Mystery death of the Red Count, a Fiat founder

JON VAN HOUSEN and MARIELLA RADAELLI

The pretty Piedmont town of Fubine is steeped in fine wine and food like so many places in Italy, but it also holds a shadowy tale with all the elements of a mystery thriller – vast wealth, the founding of an industrial empire, missing important papers and untimely deaths.

Fiat Automobiles S.p.A., the largest automobile manufacturer in Italy and now a part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, would likely never been founded in its early form without the contribution of Count Emanuele Cacherano of Bricherasio, an eccentric womanizer who was born in Turin in 1864.
Founding of Fiat Automobiles S.p.A.
Count Emanuele Cacherano of Bricherasio (center in white jacket) was given the most honored place in the painting depicting Fiat’s founding, yet the fledgling car company was curiously reserved in a statement following his death just a few years later.

The descendant of a noble family that produced high-ranking soldiers and philanthropists, he was nicknamed “Il Conte Rosso” (The Red Count), reportedly due to his passionate nature and left-leaning politics. He loved art, music, horses and, perhaps ominously, women and the newly developing automobile.

Count Emanuel now rests in the Neo-gothic family chapel in Fubine about 60 kilometers south of Turin on the grounds of the Palazzo Bricherasio, his summer residence, a 16th century listed castle.

Stone and opulence record his days, but his earthly tenure ended under mysterious circumstances in 1904 at the age of 34, five years after creating Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (F.I.A.T) together with Giovanni Agnelli and others.

Now revered as the founder of Fiat, Agnelli met Count Emanuele in 1898 as he searched for investors in his horseless carriage project. The count was a well-known supporter of large-scale, production-line manufacturing. The shrewd Agnelli sensed an opportunity.

The next year, Fiat was founded at Count Emanuele’s Palazzo Bricherasio. The eccentric nobleman was also a co-founder of the now-famed Italian Automobile Club.

But he would never enjoy that fame. Count Emanuel was found dead with “a hole in his head” while a guest of the Duke of Genoa, the nephew of King Victor Emmanuel II, in the ducal castle of Agliè. Details on what type of hole and how it got there seem to be lacking. Popular tales spread at the time said it could have been a suicide of honor, more or less voluntary, due to a presumed relationship with a noblewoman of high rank in the House of Savoy.

Only a very short obituary in the newspaper La Stampa was dedicated to him, despite his notoriety and the many pages a Turin newspaper devoted to his life. Even the board of directors of Fiat, which met right after Count Emanuele’s death on October 4, 1904, commemorated the late founder and vice-president by simply calling him a “zealous administrator”, a strangely modest tribute to his importance, especially given the florid language typical of the time.

Was there something sinister at play, or perhaps an embarrassing romantic scandal that needed to be kept quiet?

It remains a mystery today, even to writer Giorgio Caponetti, who spent 30 years researching the story. He eventually wrote the historical novel “Quando l’autmobile uccise la cavalleria” published by Marcos Y Marcos based on events as best known.
Count Emanuel and Captain Federico Caprilli
Count Emanuel (left) and cavalry Captain Federico Caprilli, who look similar to the modern eye, were reportedly both dashing lady’s men. They would both die under mysterious circumstances three years apart and now rest just a few feet away from one another in a crypt at the Palazzo Bricherasio.

On the count’s death, his sister Sofia entrusted Emanuele’s good friend and fellow bon vivant Federico Caprilli with her brother’s confidential papers. But Federico also died in mysterious circumstances, in 1907 just three years after his friend, while inexplicably losing consciousness while riding a horse. Though he was one of the greatest equestrians of his time, he allegedly fell while riding and hit his head on the sharp edge of a sidewalk on the streets of Turin at dusk.

A remarkable turn of events, especially considering Caprilli was such a good horseman. In June 1902 at the International Horse Show in Turin, which was held at a racetrack set up in Piazza d'Armi, Caprilli set the world record for equestrian high jump at 2.08 meters while riding the “mighty bay Mélopo”.

Caprilli was also a cavalry officer who revolutionized equestrian jumping by first developing a riding position called the “forward seat," a technique still used by all jumping riders today.

According to Caponetti, Count Emanuel and Federico were young and best friends. They were idealistic and wanted to change the world. Captain Caprilli was also so handsome he made girls’ heads spin.

Upon the dashing officer’s death, his heirs burned his correspondence and buried him as near as possible to his dear friend Emanuele. The palazzo in Fubine now contains both their remains, close in death as they were in life.

It was a disappointing end to such promising lives. For his part, Count Emanuel had dreamed of technological progress that could feed the masses through a kind of industry allied with the working classes.

“The mysteries have never been solved,” says Caponetti. “They didn’t open an investigation because he was found dead at the residence of the king’s nephew,” he says. Local police had no jurisdiction over persons of such elevated status.

Agnelli would go on to head the new Fiat, making a small profit 1903 when it produced 135 cars, a number that grew to 1,149 cars by 1906. There would be many twists and turns for the Fiat scion, but by the end of WWI the car company would be the 30th largest industrial concern in Italy.

Agnelli was appointed a Senator in 1923 and filled several other prestigious positions between the two world wars. He was still active with Fiat at the start of WWII and died in 1945 at the age of 79 soon after the war ended.

His heirs would go on to live their own colorful lives, but that is another tale …