Donna Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto was born in Florence, as member of the House of Caracciolo, of the high Italian nobility. Her father was Don Filippo Caracciolo, 8th Prince di Castagneto, 3rd Duke di Melito, and hereditary Patrician of Naples (1903–1965), from an old Neapolitan noble family. Her mother was the former Margaret Clarke (1898–1955) of Peoria, Illinois. She had two brothers, Don Carlo Caracciolo (1925–2008), who inherited their father's titles in 1965 and founded the newspaper La Repubblica, being known as the "editor prince", referring to his aristocratic birth and elegant manner; and Don Nicola Caracciolo (born 1931), the holder – since 2008 – of the titles, as 10th Prince di Castagneto, 5th Duke di Melito, and hereditary Patrician of Naples.
She was married in the Church of Osthoffen to Fiat tycoon Gianni Agnelli on 19 November 1953; they would remain married until his death on 24 January 2003. They had two children
Agnelli, who was educated in Paris, was an assistant to Erwin Blumenfeld in New York City early in her varied career, as well as an occasional editor and photographic contributor to Vogue. In 1973, she created a textile line for Abraham-Zumsteg, for which she was awarded the Resources Council's Roscoe (the design trade's equivalent of the Oscar) in 1977.
An avid gardener, Agnelli has authored a number of books on the subject, also providing many of the photographs. Two of her books are about the Garden of Ninfa (1999) and The Agnelli Gardens at Villar Perosa (1998).
More recently, she oversaw the opening of the Renzo Piano-designed art gallery Pinacoteca Giovanni and Marella Agnelli (it:Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli), built on the roof of the former Lingotto Fiat factory in Turin, Italy. The Agnelli collection includes Picasso, Renoir, Canaletto, Matisse and Canova materpieces.
The reserved, patrician tastemaker and socialite is also known for her inclusion in Truman Capote's circle of "swans" – wealthy, stylish, and well-married women friends whose company he adored because they "had created themselves, as he had done", and "had stories to tell" According to Capote, Agnelli was "the European swan numero uno", the youngest in a group that included Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, C. Z. Guest, Slim Keith, and Pamela Harriman, among others. In her autobiography, Washington Post publisher and Capote friend Katharine Graham recounts that the author once told her that if Paley and Agnelli were "both in Tiffany's window, Marella would be more expensive"
She was portrayed in the American biographical film Infamous (2006) by Isabella Rossellini.
Fairytale of the jetset swans
Nick Foulkes looks back in rapture at the effortless glamour of the 1960s globetrotting elite
BY NICK FOULKES NOVEMBER 02, 2013 07:00
The recent death of Alan Whicker reminded me of one of my all-time favourite pieces of television – a documentary he made on Fiona Thyssen (née Campbell-Walter) in the early 1960s. She was one of the first women to make modelling socially acceptable; so socially acceptable that she caught the eye of a young baron, Heinrich “Heini” Thyssen. In his copyrighted cadences, Whicker introduces us to the glamorous baroness as if narrating a “once upon a time” jetset fairytale: “One day a rich Baron – a very rich Baron – swept down out of the mountains to claim her as his third bride and carry her off to a place at the end of the rainbow where rich people go to be happy: St Moritz.”
The best thing is that not only does she look rich and happy, she is drop-dead gorgeous in a leopardskin coat, driving her open-topped silver-blue BMW 507 at speed to the airstrip at Samedan where her husband has just landed in a light aircraft. In another scene, she is having her hair dressed while trying on a ring of 25 carats, diamond drop earrings of 25 carats a piece, and a densely set necklace with a stone the size of a hen’s egg, which she guessed is at least a further 50 carats .
I first caught this documentary late one night and was transfixed. This was the 1960s that I had longed to see ; the sleek world of the jet set, evoked by the lines of the song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and the 1965 film Darling. Thing was, this piece of non-fiction television topped everything. And it is this weakness for a fairytale time that was actually true that compelled me to write a book about these people, who lived on a scale that even now seems extraordinary – Gloria Guinness reportedly decorating her husband’s plane with Louis XVI furniture; the Shah asking Lanvin to design clothes for his courtiers. As for jewels, women were dressed in gems in the way that the rest of us might bedeck a Christmas tree.
