I Feltrinelli: Storia di una dinastia imprenditoriale (1854–1942) by Luciano Segreto (review)
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Reviewed by
Luciano Segreto. I Feltrinelli: Storia di una dinastia imprenditoriale (1854–1942). Milan: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2011. 487 pp. ISBN 978-880-7111-15-0, €28.00 (paper).

Luciano Segreto reconstructs the rise and fall of a family business from the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of the Second World War. As the author clearly demonstrates, the Feltrinelli can be considered in every respects one of the leading Italian entrepreneurial dynasties, such as Agnelli, Falck, Florio, or Pirelli; however, their history has not been fully explored for a long time. This book not only bridges this gap: even though the Feltrinelli are at the center of the story, the complexity of the factors and relations carefully examined by the author offers new important insights into the economic and social history of that period.

The starting point is 1854, seven years before the Italian political unification, when Giacomo Feltrinelli and his brothers established the firm “Fratelli Feltrinelli” (Feltrinelli Brothers). The company soon focused on the international lumber trade, by obtaining several concessions to exploit the rich forests of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a foresight strategy that allowed the Feltrinelli to make their fortune: in the following years, the demand for lumber in Italy experienced a progressive growth and the “Fratelli Feltrinelli” quickly became Italy’s leading enterprise in this business.

From the 1870s, the Feltrinelli started to diversify their investments and decided to enter several other sectors, among which railways construction (both in Italy and abroad) and real estate; moreover, in 1889, they founded their own bank, paving the way to a growing engagement in the financial sector.

When Giacomo died, in 1913, the baton passed to Carlo, Giacomo’s grandnephew. Under his management, the Feltrinelli firm reached the height in the mid-1920s, and Carlo Feltrinelli became undoubtedly one of the most influential and powerful Italian businessmen of that time. He not only was at the head of a leading business group, owning a wide range of activities (including industry, trade, banking and finance, etc.), but he was also a prominent shareholder of the Credito Italiano (one of the Italian most important universal banks), of which he was appointed vice president (1926) and, later, president (1928). As both the Feltrinelli and the Credito Italiano held relevant equity stakes in other important firms, Carlo also obtained a seat within the boards of directors of several Italian and foreign joint stock companies.

However, this situation significantly changed in the 1930s. In order to reduce the impact of the Great Depression, the Italian government [End Page 207] created the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, which took over the control of the three major Italian universal banks, including the Credito Italiano, together with their equity stakes in industrial enterprises.

After the sudden death of Carlo, in November 1935, just the day after he was forced to resign from the Credito Italiano, the control of the Feltrinelli group—whose importance was considerably reduced as a consequence of the above-mentioned events—passed to his younger brother Antonio. However, Antonio, who was an artist, had not the entrepreneurial aptitude to face this situation. Furthermore, this phase was characterized by conflicts within the family, to the extent that Antonio decided to exclude Carlo’s widow and children from his will and to appoint the Accademia d’Italia, a prestigious Italian cultural institution, as his sole heir. As a result, the death of Carlo, in 1942, put an end to this intriguing entrepreneurial history.

Although this epilogue apparently recalls the well-known Buddenbrook Syndrome, it should be pointed out that the new economic scenario emerged during the 1930s contributed to reshape the ownership and structure of Italian enterprises. Moreover, the one of the Feltrinelli is not a veritable decline. In the 1950s, Giangiacomo, Carlo’s son, started a new entrepreneurial activity as a publisher (the “Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore” is also the publishing house of this book), progressively flanked by a chain of bookshops, which are still the two most important businesses of the family.

The author conducts a long and painstaking research, deploying an impressive range of primary sources, including records of private enterprises as well as institutions, in Italy and in...


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