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By Christian Plumb
TURIN, Italy, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Thousands gathered in the square outside Turin's 15th century cathedral on Sunday for the funeral of Fiat king Gianni Agnelli, many having waited overnight to catch a glimpse of the billionaire tycoon's coffin.
Applause greeted the hearse of Agnelli, who had symbolised the glamour and promise of Italy's post-war rebirth, mingling with the world's movers and shakers from John F. Kennedy to Muammar Gaddafi.
"You see in this piazza, in this city and in all the world the respect commanded by this man, who left a mark not just in the economic world but also personally," said Walter Gaia, a 50-year-old technician at one of Fiat's biggest factories.
"Without him I don't know what would have become of this city and of Italy," Gaia added as he watched the ceremony from behind barricades.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi were greeted at the doors of the flower-decked cathedral by Umberto Agnelli, in line to take over the chairmanship of the Fiat empire his brother built.
With white and purple-robed priests heading the procession, Agnelli's coffin was carried into the church by Senate officers and Fiat guards. John Elkann, the grandson tipped to be Fiat's future, and other relatives followed solemnly behind.
Turin's Cardinal Severino Poletto told the congregation of Italy's political, business and sporting elite to remember "the grand passion of a entrepreneur who gave work to many people, bringing progress and well-being to so many families."
And he pleaded for the future of Fiat, which under Agnelli grew from a family car company into an empire that stretched from racing cars to vineyards to newspapers, but is now struggling with its gravest crisis yet.
"He made no mystery of the fact that he believed that now, as always, the crisis could be overcome," he said. "We hope his wishes are realised."
Abroad, Agnelli was best known for building Fiat into a global conglomerate and steering it through business crises, union unrest and terror attacks over 40 years.
But for Italians he was simply a Prince Charming. Many of the tens of thousands who waited overnight in the cold to see his coffin at Fiat's Lingotto factory said they had come to honour his great charisma.
Agnelli, dubbed "the lawyer", was to be buried near a family estate in the hills outside Turin, beside his son, who committed suicide, and his nephew, who died of cancer six years ago.
A billionaire with a sense of style, Agnelli's patrician fashion quirks -- such as wearing his wristwatch on the outside of his shirt cuff -- were copied by a nation of young men.
And in a land of passionate sports followers, Agnelli was the number one fan and owner of the mighty Juventus soccer club and of Formula One champions Ferrari.
Football stadiums across Italy were set to go silent for a minute in his memory later on Sunday.
Fiat's glory years turned the sleepy city of Turin into a boom town, whose population mushroomed as thousands fled Italy's impoverished south in search of a better life.
"We southerners owe a lot to Agnelli, because he taught us how to live, how to bring up our families," said Gabriele Rientino, owner of an auto parts shop and another bystander at the funeral. "Now in our little way, we're established."