Enrico Cuccia, the 88-year-old honorary chairman of Mediobanca, will surely go down in history as one of the great financiers of postwar Europe--as towering a figure as his late friend Andre Meyer, the legendary chief of Lazard Freres. Cuccia's accomplishment was to protect a small group of Northern Italian industrial dynasties, such as the Agnelli and Pirelli families, that flourished in one of the most inhospitable business climates in the West. For four decades, after all, Italy's Communist Party was the largest outside the Soviet bloc.
The rolling scandal at Gemina, the Milan holding company used by Cuccia for dozens of complex financial operations, shows the rot that has developed in the secretive world of Italian industry. It is also a wake-up call to the Italian Establishment that certain practices are no longer acceptable in today's more open, more transparent markets. For the first time, almost all Italian politicians agree on the rules of the modern capitalist game--whether it's in large-scale privatizations, freeing up financial markets, and greater labor force flexibility. Even Gianni Agnelli's nephew and heir apparent at Fiat calls for opening up Mediobanca's closed universe. That may be the clearest sign yet that Italy Inc. is truly beginning to change.