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Telephoning the Lombardy headquarters of Beretta, the world’s oldest gun manufacturer, I am blasted with the familiar first bars of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, the theme song from the film Top Gun.
“My father chose it a long time ago and we have never changed it,” says Franco Gussalli Beretta, 51, when we meet at his penthouse apartment in a fortress-like palazzo in Brescia, near Milan. As president of Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, which has been doing business since the 1500s, Beretta perhaps knows something about deferring to the wisdom of his forefathers.
In fairness, Top Gun is fitting, given that since 1985 the company has had the lucrative privilege of supplying the US military with its standard issue side arm. Beretta Holding, the umbrella company, which includes accessory lines and other arms brands such as Benelli, makes about 2,500 guns a day, bringing in €623m in revenue in 2014. It employs 3,000 people worldwide.
The ritzy apartment, where Beretta lives with his wife, Umberta, is a showcase for both big game trophies, including a zebra hide in the hall, and contemporary art, often with references to the family business. We sit on striped sofas, facing a drawing of a pistol by Andy Warhol.
Beretta, a bit of a dandy in a chequered, bright-blue suit with a gaucho-style belt, recalls the family’s history furnishing Europe’s warring armies with guns and ammunition.
The company can trace its origins to 1526, when Master Bartolomeo Beretta received payment of 296 ducats for 185 arquebus barrels from the Doge of Venice, a musket so heavy it had to be propped up with supports. When Napoleon occupied Venice in 1797 the family helped supply his arsenals, and when he was defeated in 1815, Austria provided a new market. “The history of Beretta has followed the history of the world, really,” he says.
It was Beretta’s father, Ugo, who made the “great leap” of entering the US market in 1977, securing the contract that would make the Model 92 one of the most widely produced guns in history. Ugo also transformed the company into a lifestyle brand, selling hunting attire and binoculars, a far-sighted move in the 1980s.
Beretta and his brother Pietro began managing the business about 15 years ago, although their father stood down as president only last year. They have since expanded into wine and high-end hunting lodges, selling a range of products from spaniel-head bottle stoppers to safari skirts. Their London boutique is in Jermyn Street, but there is also a Harrods concession, next to Shoe Heaven on the fifth floor of the department store. “He goes there and I go to Shoe Heaven,” says Umberta.
The couple married in 1994. Their backgrounds are well matched. Umberta, an enthusiastic contemporary art collector, was educated in Switzerland, Rome and London, but her family factory is in the next valley and at one time made swords.
Beretta was first taught to shoot aged 15, by his great-uncle Carlo. He studied political science in Urbino, before doing military service with the Carabinieri police, where he says he acquitted himself “respectably” during firearms training with the state-issued Beretta.
He prefers clay pigeon shooting and target practice to hunting, and rarely accepts the frequent invitations he receives to shoots. “I’m more of a sailor than a hunter.” His third-floor bedroom, wood-panelled and resembling a ship’s cabin, is testament to this passion, filled with pictures and models of boats, mostly gifts.
The Beretta family own the entire 1940s palazzo in the centre of Brescia, built by the same architect in the same grey stone as their home next to the factory in Gardone, 20km away. As a boy, Beretta dreamt of having the top-storey apartment, with views over the city’s cathedral and castle, and was given it when he married.
After the birth in 1997 of their son Carlo, now 19 and a student in Milan, the couple acquired the apartment below and knocked them together to create “an inspired combination” of the homes that he and Umberta grew up in, Beretta says. “We took the architect to see both our parents’ houses.” The columned staircase is a tribute to the Siena yellow marble staircase at Gardone. The dining room, panelled in dark wood, with four nudes by the British painter Lucian Freud, was inspired by Umberta’s family house.
Touring the apartment with Umberta is like visiting a mini-Saatchi Gallery. A negative print of a $100 bill by the photographer David LaChapelle adorns the staircase. A Tracey Emin light installation reading “Be Brave” was an 18th-birthday present to Carlo, who is in turn immortalised listening to his iPod in a life-size, white resin sculpture by the Italian artist Fabio Pietrantonio. A photograph by Terry O’Neill of the actress Raquel Welch, wearing little more than a gun and holster, sits opposite a portrait of the family by the fashion photographer Miles Aldridge. A laughing Beretta is shown loading a rifle surrounded by cream cake, while Umberta drinks champagne.
Beretta prizes the master craftsmen who engrave his customised rifles “just as much” as the artists that hang in his home. Their work can be equally costly, too. A pair of engraved hunting rifles can fetch €200,000 to €300,000. One pair, in seven different shades of gold, a gift for Ugo Beretta’s 70th birthday, would cost €1m were they replicated.
The sitting room, with a wood fire, is more hunting lodge than art gallery, with ivory tusk lamps and a corner bar. On one shelf is the entire collection of Bond films. “In the early Ian Fleming books, Bond has a Beretta,” he points out, although these days 007 prefers a Walther PPK.
Berettas have appeared in numerous films, but have also attracted negative attention. In 2014 Jaylen Ray Fryberg, 15, used his father’s Beretta pistol to shoot and kill four high school students in Marysville, Washington. Jiverly Wong, 41, killed 13 people in Binghamton, New York, with two Beretta handguns in 2009. And Terry Michael Ratzmann used a Beretta handgun to kill seven members of a church congregation before committing suicide in 2005.
Yet according to Beretta, arms manufacturers bear no responsibility for mass shootings like these. “[Our] philosophy”, he says, is that “it is up to every population in a democratic country to decide what it thinks is right in its territory”. He adds: “We just follow the rules.” In Europe there are countries with a higher density of guns than the US, such as Finland and Switzerland, “and nothing happens”, he argues. (Reliable data on gun ownership is scant, but the Small Arms Survey of 2007 calculated that the number of guns per 100 residents was close to 90 in the US, almost double that in Switzerland and Finland.)
Beretta insists that shootings are a “psychological problem”, citing President Barack Obama. “That’s freedom. It’s understandable that a weapon can be dangerous in the hands of someone who isn’t from the right culture. But in the hands of someone who is familiar with guns and does not have mental problems, it’s fine.”
Umberta chips in. “Those kids are all on pharmaceutical drugs. Maybe if I were American I would be more worried about that.” Beretta is vehemently opposed to further gun control in the US, saying it would violate the rights of those living in isolated places to defend themselves from “criminals” or even — strangely — “jaguars and bears”.
In April Beretta opened a new factory in Tennessee, which will allow the company to manufacture “handbag guns” and assault weapons that cannot legally be imported into the US. The previous factory in Maryland was “in the wrong place”, Beretta says. “The south is the natural home of the gun lobby and the huntsman.”
Photographs: Francesco Merlini/Prospekt