In July of 1982, just a month after the discovery of his body – hanging from some scaffolding under Blackfriars bridge – a London inquest ruled that Italian Banker Roberto Calvi had committed suicide. It was a verdict that raised eyebrows in England, and provoked disbelief in Italy. Calvi, known as ‘God’s Banker’ because of the close relationship between his bank, the Banco Ambrosiano, and the Vatican bank (the Istituto per Opere di Religione headed by Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus), had fled Italy – illegaly, his passport had been confiscated while investigations were underway for financial irregularities at the bank – , days before his supposed suicide. The Banco Ambrosiano, which Calvi had helped make the largest private bank in Italy, was about to collapse, with a debt of over $1.3 billion dollars – reason enough, according to the London City Police for a suicide inducing depression.
Nine months later three high court judges would quash the suicide verdict and order a fresh inquest. The new inquest returned an open verdict, though the Jury foreman would later reveal to The Times that a different verdict would have been reached had the jury been more informed about the background to Calvi’s death.
There were plenty of reasons to suspect foul play in Calvi’s death. On a purely physical level it seemed improbable that Calvi could have climbed from Blackfriars bridge onto the scaffolding from which his corpse was found hanging – a later forensic examination would reveal that no traces of paintwork, rust or significantly brick, limestone or basalt under Calvi’s fingertips, traces that should have been there had he climbed onto scaffolding, and handled brickwork. And that brings us on to the bricks – Calvi’s body was found with bricks in his jacket pockets, and bizarrely in his crotch area (inserted through the fly). That the bricks had been picked up by Calvi and used to weigh his body down seems implausible to almost all apart from the original coroner’s inquest.
Calvi was himself a Mason, a member of the infamous P2 Lodge – a lodge linked to attempted coups, terrorist attacks, and partially succesful attempts to subvert Italian democracy. Calvi also had alleged links to the Mafia. Masonry, the Mafia, and the Vatican bank – if one were to write it as a novel it would be deemed unrealistic.
Fast forward twenty-five years and a Rome court has just acquitted five men, for lack of evidence, charged with Calvi’s murder. Journalist Philip Willan has followed the case closely over the years, and has just published a fascinating history of what has been dubbed ‘the 20th century’s greatest criminal mystery”. It places Calvi firmly in the context of Italian cold war politics, a banker with control of funds that could be used to bankroll subversive activities, arms dealing, and perhaps the Polish trade union Solidarity.
Philip Willan was kind enough to take part in an email interview with Three Monkeys to discuss the Calvi case
What drew you to the Calvi case – a murder from 1982 that, judging from the press coverage of the recent trial proceedings here in Italy, is largely forgotten or spoken about in terms of a mystery (like so many others in recent Italian history) that will remain unsolved?
I was living in Italy and working as a journalist when Calvi was killed and I have followed the story with great interest ever since. I had occasion to look into it in detail when I helped with the research for David Yallop’s book In God’s Name and again later when I contributed research to Charles Raw’s rather heavier study of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal, The Moneychangers. I was asked to write the book by Constable & Robinson after they saw an article of mine in The Guardian about new developments in the case.
Perhaps conspiracy stories have always been popular, but with the growth of internet publishing and blogging it’s no exaggeration to say that we live in the age of the conspiracy theory – ranging from Mossad involvement in 9/11 through to the Freemasons running the planet. How do you go about writing about a real conspiracy, still shrouded in mystery and involving elements from Opus Dei, the Mafia, and the Freemasons, without coming across as a fantasist?
You’re right. I was aware while I was doing the book that the elements of the conspiracy were fascinating but one risked getting carried away by them. The alleged symbolic aspects of Calvi’s execution, for example, can seem far-fetched, and pragmatic Anglo-Saxon readers are liable to lose patience if they get the impression they are entering the realm of wild speculation. I hope I managed to strike the right balance between known fact and the, as yet, unproven conspiracy theories.
Five defendants were put on trial in 2005 for Calvi’s murder. Since the publication of The Last Supperthey have been acquitted due to insufficient evidence. Was there any point in a trial, so many years after Calvi’s death, and does the story end here with their acquittal?
The written explanation of the verdict, which is due in a couple of months’ time, should make very interesting reading. The judge, Mario D’Andria, struck me as very astute and even-handed. One defendant was fully absolved of participation in the murder but the other four were acquitted because the evidence against them was insufficient or contradictory. It will be interesting to see from the sentence how much suspicion the judge attaches to their various roles. It is probable, in any case, that the prosecutor will appeal against the acquittals and there are suggestions that he may be making significant progress in a parallel investigation into another half dozen or so suspects. It is a bit surprising, though, that none of the findings from that inquiry found their way into the trial proceedings. The trial was unquestionably a disappointment because it failed to clarify what really happened during Calvi’s last days. The fact remains that this was virtually the last chance to stage a trial, since the witnesses are dying off and those that survive can plausibly claim to have difficulty in remembering events from such a long time ago.
The Da Vinci Code has sold millions, and drummed up a huge amount of press. Without wishing to downplay Dan Brown’s narrative skills, it suggests that there’s a worldwide audience hungry for conspiracies centred around the Roman Catholic Church. How, then, do you explain the relative lack of interest in the Calvi case?
It is striking how many people are prepared to believe the worst about the Roman Catholic Church. In the case of the Calvi story though, I think some people, especially in Italy, have lost patience with it. They feel the mystery is insoluble. Information about it has been dribbling into the public domain for 25 years and people have difficulty in distinguishing between what is new and what may already have been published in the newspapers 20 years ago. The role of the church in the Calvi saga has remained particularly unclear and there are plenty of people who would like it to remain that way. For potential readers suffering from Calvi-fatigue the only remedy would be a really clear-cut answer to the mystery, which for the moment doesn’t exist.
One of the factors that Calvi seems to have banked upon was that he held secrets that would be disastrous to the Vatican/Political Parties/ and perhaps the Mafia. He may have lost his life over these secrets, but one of the lessons of recent Italian history seems to be that, no matter how scandolous revelations may be, if you give things enough time they will eventually blow over (P2, Tangentopoli, and more recently the Parmalat crash). Can we venture into the completely hypothetical, and wonder how Calvi would have reacted had the Ambrosiano crash happened today – would he have gone on the run?
Seen with hindsight, some of Calvi’s secrets don’t seem so sensational or surprising today. The fact that the church, under a Polish pontiff, had an interest in supporting the Solidarity trade union in Poland appears obvious and almost uncontroversial. But with the Cold War still under way, revelations about the Vatican’s funding of Solidarity could have been altogether more explosive; as would have been revelations about the church backing undemocratic right-wing regimes in Latin America. Above all, we don’t know the real details of what Calvi was threatening to reveal. Had he publicised the mechanisms of secret service anti-communist operations or really unsavoury moral compromises brought about by the Cold War it could have had an explosive impact. If the Ambrosiano’s financial crisis had come today, I don’t think Calvi would have needed to go on the run at all. He could have just sat out the scandal and opted for a plea-bargain.