March 31, 1975 12:00 PM

Cars inched down the narrow Corso d’Italia, one of Rome’s busier evening thoroughfares. Oblivious to the horns and exhaust fumes, Gianni Bulgari, the dashing 40-year-old proprietor of his family’s chic jewelry houses in Rome and New York, was scanning the newspaper as he slouched in the back of his chauffeur-driven limousine. Suddenly the car lurched to a stop, and two masked, armed men leaped into the car, ejected the driver and drove off with Bulgari. A few hours later came the ransom demand: a reported $16 million, largest by far in history.

The cool, commandolike operation was the latest in a series of Italian kidnappings. In the last 12 months, 40 persons have been abducted. In fact, both of Gianni’s brothers, Paolo and Nicola, had taken to carrying pistols months ago. But Gianni, perhaps cognizant of his image as an international playboy who often squired Liz Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida, vehemently refused to arm himself. “I cannot live that way,” the handsome bachelor protested.

Some wealthy Italian families have protected themselves by simply leaving the country. Hundreds of children have been sent abroad, and many of those who remain walk to school accompanied by armed bodyguards (hired at up to $250 a day). When the rich go out, they walk in the middle of sidewalks (to thwart abductions into cars and alleys) and are wary of all new friends. They equip their homes with elaborate locks and change their phone numbers.

The Bulgari family has been among the super-rich of Rome since the turn of the century. At the shuttered jewelry salon on Via Condotti, next door to Gucci, customers arrive by appointment only to view the gems. After the Nazis occupied Rome in World War II, Hermann Goering made a point of visiting the shop. And recently the Shah of Iran became a regular customer. When the family opened a branch in the elegant Hotel Pierre in New York, they haughtily referred to it as “The Annex.” Gianni himself became a connoisseur of exquisite antique gems and has a unique collection of old silver in his Rome salon. Because of his expertise, he was invited to Peking two years ago to evaluate a silver collection in the National Museum.

He is equally refined in his style of living. He has been on the best-dressed list and indulges himself with fine wines and Cuban cigars. When he took up sports-car racing 10 years ago, he not only studied with the legendary Enzo Ferrari, he also mastered the treacherous Targa Florio Circuit in Sicily. When that began to bore him, he took up flying and bought his own plane.

Many of the recent abductions, including Bulgari’s, are attributed to political groups of the radical left or right whose purpose is to finance their activities with the extravagant ransoms. “There are far fewer risks in a kidnapping than a bank robbery,” lamented one police chief. “I’m afraid it’s going to be the crime of the future.”

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