Marella Agnelli

Marella Agnelli’s homes are the ultimate expression of the theatrical beauty that a cultivated eye can achieve. In advance of a new book about the woman dubbed Truman Capote’s “Last Swan”, Lucia van der Post exclusively reveals her private list of best-loved designers and artisans

Marella Agnelli
Marella Agnelli | Image: © The estate of Erwin Blumenfeld. From the private collection of Marella Agnelli

In the days when Gianni Agnelli and his elegant wife Marella made regular appearances in the social pages of the world’s media, the first thing remarked upon was nearly always their sublime taste. Taste and the Agnellis went together like Flanders and Swann. There was Gianni himself, l’Avvocato, chairman of Fiat in its glory days, with his immaculate tailoring and his slightly swashbuckling accessories, his way of wearing his tie askew and his watch on top of his cuff instead of under it, of pairing hiking boots with tailored suits – personal idiosyncrasies that spawned a million copycats. Almost everybody knew where he had his suits and shirts made (Caraceni for the suits, Brooks Brothers shirts for daywear, handmade Battistoni for evening) and men around the world followed his every sartorial statement.

The living room at Villa Frescot, Turin, with a pair of 18th-century Ch’ien Lung porcelain pheasants and a clock from Wartski
The living room at Villa Frescot, Turin, with a pair of 18th-century Ch’ien Lung porcelain pheasants and a clock from Wartski | Image: © Oberto Gill

And then there was Marella, a Neapolitan noblewoman, the former Donna Marella Caracciolo Di Castagneto, whose elongated limbs and aristocratic beauty shone out from myriad magazines. Though her appearances on the social pages were much less frequent and, perhaps more importantly, much less sought-after, some thought she had an even more finely tuned aesthetic sense than Gianni. It was she who was the guiding force behind the decor of their many houses, apartments and gardens. It was she who sought out the foremost architects, designers and landscape artists to create homes that became the stars of many a fine photographer’s interiors portfolio.

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In a lavishly illustrated new book, Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan (Rizzoli, £40, published October 14), written by Marella Agnelli together with her niece and namesake Marella Caracciolo Chia, we get an intimate insight into these self-same houses, apartments and gardens that were the ultimate expression of her famed aesthetic sense. Here, for the first time, she tells a little of her hidden story.

Marella and Gianni Agnelli sailing in the south of France, mid-1950s
Marella and Gianni Agnelli sailing in the south of France, mid-1950s | Image: Camilla Pecci Blunt McGrath © Earl McGrath

“There sometimes comes a moment in life, especially if it is one as long and eventful as Marella Agnelli’s, in which one feels the need to look back and try to make sense of it all,” writes her niece and collaborator in the introduction to the book. Furthermore, Chia tells me, “she didn’t want us to do a straightforward biography – too personal, and some of it too painful.” And so, building on a suggestion from her eldest grandson, John Elkann, to whom she is very close, they decided to look at her life through the places she shaped. Though married to an enormously rich man, “she was not a trophy wife”, says Chia, “but a very cultivated woman with a real inner life and she created some extraordinary homes, which we thought other people would be interested to learn about”. She’d studied drawing and theatre design, after all, at the Académie Julian in Paris and later exchanged modelling for the influential New York-based photographer Erwin Blumenfeld for a place behind the camera as his assistant.

Marella’s bedroom at the Via XXIV Maggio apartment, with a 1920 portrait of Luisa Casati by Kees van Dongen over an 18th-century marble mantelpiece
Marella’s bedroom at the Via XXIV Maggio apartment, with a 1920 portrait of Luisa Casati by Kees van Dongen over an 18th-century marble mantelpiece | Image: © Oberto Gill

