In modern Italy the Guccis of Florence are considered Tuscany's new Medicis -- merchant princes whose power, wealth, style and haughtiness have done much to mold an era.
A three-generation dynasty of leather craftsmen and salesmen who have emerged as one of modern Italy's leading noble tribes, they have done more than any other Italian firm since World War II to establish the fame of Italian style and craftsmanship around the world.
Mention the name Gucci from Hong Kong to Palm Beach, and the image is of a modern commercial aristocracy serving and defining wealth, fashion and good taste.
But the taste of the famous Gucci leather loafers, purses and suitcases has lately been superseded by a bitter family feud for power and money that would have made even the Borgias cringe.
The Guccis today are a warring clan in which father is pitted against sons, uncle against nephew, cousins against cousins. The economic success story of the House of Gucci has deteriorated recently into just another squalid soap opera that has become the most talked about subject in the cloistered salons of Italian society.
Never has the truth of the Gucci internecine warfare been more evident -- and public -- than last week, when company chairman Aldo Gucci, the 80-year-old patriarch of the clan, and sons Giorgio and Roberto filed suit in a Florence court against Gucci company president Maurizio Gucci, the 37-year-old son of Aldo's late brother, and partner, Rodolfo.
The Florence suit alleged that Maurizio, who gained control of the company last November by virtue of the 50 percent of Gucci shares he inherited in May 1983 when his father died, had forged his father's signature on his inherited stock.
The suit, which shocked even a traditionally stoic Tuscan society used to regicides and the poisoning of popes, succeeded in getting Florence Judge Paolo Canessa to order the immediate impounding of Maurizio's stock pending a resolution of the case. And momentarily it gave Aldo, Giorgio and Roberto, who together control 46.6 percent of the company stock, the hope that they could unseat Maurizio at a stockholders' meeting that had been scheduled at the company's headquarters in Milano for last Thursday.
Fighting back in the courts at week's end, however, Maurizio succeeded in having the meeting postponed by a separate court order on the grounds that an executor for his 50 percent of the company shares had not yet been appointed by the Florence court and thus, with no representation for his half of the votes, no stockholders' meeting could be held.
As the battle moved from the family sitting rooms to the boardroom to the courts, it has become clear, as in past Gucci clan arguments, that the center of the dispute is Aldo Gucci, the still-imposing, authoritarian patriarch of the House of Gucci, who has repeatedly fought with his future heirs over control and direction of the one-time saddlery that Guccio Gucci, his father -- and Maurizio's grandfather -- founded in Florence in 1906.
"Aldo Gucci is a tyrannical, despotic, genial, mercurial, kindly, enthusiastic and demanding patriarch not only with his children, grandchildren and nephews, but with his executives and employes as well," said one former senior employe of the company, who wished not to be named.
"Aldo has never been able to allow anyone in his family, or company, to take any individual initiatives," the former Gucci employe said.
As a result the House of Gucci has been repeatedly shaken by bitter family disputes, of which the one between Aldo and company chairman Maurizio is but the most recent.
One of Guccio Gucci's four sons (there was also one daughter), who began work in the family firm at 17 as a delivery boy, Aldo was always the force behind the company's rise to modern fame. The sister, sources close to the family said, never had anything to do with the company, and two brothers, Ugo and Vasco, both now dead, had no major role either.
It was Aldo and brother Rodolfo, who in fact was more interested in filmmaking than in leather craft, who emerged after World War II as joint owners of the suddenly expanding Gucci firm -- and the stock at the time was divided equally between the two brothers.
As long as brother Rodolfo was alive and his attentions drawn to the world of movie making, Aldo had control of the company pretty much to himself. But as his three sons -- Giorgio, Roberto and Paolo -- grew to maturity the conflicts in the family flared.
First Giorgio, the eldest son, rebelled, leaving the family's flagship shop on Rome's Via Condotti to set up his own shop, under the name Giorgio Gucci, a block away. Father and son eventually made peace and the new shop was brought into the main Gucci operation. Giorgio took control of the Rome operations.
That rebellion was nowhere as clamorous as the dispute between Aldo and his son Paolo, who rose in the 1970s to become the company's chief designer, vice president and head of its expanding U.S. operations, the company's most lucrative division.
According to company insiders Paolo's initial dispute with his father revolved around his plans to maximize profits by having many of the company's Tuscan leather products manufactured in Hong Kong instead of Italy.
The dispute came to a head in 1980 when Paolo was fired by the Gucci company board, which was controlled by his father. Paolo, like his elder brother Giorgio before him, set up his own label of products using the Gucci name and forcing a series of lawsuits and fam- ily negotiations that eventually brought him back to a vice presidency in New York six months later.
The reconciliation with Paolo, said by intimates to be the son most like his father, was short-lived. According to court records, Paulo sneaked a tape recorder into a 1982 board meeting to record the discussions in preparation for a new suit against his father. When the recorder was discovered, say the records, a physical tussle over it developed among Paolo, his brothers and Aldo that ended up in a $13.3 million assault charge. It was eventually settled out of court.
That dispute, according to legal sources and family intimates here, lies at the root of the now bitterly contested ascendency of company president Maurizio, a law and economics graduate from Milan University who worked his way up in the firm's New York operations.
When Maurizio's father Rudolfo died in 1983, he, as an only son, supposedly inherited his father's half-share in the company. Last year Maurizio joined with his bitter cousin Paolo, who had 3.3 percent of the company stock, as does each of his two other brothers, to take control of the company from the rest of the Gucci tribe.
Last week's court suit alleging that Maurizio had in fact forged his father's shares -- a case apparently based on the testimony of a secretary who claims to have been present when he did it -- is the result of that revolt in the family firm.
None of the family members, or their spokesmen, was prepared to talk on the record about the issue in the midst of the litigation, exchanged accusations and corporate board maneuverings.
Maurizio, who flew to Milan early in the week for the board meeting that was canceled Thursday, did issue a statement on his arrival in Italy that said he was the subject of a "personal attack" by family members and someone else "whose ends are easily imaginable," presumably the unnamed secretary who has testified in court against him.
What the outcome would be no one could say this week. But one source close to the company at its headquarters in Milan said, "Until this is resolved the company is paralyzed and its good name is being damaged. The issue is not policy -- it is power and money."