Italy hasn't seen a family squabble like this since the days of the Borgias. It includes beautiful women, fabulous riches, fiery Latin passions and an internecine quarrel that has shaken one of fashion's dynasties: the House of Gucci.

At the heart of the imbroglio is Aldo Gucci, the firm's imperious 77-year-old patriarch. Last March Aldo appointed his stunning 19-year-old daughter, Patricia, as his "official roving ambassador" and corporate heiress apparent to the privately held firm with estimated annual sales of $300 million. That act preceded a spectacular flareup in Aldo's longtime feud with Patricia's half brother Paolo. During a board meeting this summer at the company's store on Florence's tony Via Tornabuoni, a full-fledged brawl allegedly broke out when Paolo announced his intention to tape the proceedings. Three days later Paolo, 51, filed a $13.4 million suit in New York Supreme Court. Among other things, he charged that his two brothers—Giorgio, 54, and Roberto, 49—and cousin Maurizio, 38, assaulted him "at the behest and instigation" of Aldo.

Dr. Gucci (Aldo reportedly has a degree in economics from Florence's San Marco College and likes the title) responded to his son's allegations with the observation that Paolo "likes to exaggerate." But Gucci Sr. stopped short of saying no violence took place. "Who is the father," Aldo shrugged, "who has never given a slap to a reckless son?"

In fact, the battle has been going on behind closed doors for years. Paolo, Aldo's second son by English wife Lady Olwen Price, joined the family business as a salesclerk in 1952. By the early 1960s he had risen to the key position of chief designer. With Gucci already established as the Rolls-Royce of leather goods, Paolo helped launch the firm's ready-to-wear line for men and women in 1974. Four years later he was promoted to vice-president and brought to New York to steer Gucci's lucrative U.S. division.

Still, Aldo ran the company with a firm hand, and his son grew restless. "I wanted to expand," explains Paolo, "to bring in other financial backers and make the business run on more modern lines. But the Guccis have medieval concepts of business. So I became the black sheep." Bickering between Paolo and the rest of the clan intensified, and in 1980 the board voted to fire him. As an independent designer, he moved quickly to clear the way for his own label using the famous Gucci name. Paolo's New York attorney, Stuart Speiser, was with his client last year when Paolo demanded company documents from his father during a meeting of family stockholders at Gucci's opulent Fifth Avenue offices. "Aldo blew his top," recalls Speiser, "and had to be restrained."

Aldo managed to thwart his son's mutiny, and six months ago rehired Paolo as New York VP. "Paolo reported to the shops and was treated like a stranger," claims Speiser. "The staff apparently was instructed to ignore him." Now that Paolo is taking his relatives to court, it seems unlikely he'll be invited back to the Gucci boardroom soon. If he is, adds Speiser, "Paolo won't go alone. He's too old to take up karate." Ironically, Paolo says he is not concerned for his future safety because "the Guccis usually don't go in for violence. They prefer psychological warfare."

Aldo recently described his son as "very temperamental and very stubborn"—adjectives also used often to describe II Dottore and his father, company founder Guccio Gucci. Guccio, whose interlocking initials adorn Gucci handbags, belt buckles, luggage and shoes, used his wife's dowry to open a small saddle shop in Florence 76 years ago. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, sanctions imposed against Italy by the League of Nations cut Guccio off from his principal source of leather in England. Guccio solved the problem by introducing a line of canvas luggage trimmed with leather from Italian herds. Gucci's leather goods are still made from the hides of specially reared Val di Chiana cattle.

Aldo, the oldest of Guccio's three sons, at first had no intention of following in his father's footsteps. "I meant to go into the navy," remembers Aldo. "Can you imagine?" Instead, at 17, he enlisted in the business sweeping floors and worked his way up.

It was on a trip to New York in 1952 that Aldo and his brothers Rodolfo and Vasco decided to set up shop on Fifth Avenue. "Are you mad?" Guccio cabled them from Italy. "Come right back, all of you!" The trio returned to Florence and sold their father on the idea of exporting the Gucci name across the Atlantic. Aldo took over upon G.G.'s death in 1953, and today a dozen Gucci shops line the world's smartest streets, from Paris' rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré to L.A.'s Rodeo Drive.

Peripatetic Aldo maintains art-filled residences in New York City, Palm Beach, Rome, Florence, Beverly Hills, London and Paris. He claims to have never had a vacation, but that may change now that Patricia has been piped aboard. Patricia's mother is 45-year-old Bruna Palombo, whom Aldo first met when she was a salesgirl in his Rome store.

Fresh from ritzy Aiglon College, a finishing school near Montreux, Switzerland, Patricia will be spared the traditional Gucci apprenticeship. "My father was a very severe man," says Dr. Gucci. "He wanted no jokes." Aldo's bambina has already helped run several important fashion shows and open four new franchises in the U.S. and Canada. Even Paolo backs Patricia's move into the firm. "I like her a lot," he insists, "and consider her the most intelligent member of the family. It would do the company good to have a woman at its head. But the Guccis are chauvinists," he adds, and should Aldo step out of the picture, Paolo believes "she'd be eaten alive in five minutes."

Nonetheless, Patricia remains undaunted. "I love everything about the company," she says, "but you have to know that it is like a puzzle." Her relationship with Papa is decidedly unlike that between Aldo and Paolo. "We have never had any big quarrels," insists Patricia. Concurs Dr. Gucci: "I can't honestly say that I never complain. I do—but not about her." With one exception. When talk turns to Patricia marrying, Aldo is adamant. "No, no," he shouts. "I won't permit that." "Father is jealous," Patricia pouts. "I think I shall die a spinster."

VICTORIA EVERETT with LOGAN BENTLEY in Rome and FRED HAUPTFUHRER in London