Gianni Goes Marching On : AGNELLI: Fiat and the Network of Italian Power by Alan Friedman (New American Library: $19.95; 359 pp.; 0-453-0069-6

Armstrong is the Rome correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper

This book was published last year simultaneously in Britain and in Italy, where it was called (in Italian) "All in the Family," a rather more cozy title than the Anglo-American one. The French edition of Friedman's book, there called "Agnelli, l'Argent et la Politique en Italie," now is vying for custom with another book called "Agnelli, l'Irresistible," by Marie France Pochna, a French lawyer. Though I probably never shall read Madame Pochna's book, I feel certain that the two titles are interchangeable.

Gianni Agnelli was born 68 years ago as heir-apparent to the Fiat car company of Turin that his grandfather had founded and which has grown enormously under Gianni's tutelage to the point that it controls 25% of all the companies quoted on the Milan Stock Exchange.

Being born with lots of money, if things are well handled, can bring one lots of power. That may even be the only honest way of obtaining such power today.

Friedman says that he started out to write a book on the rich new Italy of this closing decade, the author having arrived in Milan in 1985 as one of the Financial Times' two correspondents in Italy. Later the author's focus was drawn exclusively (irresistibly?) to Agnelli, and to what Friedman calls his "network of power." That phrase is often forcefully inserted into the test as if it were, in itself, a thing ominous and sinister.

Friedman certainly was right to concentrate his attention on Agnelli. Italy has not had a genuine and enduring famous name since the upside-down exit of the dictator Benito Mussolini. Nor has the land of song given the world a single recent pop singer. Federico Fellini's films since 1973 have been lead balloons in the cinema circus. Agnelli is the best-known Italian public figure.

He has achieved this pinnacle through hard work, starting with being the country's richest and most renowned young playboy. That takes work as well as money. He did not really take up his duties at Fiat until he was 45, and he has never entirely put away his playboyish things--yacht racing, ownership of a champion professional soccer team, skiing, and turning up everywhere when there is an international gala affair, but one selected with great care. Fiat's success as a car-maker, and its success with about 200 other companies owned in some way by the Agnelli family, has not been harmed by Gianni's fame as a swath-cutting global socialite. The two organizations on the Italian peninsula with the best corporate image, thanks in part to well-honed public-relations teams, are Fiat and the Vatican. The Pope, of course, inherited a long-tested apparatus, and one much longer in business, whereas Gianni has created today's Fiat empire, starting with only a couple of first-rate car factories.

Friedman's book was a best seller in Italy and in Britain, and it is difficult to understand why. Gianni and Fiat's managing director, Cesare Romiti, are the only strong characters in the book and are never in conflict. The average reader would need a machete to cut his way through the jungle of acronyms in which the two men live in what may soon be their private game reserve. The reader is confronted with ENI, IRI, SNIA, BPD, IFAT, IMI, STET, RAI, IFI and TELIT, all of them corporations, or groups, with a role to play in the Angelli story. Of course, Fiat itself is an acronym (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino), but one that is at least graced by being also a Latin word, as in Fiat Lux, though that may be known only to Biblical or to Latin scholars and, possibly, to the Lever Brothers.

The kitchen-sink completeness of this book could be a handicap, or another penalty readers must pay when any author has fed his computer with every word the researchers have come up with on his subject, most of those words taken from press clippings. Second helpings are only too rarely denied.

Friedman's chapter called "The Mafia and the Other Mafias" was omitted from the Italian edition. It may be that the London and New York publishers felt that a book on Italy without the Mafia would lose mercantile value. The chapter only touches on the Mafia and is in fact a capsuled history of Italy in the last century or so. The "other Mafias," one supposes, are the other "power networks." One irresistible quality that Agnelli lacks is that of being a Mafioso.

"Gianni Agnelli, outwardly the amiable and charming friend of presidents, kings, and prime ministers, is in fact the head of a ruthlessly managed and arrogant network of power which virtually amounts to a shadow Italian government . . . " (Friedman is right in his shadow reference, but in a country where the major Christian Democrat Party has more than the average quota of truly shady characters, Italy's present economic prosperity or luck may be at least partly due to such an efficient shadow government.)

The Fiat president is "the uncrowned king of Italy, a latter-day despot whose family enriched itself by doing business with the Fascist inner circle when Mussolini came to power," the author says. (Well, Fiat already was a giant power when Mussolini was still a Socialist schoolteacher. Was Fiat expected, for 20 years, to turn down contracts from Italy's legitimate government?)

Henry Kissinger, who flies into Italy often on an Agnelli plane to sit next to Gianni when his Juventus soccer team is playing, describes him as "somebody for whom I have enormous affection and admiration . . . (He represents) the permanent establishment, the continuity, that Italy can be proud of," Kissinger told Friedman, the good doctor sounding very much like a British monarchist speaking of the Queen.

Gianni, his brothers and sisters, Friedman tells us with a Dickensian relish, were given candies by their English nanny "after meals (while most Italian children were lucky to have a square meal)." In an early post-war survey, conducted I believe by the U.N.'s Health Organization, the luckless children of poor Italian families were found to be considerably healthier, and with more stamina, than their American counterparts, who had been regularly, and squarely, stuffed with steak, potatoes, and candy.

Sometimes it is said in Italy that Agnelli may own Fiat but he does not run it, that being done by the stony-faced (and seemingly flint-hearted) managing director, Cesare Romiti, brought in for that purpose in 1974. That would make Romiti the most powerful man in Italy, and that would make Gianni (people, like this reviewer, who do not know Agnelli like to call him Gianni--for his staff he is l'Avvocato, or The Lawyer) more like the Venetian Doge, a ubiquitous figurehead, an icon helicoptered from city to city (three in a single day) to lend his presence and to spread his grace.

Agnelli also controls newspapers whose sales amount to 25% of the Italian national sales and, as Friedman points out, "no one could imagine GM owning 25% of the American press." But then no one could have imagined the ownership of today's major Hollywood studios, whose products arguably have more worldwide influence than daily newspapers. Gianni's two largest dailies never read like house organs and happen also to be Italy's best.

Friedman gives less than is due to Agnelli's funding of numerous cultural projects in the last decade, something for which the House of Windsor does not even open its handbag. Some of these fundings are done on the quiet. An exception is the Palazzo Grassi, the largest palace on Venice's Grand Canal. Agnelli bought it and had its interior remodeled at a cost of $15 million, and it is the best art showcase in Europe. He uses it, about twice a year, when a major art show opens and his worldwide court flies in, on their own jets, for the grand opening.

In the end, the reader may find that the author has tried too hard to demonize "The King," and his own admiration for Agnelli's success, and particular life style, can be heard banging from inside the closet door. If Italians must have a king, they could do (and once did) far worse.

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