MILAN — Seven days ago the name of the Benetton family in Italy would have been primarily linked to colorful sweaters and provocative advertising campaigns, but over the last week, the Treviso-based dynasty has been dominating both local and international press for its alleged involvement in an environmental disaster hitting the city of Genoa.
On Aug. 14, a section of the city’s Morandi bridge collapsed, leading to 43 deaths, hundreds of evacuees and many structural damages. Opened in 1967 and part of the A10 highway linking the French and Italian rivieras, the bridge was maintained and operated by Autostrade Per l’Italia. This is the prime Italian highway player and is 88 percent owned by infrastructure company Atlantia. The Benettons’ family holding company Edizione controls 30.25 percent of Atlantia.
Benettons’ involvement added to the high resonance the disaster got for both the number of casualties and countless damage as well as the controversies surrounding the structure, whose condition and high maintenance costs were already part of locals’ concerns.
The deadly collapse also became a battleground for political parties, all converging in turning Atlantia — and therefore the Benetton family — into the scapegoat responsible for the tragedy.
According to local media reports, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte and the country’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli were among the firsts wanting and announcing the revocation of Autostrade per l’Italia’s concession. On Aug. 16, Atlantia released a statement reading that “the announcement has been made in the lack of any former specific notification to the concessionaire and without any verification of the actual causes” and claiming that the standing contract requires reimbursements if withdrawn early, with fines that could reach up to 20 billion euros, according to local media reports.
The statement, which underscored the company’s will in “protecting its shareholders and bondholders with correct and prompt information,” was perceived as tactless by many as it focused on contractual rules and lacked words of condolence for the victims.
This initially weighed on Atlantia’s shares on the Italian Bourse, which fell 5.4 percent to 23.5 euros on Aug. 14, following the news of the disaster. The downward spiral continued with the market cap falling to 15 billion euros two days later, when the shares slumped 22.4 percent to 18.3 euros, as the Bourse reopened after the Aug. 15 public holiday.
As of Monday, Atlantia’s shares were trading at 18.4 euros with news of the government’s decision to proceed in revoking the license.
Over the weekend, Toninelli confirmed the government has begun the process to strip the concession from the road operator, while executives of Autostrade per l’Italia and Atlantia held a press conference in Genoa to address the critics and offer 500 million euros to help the families of the victims and rebuild the bridge in eight months.
Siblings Gilberto, Luciano and Giuliana Benetton also addressed the criticism from citizens blaming them for not showing support and expressing their condolences to the victims’ families.
On Aug. 18, a national day of mourning, the Benettons released a statement reading: “In this mourning day, our thoughts go to every person who has known and loved those who are no longer [with us] following the tragedy of Genoa. With respect, we want to express our deep grief and show our real vicinity to all those affected by the terrible events of August 14.”
While many considered these apologies as coming too late, others have defended the family. Among the defenders, Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, who collaborated on the namesake fashion brand’s most famous ads since the Eighties. Toscani stood behind the Benettons during an interview with local daily Corriere della Sera, denouncing a slanderous campaign against them.
“They are very serious people. They have always been serious and done things [the best way] and I can tell this as I worked with them,” he said. “What’s all this meanness, this rancor?” he continued, defining Italians as “frustrated,” “unhappy” and “nasty” people.
Toscani’s support to the Benetton family ignited the debate in Genoa, where a number of citizens asked to shut down the photographer’s exhibition currently hosted at the city’s Palazzo Ducale.
According to media reports, Autostrade per l’Italia and Atlantia have called extraordinary meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.