And so the two Marellas began looking through the archives, both the private Agnelli one in Turin and those of the many photographers around the globe who had been entranced by Marella Agnelli’s elegant beauty and recorded it on celluloid for all time. On the pages of this lovely tome is a cornucopia of photographs that gives a riveting glimpse not just of a now-vanished world where American fortunes and European nobility came together to devise some uniquely beautiful homes, but also of how a touch of American puritanism (which came from Marella Agnelli’s mother’s side), allied to the Agnelli glamour, made for a wonderful combination. Here we see in all their glory the houses, lodges, yachts and gardens where the internationally successful and well-connected, who all knew each other – the Kennedys, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers – partied and played together. While today they may seem like grand set pieces filled with exceptional art and artefacts, it’s worth remembering that these places were also the private homes where the Agnellis lived with their family, into which they invited their friends, and where the dramas of their extraordinarily glamorous lives were played out. Then we begin to get some idea of just what theatrical beauty a cultivated eye, coupled with great application and, of course, the vast means required to indulge it, can achieve.

The entrance hall at Villa Frescot, with a photograph by Milton Gendel
The entrance hall at Villa Frescot, with a photograph by Milton Gendel | Image: © Oberto Gill

The book is a fascinating mix of biography and property voyeurism. We get a glimpse of the incredibly privileged way of life the Agnellis enjoyed, when Marella tells us of her surprise when, as the new wife of Gianni, she decides to go to Paris. She travels by train and finds that the family butler has made sure her bed in the wagon-lit has been made with Agnelli sheets bearing her’s and Gianni’s initials, that there are monogrammed towels for her, fine soaps and creams, as well as the fresh flowers that came to be a Marella signature.

The dining room at the Via XXIV Maggio apartment in Rome, with Mario Schifano murals
The dining room at the Via XXIV Maggio apartment in Rome, with Mario Schifano murals | Image: © Oberto Gill

But it also took great dedication, infinite pains and a whole host of talents to conjure up such wonderful houses. Almost everybody whom Marella Agnelli asked to help in her great projects pays some kind of tribute to her taste. Peter Marino, for instance, the now-acclaimed architect used by Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton et al, but then (in the early 1980s) a young New Yorker who described himself as “a working-class Neapolitan kid from Brooklyn” and whom she asked to help with their New York apartment, tells a story of how he had been trying 30 different lamps for the living room and couldn’t decide which was best. Marella arrived “and immediately picked the right one. It was perfect.”

Marella’s private reading room at Villar Perosa, near Turin
Marella’s private reading room at Villar Perosa, near Turin | Image: © Oberto Gill

Truman Capote, who for some years was a close friend, is quoted as saying that, while staying at the Agnellis’ residence on Corso Matteotti in Turin, he was as much taken by its comforts – “same-day laundry service, buttons everywhere that arouse instant liveried attention, velvet winter rooms ablaze with summer flowers” – as by its “Italian splendour”. And it was Capote who dubbed Marella and a group of ineffably elegant and beautiful socialites (Babe Paley, CZ Guest, Slim Keith) his “swans”, though for many it was Marella who was the greatest one of all.

The Chinese gallery on the piano nobile
The Chinese gallery on the piano nobile | Image: © Oberto Gill

And then there’s Hubert de Givenchy, who told the designer Federico Forquet that the Agnellis’ Roman residence, the Via XXIV Maggio apartment, which the Agnellis had wanted to be “modern, architecturally defiant, to counterbalance the presence of so much antiquity [in Rome]” was “the only contemporary house I have seen that has true grandeur”.

Reclining Maja with Blue and Gold Parrot by Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta at Ain Kassimou, Marrakech
Reclining Maja with Blue and Gold Parrot by Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta at Ain Kassimou, Marrakech | Image: © Oberto Gill

Renzo Mongiardino, an architect and designer, who helped Marella bring to life the Villa Frescot, another of the family’s homes in Turin, admired both the Agnellis, relishing what a friend of his called “their eclectic pursuit of excellence in all things, whether cutlery, porcelain, furniture or art, and whether ancient or contemporary”. But, as the book says, “it was Marella who made the greatest impact on him. The lightness and humour with which she would place very important and sometimes austere pieces… against a playfully naïve background of delicate colours and flowering patterns delighted him.” Meanwhile Madison Cox – the garden designer Marella asked to help with the last project described in the book, Ain Kassimou, in Marrakech – said that what he learnt from her was “not to be afraid to be simple”.

