustav Klimt. Those green Austrian landscapes reminded her of her holidays in Bressanone and her carefree childhood days.
She was accused of being emotionless, distant and cold as ice – but witty and fond of good books, surrounded by a pack of Huskies. She jumped through all kinds of hoops to keep alive the relationship with her husband, which eventually lasted half a century: he was a difficult, demanding man, with a restless personality inclined to sudden mood changes, and easily bored. Gianni Agnelli said he had never been able to read more than ten pages of a book, or to watch more than a quarter of an hour of a film. Then there was the death of their son Edoardo, in November 2000, who fell from a flyover on the Turin-Savona motorway. The no-holds-barred legal battle to the tune of billions waged amid the morbid curiosity of the whole country, by their daughter Margherita in an attempt to claim a share of the inheritance in February 2003. For once the curtain was raised on a landscape livid with interests and grievances. A deep rift opened that is still to be healed. The pain, the fear, the void – could not be revealed. It was not permitted to admit it, even to themselves.