What made this period in jewellery design fascinating was the arrival of the jet aircraft, which irreversibly shrank the world. Jet travel is something we now take for granted but it was not always so. For a decade and a half, jet travel was inextricably linked to glamour; a world that had moved at the sedate pace of the stately ocean liner was now soaring above the clouds at hundreds of miles an hour. Cultures and customs could be experienced, one after another, within a few hours and all sorts of places cropped up on the resort radar of the rich: Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe’s Marbella Club, Karim Aga Khan’s Costa Smeralda and Colin Tennant’s Mustique .
Style continued to be concentrated in the hands of a very few women. Beautiful, glamorous and above all international, they were married to ship owners, auto-tycoons, oil magnates and broadcasting barons; the nobility of the old world and the industrial aristocracy of the new. Truman Capote called them his “swans” – Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, Jacqueline de Ribes and Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. In time they were joined by a generation of younger women, among them Marisa Berenson and Diane von Furstenberg.
But the “swans” did not always play nicely. One anecdote concerns the Guinnesses and Paleys, who often summered together aboard the Guinness yacht, Calypso. One year Gloria told Babe not to bother to bring any smart clothes or jewellery as it would be a low-key summer. A few hours after the Paleys had come on board, Gloria emerged from her stateroom dressed up and dripping in gems. The following summer, Babe took no chances and emptied the safe. “Really, darling, why all the jewellery?” asked Gloria, in wide-eyed astonishment at the selection of gems Babe had brought. “We’re just on the boat.” During that cruise there were no formal dinners.
Jewellery of this time was all about daring combinations of motifs and stones. The old and slightly bourgeois distinctions between precious and semi-precious stones was swept away by a tide of creativity and an appetite for colour and effect. Long, polychrome sautoirs and bright pendant earrings became the thing; a sort of hippy deluxe look captured by Van Cleef’s Alhambra. One-off pieces revelled in wildness. One of my favourite pieces was by Cartier in 1974, featuring two large tusks set in yellow gold, attached to a collar with circular links of gold and what I can only refer to as a bib made of more tusks.
Until recently I’ve been in a minority in my enthusiasm for the adornment of this time. Now a younger generation of high jewellery customer is being enticed, viewing the jetset era as an exotic epoch, not an embarrassing style lapse. Definitive proof came when, taking the polyglot and polychrome influences of the period, Van Cleef & Arpels launched its Pierres de Caractère collection, a homage to Pierre Arpels who, like the women for whom he designed, was as much at home in the Place Vendôme as he was in India seeking out the stones to create some of the most inventive and creative jewellery of the 20th century.
Arpels conjured a world of tassels and textures, where wood met diamonds on equal terms. Coral cabochons mixed with brilliant cut diamonds in Siamese-inspired bangles; Indian paisley motifs were reworked into jewellery using the dazzling palette of ruby, sapphire and emerald; rings echoing the profiles of the temples of Indochina were worn on the sun-gilded fingers of Capote’s “swans”. The bestiaries of exotic mythologies were transformed into brooches or pendants set with emeralds, amethysts, chrysoprase… colour and character was everything.
I was invited to write a short essay for the catalogue accompanying the collection and I hope that in my non-academic but genuinely enthusiastic way, I encouraged people to look again at the jetset era, when the great jewellers of the world were able to get “with it” and had the customers who could wear it.
I will end with a wonderful line from Peter Evans’s Nemesis about that totemic jetset figure Aristotle Onassis. In the book, Maria Callas is quoted as saying that the Greek ship-owner’s “total understanding of women came out of a Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue”. I’d say that one has a far better chance of understanding women by studying a fine jewellery catalogue than an Argos brochure.
Swans: Legends of the Jet Society, by Nicholas Foulkes, is published by Assouline; assouline.com
The exclusive world of one of the twentieth century’s most glamorous and alluring women, as seen through her private homes and gardens. Nicknamed "The Swan" by Richard Avedon when he photographed her iconic portrait in 1953, Marella Agnelli is not only one of the great beauties of the last century, but also the most elegant and cultured of that exclusive club. Born the Neapolitan princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, she became Marella Agnelli with her marriage to Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat industrialist. However, her innate style dates back to her New York internship with photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, and she was a Vogue contributor in the 1950s and ’60s as well as appearing in its pages. One of the most photographed women of the jet-set society, she was captured by Avedon as well as Irving Penn, Henry Clarke, Horst, and Robert Doisneau, among others. Agnelli collaborated with the best artists and designers of her day, with her many residences as their palette. From Italian interior design legend Renzo Mongiardino—who worked on her New York apartment alongside a young Peter Marino—to Gae Aulenti, the important Italian architect, who built her homes in Turin and Marrakech, Agnelli created a series of extraordinary houses and gardens, full of timeless elegance, invaluable art, and groundbreaking decorating ideas. With ten residences spread throughout Turin, Rome, Milan, New York, St. Moritz, and Marrakech, ranging from regally classic villas to ultramodern apartments, her impeccable taste shines through in these gorgeous interiors and gardens. One of the famous modern fairy tales of love, glamour, and heartbreak, Marella Agnelli has become an icon of our times.
Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan
“Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan is a collection of rare beauty that allows us to live within her world if only while enjoying this book.”
The first thing that comes to mind is “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The life of Marella Agnelli is one of unimaginable wealth and privilege. Her homes cannot be fathomed by mere mortals. Her beauty is legendary.
Marella Agnelli The Last Swan is one of those rare books that chronicles a life within a family legacy. What you quickly find out is that this book is not so much about “the Last Swan” as it is about how she lived and what she loved and the seemingly endless resources it took to accomplish her various missions.
Upon starting the unbelievable journey of Marella Agnelli, we see her pictured within the confines of her many homes, wearing the finest of couture, and photographed by many of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. The photos and text may lead you to think that this is only about her life, which it is, but it is her life in relation to what she has built and orchestrated. Ms. Agnelli reigns over a kingdom of homes that rival any in the world. Simply stated, Marella makes Bunny Mellon look like she lived in a trailer park.
This book is an endless source of amazement as Ms. Agnelli has created “worlds” that are unknown to most of us. It is like having Central Park as your backyard or the Tuileries or the Boboli gardens as your own private spots for reflection or puttering around in the flower beds. Even those who are not botanically inclined will note that the incredible world of art she created outdoors is astounding.
As if the mind boggling gardens and grounds are not enough to keep you enthralled, there are the homes that this woman assembled in her life. They may not be to your taste but are jawdropping nonetheless. Imagine having to move so you can accommodate an art collection (think Renoir, Picasso, Balthus, Matisse) in one particular home. Imagine employing some of the greatest architects and interior designers of the 20th century to outfit all of these homes used to suit the globetrotting lifestyle of Mr. and Mrs. Agnelli. Mind boggling.
The takeaway is that if you have any curiosity about “how the other half lives” or more aptly put how one lives when one has endless finances coupled with huge esthetic powers and thirst, well then this is for you. Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan is a collection of rare beauty that allows us to live within her world if only while enjoying this book.
Lastly what must be addressed is the title or subtitle, The Last Swan. It is a bit of a misnomer as she is indeed not the last one. Some of her fellow “swans” still live—albeit not nearly as grandly as she. And for those truly unaware, the term “swan” was given to a small group of wildly socially acceptable women who at one time were dear friends to the late Truman Capote until he betrayed their confidences.
Jeffrey Felner is a dedicated participant and nimble historian in the businesses of fashion and style. Decades of experience allow him to pursue almost any topic relating to fashion and style with unique insight and unrivaled acumen.
Marella Caracciolo Chia
October 14, 2014
An Enchanting Estate in Northern Italy
Style icon Marella Agnelli offers a rare look inside her family’s captivating 18th-century retreat
MARELLA CARACCIOLO CHIA
Posted August 31, 2014 · Magazine
One morning last spring, my aunt Marella Agnelli woke early at her home in the Northern Italian city of Turin and announced that she and I would spend the day at Villar Perosa, the Agnelli estate some 40 miles to the west. Eager to see its gardens, my father’s sister proposed that we have lunch beside the swimming pool there and return before dusk. We had been working solidly for the past week, putting the final touches on Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan, our book about her life as a style icon, photographer, textile designer, and inspired amateur decorator and gardener (to be published by Rizzoli in October), so the outing was a welcome break.
