When word arrived that Giovanni Agnelli, the patriarch of Italy's Fiat automobile company, had died of cancer today at 81, it was hard to figure out whether Italy was mourning the loss of a captain of industry, an uncrowned king or a fashion plate.

Agnelli was all three, and that's what made him more than just a magnate. Italy's full of them today, but their deaths wouldn't have attracted quite so much attention. Prince, playboy, eminence grise. These are traits Italians find irresistible. Even some popes have had them. And maybe the Italians were upset over the loss of an Italy that is also fading -- one of sophistication and glamour. Agnelli was a living echo of the idealized era of la dolce vita, the giddy 1950s, which saw Italy's flashy emergence from poverty and the debacle of World War II. The '50s and the '60s seem to be the years Italians love most. Strains of "Volare" can still bring out a lusty chorus among Italian partygoers.

Then there's history. Whatever personal opinions of Agnelli might be -- Fiat workers still speak bitterly of a strike he broke in the 1980s, and middle-class businessmen complain of government handouts to the auto giant over the years -- he was undeniably a man for all of Italy's seasons. There are few Italians whose death would attract elegies from the pope and Italy's president and prime minister. Pope John Paul II credited him with a "generous initiative for the country's good." Italy's ceremonial president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, called him "one of the leaders of our country's history." Rather more mundanely, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi praised him as a "champion of Italian enterprise."

His death took on the proportions of an epic Italian novel. Think of Tomasi di Lampedusa's "The Leopard" transported from the decaying feudal aristocracy of 19th-century Sicily to 21st-century industrial Turin, home of the Fiat car empire. While Agnelli lay ill in his hilltop villa above Turin the past few months, workers down below marched in protest against job cuts meant to drain red ink from Fiat's books. Financiers and creditors sought to find ways to take control of the company. Agnelli was ill and so was his company -- it was as if the padrone and the factory were one. He died just hours before a meeting convened to transfer the chairmanship of the Fiat holding company to his brother, Umberto.

Mark Twain once said some Italians don't live life so much as act it out, and Gianni Agnelli performed on the stage of key episodes of the second half of Italy's tumultuous 20th century. He fought for Mussolini on the Russian and African fronts as a tank commander. When part of Italy switched sides in 1943, he joined an Italian unit that served under U.S. Gen. Mark Clark, whose troops fought up Italy's shin to drive out the Germans. Domestic terrorists attacked his plants in the 1970s, a violent period called the Years of Lead. Agnelli mixed with U.S. presidents and Communist general secretaries.

Fiat was once the world's fifth-largest carmaker and dominated Italian roads. Agnelli took over the company in the '60s, after the economical "Mickey Mouse" and then the Fiat 500 had become bestsellers. Many Italians shared their first illicit kiss in a "Cinquecento," as the 500 is called, as it gave them an escape from crowded homes, gossipy villages and prying family eyes. The car is a collector's item today.

Agnelli launched Fiat abroad with plants in Latin America and the Soviet Union. The Fiat-designed plant in Togliatti, a Russian town named after an Italian communist, of all things, is still in operation. He pulled Fiat out of occasional doldrums with alphabets of business alliances. Fiat once allied with Ford Motor Co., Libya's Moammar Gaddafi was once an investor and General Motors recently took control of 20 percent of Fiat stock. The GM deal was a sign that Fiat was slipping out of the Agnellis' control; under the agreement, Fiat can require the Detroit automaker to buy the rest of the company in 2004. Fiat dominates Italy no more. A decade ago, half the cars on Italian roads were Fiats. Now it is only one in three. Fiat's boxy designs and Italian drivers' hunger for greater pizazz collided. Last year, Fiat Auto lost about $2 billion. In Milan's stock market today, Fiat closed marginally higher, a reflection that with the patriarch's demise, the sale to GM might go through.

Twenty years ago, Agnelli reviewed his ups and downs, and they were Italy's. "We have traversed difficult moments, like that of terrorism, and I didn't shy away. There has been in the arc of our lives, of our generation, also easy moments, things to enjoy, and I enjoyed them," he told an interviewer.

Ah, enjoyment. For a while, fun seemed to be Agnelli's vocation, and a jet-setter reputation first brought him to the Italian public's attention. He had already been named Fiat vice chairman by the end of World War II but took more interest in skiing, road racing, yachting and the jet set. Paparazzi snapped him in the company of Anita Ekberg, the iconic Great White Blonde of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," as well as the wealthy Pamela Churchill Harriman and another Via Veneto favorite, Rita Hayworth. When he married, it was to a Neapolitan princess with a swan's neck, Marella Carraciolo di Castagneto. Even when he took business seriously, as Fiat managing director in 1963, then chairman in 1966, the public found him fascinating, and he returned the favor by providing entertainment. He bought Ferrari and returned the sports car to its domination of Formula One racing. The Agnellis own the Juventus soccer club, and Gianni traveled all over the country to witness games.

He set styles, and in Italy, style is hardly a lesser god than substance. When he wore his tie outside his sweater, imitators pulled theirs out. When he wore his watch over his cuff, so did everyone else -- at least those with expensive watches.

Style was an issue with Agnelli to the very end. Recently, when Ciampi paid a courtesy call on the ailing industrialist, the family banned publication of a photo of the pair because it showed Agnelli in the worn-down state of a man suffering not only from prostate cancer but also from the ravages of chemotherapy. His etched face was once a fixture of Italian newspapers, but he hadn't appeared publicly for 10 months.

Italy is still a provincial place, despite its cosmopolitan reputation, and one of Agnelli's legacies in Italian eyes was to project a new Italy to the post-World War II world. The jutting jaw and bombastic poses of Mussolini were replaced by almost WASPish reserve and good tailoring. "He brought Fiat to the world and with it, Italy," wrote Stefano Cingolani, an economics writer. "What would Italian capitalism be without him? Less dynastic, probably. Certainly less radiant, less attractive, with a lesser quota of history and values to transmit. It would be, above all, anonymous without that 'Noble Mediterranean' profile."

On Saturday, Agnelli's body will be brought from the villa to Fiat's imposing headquarters below. Tonight, a few mourners showed up at the gates. Mostly they were retirees. One bystander said, "He provided me a pension." Another said: "Sometimes we saw him come by in a car. Once he even waved."

Giovanni Agnelli, the patriarch of the Fiat automobile company, was the embodiment of the idealized era of la dolce vita in 1950s Italy.Agnelli with new models in 1995, when Fiat was already losing its attraction.