When my wife and I were travelling in Florence a few years ago, we felt we had particular luck one evening when we found ourselves having drinks at the studio of a Florentine artist, followed by dinner with a Gucci handbag maker – you could not wish for two more iconic ways to make a living in that most wonderful of towns. However, by chance last week, I read an article about the Gucci family, and suddenly the whole thing seemed rather more human. 

Gucci was founded in Florence in 1921 by a man called Guccio Gucci. Almost a century later, the Gucci brand was valued by Forbes magazine at over 10 billion US dollars, not a bad effort from somebody who worked as a lift boy in the Savoy Hotel in his teenage years, and he must have been proud to have handed over such a flourishing empire to his sons when he died in 1953. But as so often happens in families where large amounts of money are involved, his death simply led to a chain of events which saw one son sent to prison for tax evasion, a grandson dying penniless, another grandson being murdered at work (by a hitman hired by his former wife), and no doubt numerous other family disputes along the way. Indeed, Mauricio, the murdered grandson, proved to be the last family member to run the company; what a fall from grace. What happened, one can only guess, as what goes on in families often happens behind closed doors and in emotive circumstances – but it seems from a distance that this family must have lost all perspective; it seems to have become intensely competitive with each other when wisdom might have dictated generosity. Individuals seem to have acted with arrogance and self-interest, in the manner of the tragic heroes in the greatest of ancient plays. Hubris brings nemesis.

I mentioned last week, when I congratulated Susie Spyropoulos on her awards, that some of you had been going out to volunteer in the local community. Mrs Spyropoulos wanted to let me know that when she won her MoSista award, she dedicated the award in her speech afterwards to you all, as so many of you have been involved in its winning. In the last few months, boys have been giving much joy to others in primary schools (I have witnessed mandarin lessons to 10-year-olds, guitar lessons to the same age and badminton to a whole range of kids; but there have been any number of other things going on in education) and also joy to people at the other end of the age range in old people’s homes, where your presence and (in some cases) your music-making has been looked forward to on a weekly basis. 

What has impressed me most, however, from my conversations with you has been the recognition of the benefits your actions have brought to you: a sense of real worth, a joy, something powerful and fulfilling – and an overwhelming feeling that this is worthwhile. Very well done for that. The reason, I think, that you have found joy in your weekly session, even when it may seem something of a trial to get there, can be summarised by the conclusion from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his latest sermon, when he said the following: “what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give. The more of ourselves that we give, the greater we become.” 

A nice line, that – let me repeat it: “what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give. The more of ourselves that we give, the greater we become.” The Gucci family seemed to have lost sight of this.

I was also reminded of top sportsmen. It seems to me that the truly great ones do not need to put down others. It was certainly the case when I used to play cricket that the best players would never sledge you, but that the ones who were not quite good enough were the most vocally aggressive. The very best players shared their experience and passed on their expertise in the bar afterwards, whilst the others snarled at you. When one of my brothers was lucky enough to be selected to play against Australia, a team full of greats – Shane Warne and Glen McGrath amongst them – he was also unlucky enough for all three days of the game to be washed out completely by rain. Yet, every morning, Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, came into the home dressing room for a whole hour to pass on his wisdom to the younger English players, generously giving up his own time voluntarily to help them with their careers. 

I may be wrong, but my guess is that Guccio Gucci, the founder, was the real genius in that family, the one whose talent enabled him to rise above the bickering – some of his descendants may not have been so gifted. Whatever happened, I am pretty sure that Rabbi Sacks is right.

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