On the way she sat next to the driver, with her dogs—Chico, a Chihuahua, and a Shiba Inu called, simply enough, Shiba—on her lap, and reminisced about her first visit to Villar. It was September 1953, and the occasion was the wedding of her friend Maria Sole Agnelli to Count Ranieri Campello della Spina. That same evening my aunt (then Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto) and the bride’s eldest brother, Gianni, announced their engagement. Having recently returned to Italy after spending 18 months in New York City assisting fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, Marella was bewitched by the pre–World War I atmosphere of the Agnellis’ house. "There was this sense of being in an enchanted time warp," she said, recalling how a housemaid in an apron that nearly reached the floor brought her breakfast in bed on a silver tray. "Villar was an old family home full of charm and nostalgia."
More than six decades later, that atmosphere of timelessness still hovers over this beloved retreat, where eight generations (and counting) of Agnellis have arrived with children and dogs in tow. Within view of the French Alps, the 18th-century former hunting lodge attributed to architect Filippo Juvarra is a graceful essay in Piedmontese Baroque. According to Gianni, who inherited it in the 1940s and died in 2003, his ancestor Giuseppe Agnelli, a Napoleonic officer, acquired the estate in the early 19th century and planted mulberry trees for raising silkworms. That investment gave rise to a fortune that, in 1899, helped launch Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, a.k.a. Fiat, Italy’s largest automotive company, where Gianni served as chairman for 30 years.
By the time my aunt and Gianni married, the classical decorator Stephane Boudin had already restored a portion of the house damaged by bombing in World War II, and he continued to assist the newlyweds. Marella and the puckish Parisian collaborated with purposeful sensitivity. Gianni’s parents and grandparents had died when he was young, leaving behind rooms furnished with memories, so his bride, the daughter of a Neapolitan prince and a mother from Peoria, Illinois, was determined to tread softly.
Boudin and Marella refreshed the piano nobile’s famous gallery, where exuberant stuccowork frames 18th-century Chinese export wallpaper and garlands the ceiling. They upholstered the villa’s antique Piedmontese chairs and settees—painted in pale, pretty colors that bring to mind macarons—in bold French velvets and Italian silks, and made-to-measure sofas added modern comfort. Alongside the main dining room, they set up a cozy library for after-dinner coffee. A few guest rooms became perfect expressions of ancien régime French taste, the decorator’s specialty. Boudin’s friend Russell Page, the British garden genius, helped Marella clarify the landscape, which she described as having been "a patchwork, each area created by a different generation."
Her increasing confidence as a gardener led her back inside the house, where she began dressing some spaces in a less formal, more familial mode. (Her son, Edoardo, was born in 1954 and her daughter, Margherita, a year later.) With wicker furniture cushioned in bright patterns and finely woven straw matting on the floor, the so-called garden room marks the moment when Marella left behind Boudin’s historicism in favor of her own simpler, contemporary taste. Unlined taffeta curtains with softly ruffled hems became part of her vocabulary, as did cheerful printed fabrics—she even designed an award-winning textile collection in the ’70s.
Then, 30 years ago, the frequent presence of eight lively grandchildren prompted Marella to transform a portion of the top floor into a private sanctuary. Following the advice of an old friend, decorator Federico Forquet, she fashioned four bedrooms. Among them is her intimate, low-ceilinged suite, lavished from walls to lampshades with a peony pattern. Another is Gianni’s barrel-vaulted chamber, where she curtained the imposing canopy bed with mismatched chintzes—one a dramatic Indian-style floral, the other dappled with white roses like those that bloom outside the arched window.
Anyone who has spent time at Villar joins in the Agnelli traditions. Morning hikes in the foothills of the Alps are typically followed by chess and Scrabble in the garden room. European newspapers are stacked in strategic spots, and books in Italian, French, and English are arranged in baskets on a large table, ready for perusal. There has also been, as long as I can remember, a card table set with a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that takes family and friends an entire month to complete. In hot weather everyone decamps to the swimming pool and the adjacent wood pavilion—as spare as a Zen temple—by architect Gae Aulenti. Landscape designer Paolo Pejrone, a Page disciple, has banked this section with purple heather punctuated by ‘Iceberg’ roses and boxwood clipped into corkscrews and spheres. It is a destination cherished by all, from oldest to youngest, a success that is proof of my aunt’s attention to detail.
"Every time I create a home or a garden, I ask myself the same questions," Marella said as we sat beside the pool, our lunch finished and the sun setting. "Where will we gather together in the daytime and in the evening? How can I preserve a few quiet, secluded spots for reading or working? Which is the coolest area in the garden for meals in the shade? Architecture and landscapes influence our lives so much—I’m always fascinated by that."