La Manufacture Cogolin silk/ wool rug, €2,075 per sq m
La Manufacture Cogolin silk/ wool rug, €2,075 per sq m | Image: Francis Amiand

Agnelli recounts how she was drawn to Russell Page – the garden designer who helped her with the garden at the Agnelli family house, the Villar Perosa – because of something he said to her the day they met, in an elusive reference to the untold riches of the family she had married into: “One must learn to serve something higher than us all, because if not, one may easily fall slave to the basest, most material aspects of one’s life.” It seems to have been something she bore in mind for the rest of her life. And the Villar Perosa was among the first places where she laid down the hallmarks later found in many of her homes – her love of wicker furniture, of Cogolin matting for the floors and of fresh flowers massed in bowls and vases.

Pierluigi Ghianda pearwood Canonica case, from €1,200
Pierluigi Ghianda pearwood Canonica case, from €1,200 | Image: M Toscani Ballo

It was when restoring Villa Frescot that Marella decided to design some fabrics based around leaves and berries on neutral backgrounds. She didn’t do it lightly. She scoured archives looking at original 18th- and 19th-century Piedmontese designs, and the results were deemed to be so special that the Swiss manufacturer Gustav Zumsteg immediately asked her to design a range for him. Today, Peter Marino looks after the range, and her fabrics can be ordered from him (price on request).

Bonacina Vittorio rattan Primavera chair, price on request
Bonacina Vittorio rattan Primavera chair, price on request

But while the houses and apartments are mostly very grand, the art collections incomparable (with a selection now residing in the Pinacoteca Gianni e Marella Agnelli in Turin) and some of the antiques and objets in them priceless, Marella herself quite often found beauty in relatively inexpensive things. Dotted around, for instance, would be simple wicker baskets from Cesteria Barbieri in Turin, many of which can still be bought today for under €50.

F Pettinaroli Fiorentini albums, from €45
F Pettinaroli Fiorentini albums, from €45

And while the book is a delight, it isn’t a practical “how to” guide and it doesn’t detail Agnelli’s favourite sources and stockists. However, exclusively for How To Spend It, Caracciolo Chia has divulged the addresses of some of her best-loved suppliers, many of whom are still making the same beautiful pieces in exactly the way they did when Agnelli herself discovered them. Take, for instance, her trademark wicker furniture that was introduced very early on into the Villar Perosa – it is still, to this day, being made by Bonacina Vittorio. Designs that Agnelli loved, such as Franco Albini’s Primavera (price on request), which dates from 1967, and his Margherita (price on request) from 1950, are still in production. She found some of her antiques at Alessandra Di Castro  Antichità, a Roman dealer, which still specialises in high-quality, mainly Italian antiques and indeed showed at this summer’s Masterpiece London. She loved Isamu Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures ($300) and filled her houses with them – they too can be bought online today. And then there’s the Cogolin matting (€2,075 per sq m) that she introduced into many of the houses – today it can still be bought from La Manufacture Cogolin in France. It’s a traditional and relatively simple artisanal form of flooring made from raffia, cotton, linen, wool and silk.

Christian Fischbacher Luxury Nights cotton-satin quilt, about £325, and cotton-satin and linen-mix pillowcases, from about £100, from Ebneter & Biel
Christian Fischbacher Luxury Nights cotton-satin quilt, about £325, and cotton-satin and linen-mix pillowcases, from about £100, from Ebneter & Biel

She turned to Loro Piana for her cashmere throws (from £1,150) and shawls (from £695), and when it came to candles she used a small shop in Turin called Conterno. Founded in 1795, it still makes candles (from €10) the traditional way. It has no website, and chic Italians around the world receive theirs by mail order. Agnelli’s favourites were the 20cm and 30cm examples that taper at the top, designed for candelabras.

