As Italian authorities reinvestigate the disappearance of a teenage girl from the Vatican 40 years ago we have to ask: Why is Italy so ripe for conspiracies?

The Bramante spiral staircase at the Vatican

The Bramante spiral staircase at the Vatican. Credit: Andreas Tille (CC By-Nc-Nd 4.0)

Prosecutors in Rome launched a new investigation recently into the disappearance 40 years ago of the teenaged daughter of a Vatican employee. It is only one of a long list of unsolved mysteries in Italy.

This is the third time that judicial authorities, under persistent pressure from Emanuela Orlandi’s family, have investigated the disappearance of the 15-year old after she left her Vatican home for a music lesson.

The case was the subject of a recent four-part Netflix documentary which aired various theories about what happened but ended up with a trail of confusion and no definitive solution.

Having worked in Italy at various times over four decades I know the feeling.

Italy’s unrivalled store of political, military and criminal mysteries has spawned dozens of books and films, not to mention endlessly repeated investigations. Instead of clear solutions, they have tended to culminate in hotly disputed answers that pose more questions.

Shadowy forces and Vatican vaults

This has fuelled Italians’ scepticism about what they are told by officials. There is even a word, “dietrologia”, that describes the belief that an alternative version of the truth, usually sinister, lies behind what the public is told.

Another word used frequently to describe investigations into these mysteries is “depistaggio” — literally an attempt by shadowy forces, often in the secret services, to lead investigations away from the truth. This has manifested in court cases where one set of terrorism suspects are replaced by others from the opposite side of the extremist spectrum.

The Netflix documentary suggested the abduction of Orlandi could be linked to other notorious mysteries.

There was the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II and his financial support for the overthrow of Communism in his home country of Poland and the involvement of the Institute for the Works of Religion, more commonly known as the Vatican bank, in a giant financial scandal. Then there was the related murder of “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge — a location apparently chosen for its symbolism.

But this is the tip of the iceberg in Italy’s panoply of mystery.

Crash of a plane and death of a pope

Another conspiracy theory involves the death of Pope John Paul I, 33 days after he was elected. Then there’s Itavia Flight 870 which crashed off Sicily in 1980, killing 81 people, with no clarity on whether it was caused by a bomb or a missile or who was behind it.

The 1962 death in a plane crash of Enrico Mattei, founder of Italy’s state oil company ENI, is also marked by allegations of sabotage by foreign agents.

Many unsolved crimes date from the two decades of the so-called “Years of Lead” starting in the late 1960s when Italy was shaken to the core by right and left-wing terrorism that killed 300 people in nearly 13,000 attacks.

This dark period included a Milan bomb explosion in 1969, the assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the left-wing Red Brigades in 1978 and the death of 85 people in Italy’s worst terrorist attack in Bologna in 1980. These and many other incidents are still dogged by unanswered questions.

“In Italy it is almost never what you see is what you get, there is always another layer underneath,” said veteran Rome journalist John Hooper, author of the praised 2016 book, “The Italians.”

The Masons and Mediterranean malfeasance

A major contributor to these post-war conspiracies was an illegal Masonic lodge, known as Propaganda Due, whose exposure in 1981 caused one of Italy’s greatest scandals. The lodge was accused of conspiring with right-wing extremists and the Mafia to destabilise Italy through violence.

Its membership records included nearly a thousand prominent politicians, senior military and intelligence officers, judges and police.

There are also many mysteries associated with killings by Italy’s mafias and allegations that these criminal societies were involved in several terrorist attacks, and associated with powerful senior politicians, most notoriously seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, who was nicknamed  “Beelzebub” because of his mastery of the dark political arts.

There are several reasons why mysteries have flourished in Italy, not least the public’s tendency to believe in conspiracies, often with good cause.

Hooper, Rome correspondent of the Economist magazine, said there was a “delight in conspiracy” in the Mediterranean but even there Italy was a standout.

“Italy will have its mysteries forever,” Hooper said. “Given a choice between a cock-up and a conspiracy, in the Mediterranean there is at least a 50% chance of it being a conspiracy,” he said.

Communists, the CIA and the Cold War

Although some mysteries have continued into the 21st century, most of the most notorious originated in the Cold War, when Italy was in the frontline of the struggle against the Soviet Union.

Close to the Eastern bloc, it had the West’s largest communist party, rattling nerves among the United States and its allies, who feared that if the party won power Moscow would have a satellite in Western Europe.

Hooper said this paranoia “bordering on horror” was shared by the Vatican and the Mafia.

Right-wing terrorism was part of a “Strategy of Tension” intended to pave the way for an authoritarian government by mounting terrorist operations with the connivance of senior spymasters that could be blamed on the Left.

The CIA is known to have financed and supported the Christian Democrat party, natural bulwark against the communists, and was accused of encouraging right-wing plots and infiltrating the Red Brigades. Aldo Moro bitterly accused then Prime Minister Andreotti and other leaders of his Christian Democrat party, in letters from his Red Brigades cell, of not wanting to obtain his release because he had been trying to bring the communists into government under an “Historic Compromise.”

“A lot of things happened during that period which a lot of people had an interest in not clarifying,” Hooper said.

The Mafia and murders most mysterious

The Christian Democrats also were involved in a widespread use of patronage and corruption to ensure they remained Italy’s biggest party. In Sicily and parts of southern Italy, the Mafia controlled the vote, encouraging an alliance with local and national politicians, of whom the most prominent was Andreotti.

The end of the Cold War in 1991 and a huge corruption scandal in the following years, which swept away the political establishment including the Christian Democrats, removed the motivation for many conspiracies.

Another and continuing reason for conspiracy theories are police shortcomings and a Byzantine legal system in which cases drag on for years and verdicts are not final until appeals are exhausted.

Italian police have regularly arrested the wrong person on circumstantial evidence and then found another more likely suspect later on. In one of Italy’s most notorious murder investigations, the so-called “Monster of Florence” case, four different men were convicted at various flawed trials for the serial murders of eight courting couples outside the Tuscan city between 1968 and 1985.

Many Italians believe the real killer was never found.

The notorious case of the 2007 Perugia murder of British student Meredith Kercher went through four trials before American Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend were finally acquitted after spending time in jail.

Police methods and major contamination of forensic evidence were heavily criticised by the judges. Some experts said the only man convicted, Ivorian Rudy Guede, could not have committed the crime by himself, leaving yet another unsolved mystery.

“A lot of things become mysterious in Italy because of a lack of precision in the legal process,” Hooper said. “In most places an investigation proceeds by the testing of a thesis and when it is shown to be untrue it is thrown out.”

But because of a culture of respecting the opinions of others this was not the case in Italy, where “these things go round and round in a circle,” he said.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why does Italy have so many mysteries?
  2. Why do Italians seem to latch onto conspiracies?
  3. What elevates a mystery into a conspiracy?
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Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Hong Kong, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.

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