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A tough act to follow

July 8, 2013, 10:46 AM UTC

The Agnellis are often compared to the Kennedys. It’s a convenient shorthand for power, wealth, glamour, and tragedy, but it doesn’t really capture how brightly the Agnelli family flame has burned for more than a century, transfixing Italy with a mix of political influence, business success, and tabloid fodder that has no parallel in the U.S.

Fiat grew into a global titan under the leadership of Gianni Agnelli, a dapper industrialist and playboy known as the uncrowned king of Italy. He was thrust into that role by the death of his father, Edoardo, in a 1935 seaplane accident and became an international symbol of la dolce vita. He loved soccer (the family owns Juventus, Italy’s most storied franchise), beautiful women (among his companions: Rita Hayworth and Anita Ekberg), big boats, fast cars, and fine art.

Tough act to follow. Gianni’s son, another Edoardo, was a mystical soul who converted to Islam and showed no passion for the family business; he leaped to his death from a bridge near Turin in 2000. Giovanni Alberto would have succeeded his uncle Gianni, but he died of a rare and fast-moving stomach cancer at age 33. It was only then that Gianni turned to his grandson, John Elkann, the current chairman of both Fiat and Exor, the family holding company.

Elkann’s stewardship has been good for the Agnellis — “We go on happily being able to keep our lives, very nice houses all over Italy, sometimes all over the world,” says family member Tiziana Nasi. But two years after Gianni died, his daughter, Margherita Agnelli de Pahlen, sued over the size of her inheritance. Elkann, her son, sided with the rest of the family against his mother.

That same year Elkann’s more dashing brother, Lapo, overdosed on cocaine and heroin at the Turin apartment of a transsexual prostitute. He fell into a coma for three days but recovered. Since then he has launched a fashion eyewear company that has just gone public, and has published a book, Lapo: Le Regole del Mio Stile, or The Rules of My Style. The Agnelli saga goes on …

BACK TO: John Elkann – Fiat’s fresh face

This story is from the July 22, 2013 issue of Fortune.