How God’s banker met his maker

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There was the bombing of a Milan bank in 1969 that killed 16 people. There was the kidnapping and murder in 1978 of Aldo Moro, a former prime minister. There was the 1980 bomb that blew up 85 people at Bologna railway station. But of the terrible, politically related crimes that stain Italy’s post-fascist history, the violent death of Roberto Calvi has a good claim to be the most mysterious of the lot.

Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, a bank that went bust soon after his death, was known as “God’s banker” because of the illicit financial dealings that connected him to the Vatican’s bank, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR).

An obstinate, socially awkward man with a neurotic fear of losing the black briefcase in which he kept his most sensitive documents, Calvi joined the secret Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge in 1975. P2 counted many of Italy’s most prominent politicians, generals, secret servicemen, policemen, civil servants and businessmen among its members. Calvi was, in short, one of the most well-connected bankers of his generation. He was also one of the most disreputable: his work consisted of laundering money through offshore companies, making illegal payments to Italian political parties and funding clandestine arms deals.

Calvi’s body was discovered in London on June 18 1982, hanging by the neck from scaffolding on Blackfriars bridge. Bricks and stones were stuffed inside his pockets and the fly of his trousers, and he was carrying £7,370 in cash, mainly in foreign currencies, according to a police report. As Philip Willan’s book makes clear, the British inquiries into Calvi’s death were breathtakingly inept. The police treated it as little more than the suicide of some foreign tramp. A hastily conducted coroner’s inquest also gave suicide as its verdict.

Yet Calvi had travelled to London on a false passport. Moreover, he had been found guilty in Italy a year earlier of serious currency violations. Italian investigators, aware of Calvi’s real importance, sensed that murder was the probable cause of death. But mutual suspicions between the British and Italian police meant that the full background to the Calvi affair did not come properly into focus.

Twenty-five years later, a verdict is expected soon in the Rome trial of five people who were eventually accused of Calvi’s murder. By the standards of Italy’s judicial system, this is relatively speedy work. But doubt remains over whether Italy’s appeals courts will uphold whatever verdict is reached. Closure has rarely been achieved in the most sensitive cases that have shaken Italian democracy since 1945.

Willan says the Calvi trial has been a frustrating, sometimes chaotic process. The three main defendants have given conflicting testimony, but good reasons exist for asking if their guilt has been definitively proven, Willan says.

The prosecution alleges that the defendants, acting with Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, the Sicilian and Naples mafia, killed Calvi because he had embezzled Mafia funds. They are also alleged to have wanted to protect the profits flowing from Banco Ambrosiano’s money-laundering activities, and to prevent Calvi from blackmailing his former accomplices in the IOR, P2 and Italian politics.

That Calvi did not commit suicide has long seemed beyond doubt. True, he had many reasons to be depressed in June 1982. He was facing financial ruin and professional disgrace. He feared for the lives of his family members and sent them to the US just before he died. But why would a man committing suicide stuff bricks inside his trousers? Was this a symbolic warning from his killers to evoke Calvi’s masonic connections? And why did Calvi’s briefcase vanish after his death?

The fact that a hit man shot and wounded Roberto Rosone, Calvi’s deputy at Banco Ambrosiano, in April 1982 indicates that certain people were out to get the men who ran Italy’s dodgiest bank. But was the Mafia the only group with an interest in eliminating Calvi? No, says Willan. “The members of his secret power network deserted him in his hour of need, even if they didn’t actually conspire together to murder him. Roberto Calvi had achieved power through conspiracy and almost certainly died by it.

“The Mafia may indeed have killed him to punish him for embezzling its funds...but Calvi unquestionably had enemies who were more powerful and more dangerous.”

Willan has in mind western intelligence agencies, corrupt Italian political interests and the Vatican, for all of which Calvi conducted his murky business. It is a persuasive, though not watertight argument. Whether the Rome trial verdict will shed light on the affair is another matter altogether.

The writer is the FT’s Rome bureau chief

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