Agnelli, Susanna (1922—)

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Agnelli, Susanna (1922—)

Politician and writer who was the first Italian woman to hold the post of foreign minister. Name variations: Susanna Rattazzi, Countess Rattazzi. Born in Turin, Italy, on April 24, 1922; daughter of Edoardo Agnelli and Princess Virginia Bourbon del Monte Agnelli ; sister of industrialists Giovanni and Umberto Agnelli; married Count Urbano Rattazzi, a lawyer (divorced 1971); children: six.

Grew up in a family of immense wealth and influence (her paternal grandfather was the industrialist Giovanni Agnelli, founder of the FIAT automobile company); entered the public arena relatively late in life, serving as town councillor and mayor of Monte Argentario (1974–84); elected for two terms to Italian Parliament on the Republican Party ticket (1976 and 1979); member of the European Parliament (1979–81); elected to Italian Senate (1983); appointed to post of undersecretary of state for foreign affairs with responsibility for South and North American Affairs (1983); member of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva (1984–87); became Italy's first woman minister of foreign affairs (January 1995).

Appointed in January 1995 as the first woman foreign minister in the history of Italy, Susanna Agnelli was the only member of her illustrious family to enter government service. The Agnelli family has wielded immense power and influence in Italy for nearly a century, starting when Susanna Agnelli's paternal grandfather Giovanni Agnelli (1866–1945) copied the production techniques of Henry Ford to build the FIAT automobile company of Turin into a major vertical monopoly. When Susanna was born in Turin on April 24, 1922, her grandfather's company controlled everything necessary to manufacture the finished product. Growing up in a world of great wealth and privilege, young Susanna and her entire family struggled to maintain their independence against her paternal grandfather's enormous ego. When Susanna's father died, her grandfather unsuccessfully attempted to gain custody of her and her sibling. Susanna's mother, born Princess Bourbon del Monte, was a woman with strong intellectual and artistic interests who loved her children dearly. One of her closest friends was the famous writer Curzio Malaparte. When Susanna Agnelli married Count Urbano Rattazzi and gave birth to six children, she had her mother's intellectual independence as a model for her own future career in literature and politics.

As depicted in her prize-winning autobiography We Always Wore Sailor Suits, Susanna Agnelli lived the carefree life of a member of the upper elite in prewar Fascist Italy. This complacent world began to crumble when Benito Mussolini joined his Axis partner Adolf Hitler in June 1940. By 1942, Fascist Italy was a corrupt, ramshackle society ready to collapse of its own dead weight without German assistance. Agnelli spent the war years as a volunteer nurse with the Italian Red Cross; even family wealth could not completely shield her from the horrors that war brought to Italy. The restoration of peace in 1945 quickly revived her family's fortunes, despite the fact that her grandfather had been a major supporter of the Fascist regime (he was cleared of charges of political complicity with Fascism shortly before his death in December 1945).

For almost three decades after 1945, Susanna Agnelli concentrated on her personal life, raising six children. But her life was to change. She divorced her husband in 1971, and by the early 1970s her children were grown, leaving Agnelli the time to concern herself with public affairs. Perennial complaints about inefficient and corrupt government extended to her home-town of Monte Argentario. Deciding that she could offer her fellow citizens something better, Agnelli ran for the post of mayor of Monte Argentario, to which she was elected in 1974. She acknowledged that her family's powerful position had been a factor in her victory telling a reporter for The New York Times that many believed she "might be able to get more things done." Her family's influence did not always work in her favor, however. Some of her constituents felt her privileged background kept her from understanding the problems of ordinary people. Many also believed that she could never pull free of the influence of her powerful brother, the industrialist Giovanni Agnelli, the "uncrowned King of Italy," but these misgivings were soon dispelled. Most observers looked upon her entrance into public life as a very positive development encouraging Italian women to achieve equality and become more active in the nation's political life.

Agnelli's tenure as mayor was regarded as a success by most observers, and the experience whetted her appetite for greater responsibility on the national level. While still serving as mayor (her last term ended in 1984), she took on increasingly responsible jobs in the national government in Rome. As a member of the small but often influential Italian Republican Party (Partito Repubblicano Italiano, PRI), Agnelli was first elected a deputy to Parliament in 1976 and re-elected in 1979. Now a well-known national figure, Agnelli was elected a senator in 1983. Her sophistication, knowledge of foreign languages, and numerous personal contacts abroad made her a natural choice for the job of undersecretary of state for foreign affairs with responsibility for South and North American affairs in 1983. From 1986 through 1991, she held four positions as a junior minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gaining invaluable experience. Other jobs handled with skill during this period were her service with the independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, which met regularly at Geneva from 1984 through 1987, and the World Commission on Environment and Development, which also met at Geneva during the same years.

While her political career flourished, Agnelli's reputation as a writer also thrived. Her autobiography, published in English as We Always Wore Sailor Suits, became a bestseller. She was awarded three prestigious literary prizes for this book, the Scanno and Bancarella awards in 1975 and the Premio Speciale Casentino in 1984. Clearly enjoying the art of communicating, she began writing a weekly "Dear Abby" column in the magazine Oggi in 1983. Even when she was serving as foreign minister in 1995, Agnelli took time to provide answers to such pressing problems as how to end a husband's affair with the babysitter. In her letter to the troubled wife who had written her, Agnelli's solution was as follows: "Certainly, to change the father is problematical, while changing the baby sitter should present no difficulty. Hire an ugly one."

In January 1995, Susanna Agnelli was appointed foreign minister of Italy, replacing Antonio Martino. She was not only the first Italian woman to hold this important post, but the only woman among the 22 ministers of a "nonpolitical" and "technical" government. Displaying a cool head and a pragmatic approach, Agnelli did her best to keep Italy out of the conflict raging in the former Yugoslavia. After eight months on the job, one assessor of her performance noted that she had managed to renew Italy's commitment to a European monetary union. Of all the foreign ministers of Europe in 1995, Susanna Agnelli's style was without doubt the most colorful, one of "patrician manners, straight posture and a haughty demeanor that can have a scolding edge." Responding to critics of her dual role as foreign minister and author of a lonely-hearts column in a popular magazine, Agnelli rhetorically asked her interviewer: "But why not? They are not asking me because I am Foreign Minister. They are asking me because I am an old lady, and they think I am full of experience."


Agnelli, Susanna. Addio, addio mio ultimo amore. Milan: Arnaldo Mondadori, 1985.

——. We Always Wore Sailor Suits. NY: Viking Press, 1975.

Bohlen, Celestine. "Italian Foreign Minister Also Advises Lovelorn," in The New York Times. August 15, 1995, p. A4.

Klemesrud, Judy. "Susanna Agnelli: Firm Voice in Italian Politics," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1983, pp. 1158–1159.

Phillips, John. "Versatile Agnelli adds touch of class to Italian Cabinet," in The Times [London]. January 20, 1995, p. 11.

Sarti, Roland. "Agnelli, Giovanni," in Frank J. Coppa, ed., Dictionary of Modern Italian History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia