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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK

World: Europe

The Guccis: a tale of blood and leather

The trial begins this week of five people accused of murdering the last head of the Gucci dynasty, one of Italy's richest and most well known families.

Italian prosecutors claim 46-year-old Maurizio Gucci was gunned down outside his office in Milan in March 1995 by a hitman, Benedetto Ceraulo, who they claim had been hired by an intermediary on behalf of Gucci's ex-wife Patrizia.

The assassination was just the latest twist in the violent and bitter tale of a family which at times has appeared cursed.

[ image: Maurizio Gucci...gunned down outside his office]
Maurizio Gucci...gunned down outside his office
The Gucci empire - known around the world for luxury watches, handbags and other accessories - has its origins in a humble saddlery store in Florence which was opened in 1905.

Encouraged rivalry

Founder Guccio Gucci had fallen out with his own father, a straw hat maker, and ran away to London before returning to set up the shop.

He encouraged rivalry and even treachery between his sons, Ugo, Enzo, Aldo, Vasco and Rodolfo - they were encouraged to "sneak" on each other for misdemeanors and their father would hand out merciless beatings.

The five brothers passed the feuding habit onto their own children.

In 1938 Aldo defied his father and opened the first Gucci shop in Rome. When Guccio died in 1953 Aldo, the inventor of the famous double G logo, expanded the chain across Europe and the US.

By the 1980s the bitterness had got out of hand and fist fights were common in the boardroom.

The back-stabbing brought comparisons with the Borgia family in medieval Florence.

Maurizio's cousin Paolo, who died suddenly in October 1995, took much of the blame for the family's self-destruction.

It was he who decided to expand Gucci's business from the elite of Milan, London, Paris and New York to the whole world.

His father, Aldo, and uncle Rodolfo wanted to limit their goods to Gucci shops but he persuaded them they should Gucci goods through other outlets.

The Gucci logo spread from leather goods to headscarves, perfume, coffee mugs and even keyrings.

Although the company was making huge profits Aldo and Rodolfo criticised Paolo for lowering the tone and "Americanising" the brand name.

Feud boiled over

The feud boiled over at a board meeting in 1982 when Paolo was hit with a tape recorder thrown by either Aldo, Rodolfo or Maurizio.

He hit back by tipping off the US authorities about Aldo's tax evasion scams, which led to his 81-year-old father being jailed.

That was the last straw for the board of Gucci which sacked him. He set up his own business but it failed and he filed for bankruptcy in the US in 1994 and died the following year.

Maurizio's story begins in 1972 when he defied his father by marrying Patrizia, a lowly laundry woman's daughter.

His outraged father Rodolfo claimed Patrizia was a "gold-digger" and tried to get the Archbishop of Milan to intervene.

Patrizia dominated the introverted Maurizio and quickly got used to a champagne lifestyle.

But when Maurizio's father died in 1983 he inherited 50% of the Gucci empire and began to assert himself.

Maurizio left his wife

He removed his uncle Aldo from the board - his files and office paintings were dumped in the street - and bought out Paolo's brother Giorgio.

In 1985 Maurizio tired of his wife and left her. She reacted bitterly and described him as both impotent and mad.

She hit out at her $1m (£600,000) divorce settlement, describing it as "little more than a plate of lentils".

Six years after he left her Patrizia developed a brain tumour.

As she recovered in hospital Maurizio visited her and whispered: "Just checking to see if you'd died."

Patrizia was enraged when he announced plans to marry a pretty blonde interior designer and prosecutors claim she began plotting her ex-husband's death.

He had sold the Gucci family's last remaining stake in the family firm to the Bahraini-owned Investcorp for £100m and was settling down for a quiet life away from family squabbles when he met his killer on the Via Palestro.

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