Isamu Noguchi washi‑paper, bamboo and metal Akari light sculpture, $300
Isamu Noguchi washi‑paper, bamboo and metal Akari light sculpture, $300 | Image: © Kevin Noble. Courtesy of the Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York

Agnelli used to buy little notebooks and order her stationery and visiting cards either from La Rilievo in Turin or F Pettinaroli (from €45) in Milan: wonderfully traditional stationers that really merit a personal visit, for although both have websites, they don’t sell through them. In her bathrooms she always had a bottle of Eau de Botot ($20), a mouthwash imbued with anise, cinnamon, clove and other natural flavours, which was originally made for the French king Louis XV and which you can buy today from a wonderful niche website called ShoeBox ShaveShop. Also ever-present in her bathrooms was some of her favourite cologne – that old classic, 4711 (from £11 for 50ml EDT).

Lisa Corti cotton cushions, €55
Lisa Corti cotton cushions, €55

For the gorgeous array of colourful bedspreads (from €158), table linens (from €115), cushions (€55) and the like, which she used in the guesthouse at Ain Kassimou, she would often turn to Milan-based Lisa Corti. She bought much of her vintage silver cutlery (from about £2,000 for a set of six) from SJ Phillips in London’s New Bond Street, and she used bedlinen made from the finest cotton by Christian Fischbacher (from about £100) and Schlossberg (pillowcases, from about £45), often beautifully patterned and purchased from Ebneter & Biel in St Moritz.

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Her garden furniture usually came from Unopiù, an Italian company that has no stockists in the UK but is worth exploring for its ineffably chic array of umbrellas (from €230), awnings (from €1,580), sunloungers (from €395) and everything else required to furnish the most elegant of outdoor spaces. While she often used small, long-established Italian companies, both Marella and Gianni also loved exploring the contemporary design world, and in her Moroccan house she has the wonderful Leonardo trestle table (£2,521 from Aram) by Achille Castiglioni. Supported by two adjustable beech trestles, it has a laminate or glass top and, though it was designed in 1940, it looks as fresh today as it did then. Another of her great discoveries was Pierluigi Ghianda, who has been described as “the poet of wood” and who makes truly beautiful wooden objects – spoons (from €100), picture frames (from €370), small sécrétoires (from €1,200) to put on top of a desk. All can be ordered by email or, better still, his workshop can be visited by appointment.

Agnelli’s houses were not only always filled with fresh flowers, but they were also beautifully scented. For potpourri she almost always went to Agraria, most specifically for the bitter orange or the lavender and rosemary ($55 each). Dotted round the house too were pretty painted glasses (from €60) for pens and pencils, as well as other small containers, bought from Doris Brynner’s jewel of a homeware section in the main Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Her favourite source of exquisite handmade and embroidered children’s clothing and bedlinen (from €80) was a traditional little Roman outlet – Lavori Artigianali Femminili – which offers a very personal service.

When it came to the Agnelli table, Marella was as fastidious as she was in her choice of furnishings. From 1993 the only wine ever served at dinner was the Brunello of Castello Romitorio (which sells through various stockists for around £35 a bottle). Meanwhile, chocolates came from Turin chocolatiers, either Jacopey Cioccolato Peyrano (a 920g Torino box of mixed chocolates can be bought online for €85.50) or Guido Gobino (chocolates from €40 for 1kg) on Via Giuseppe Luigi Lagrange. Other confectionery came from Galup, a producer of Piedmontese specialities.

For Ain Kassimou, she naturally turned to a few classic Moroccan sources to give her house an authentic sense of place. To that end she sourced artefacts from Mustapha Blaoui’s famous emporium, while she ordered a whole range of table linens from Houria Tazi in Rabat (placemats and napkins from €70; tablecloths from €800). And should you ever happen to make your way to Marrakech, it is almost certain that you will take in the famous Jardin Majorelle, the gardens now looked after by the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. There in its shop you can buy a bitter-orange marmalade (Dh120, about £8.50) made specially at Ain Kassimou – the house that Marella Agnelli embarked on after Gianni died, as if to assuage the grief and to give some shape and meaning to her life.

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