Calvi was "God's Banker", a financial accomplice of the Vatican, with which he set up a network of secret tiny companies, shielded behind a wall of banks stretching from Europe to Latin America. Alas, the empire was rotten to the core.
Calvi's Banco Ambrosiano had debts of almost $1,300m, run up with the connivance of the IOR, the Vatican bank. He was a creature of the shadowswho had supped with the devil to cement his power. Clerics, the corrupt politicians of the old Italy, the sinister P-2 masonic lodge, leech-like middlemen and gangsters - all successively dealt with Calvi, exploited him and betrayed him.
Then the incredible denouement - the flight to London under a false passport, the collapse of Ambrosiano, Italy's largest private-sector bank and, that same terrible night, the macabre end under Blackfriars Bridge, the body clad in a rumpled suit, pockets stuffed with banknotes and builders' stones. Was it suicide or murder? And if the latter, by whom? It was the biggest and most lurid bankruptcy in history.
And now, literally, it is being dug up again. The autopsy has been brought about by charges of conspiracy to murder Calvi levelled last year by magistrates in Rome against four men - his last confidant, Flavio Carboni, Sardinian businessman and middleman with the Mob; Pippo Cal, the "financial director" of Cosa Nostra; Francesco "Frankie the Strangler" Di Carlo, who used to be the Mafia's man in London; and the alleged killer, Vicenzo Casillo. These are the first murder charges brought in the case, spurred by revelations of Mafia pentiti, or turncoats. Calvi, allegedly, had embezzled their money and had received the only possible punishment. That may or may not be so. But to one thing I can testify. He was a man who lived in fear.
I met Calvi on 17 April 1982, two months to the day he died. He was passportless, awaiting sentencing after being convicted of currency offences. Palpably, the net around him was tightening. I was the Financial Times' correspondent in Rome; in Calvi's typically roundabout fashion, after vetting lunches with intermediaries, I had been offered an interview - a last attempt by a man who normally loathed the press to persuade other bankers and the business and political elite of Italy that all was well at Banco Ambrosiano.
We spoke in a windowless anteroom in the bowels of his office building. He was nervous and drained, slumped in a chair. As he answered my questions, he drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. Everyone was conspiring against him, he said; why could he not just be left in peace ? My last sight was of a slightly overweight man slouching wearily away down an ill-lit corridor. Little did I imagine that, 17 months later, I would be publishing a book about him.
The article I wrote for the FT was even-handed, but would quickly appear ludicrously naive. Within weeks, Ambrosiano's fate was sealed. Carboni, his last protector, accompanied Calvi to London, a city he hardly knew and where Ambrosiano did not even have an office. The conclusion of the Rome magistrates is the Sardinian was leading him to a pre-arranged death.
The Mafia "confessions" are the biggest development in the story for 10 years. But even they may amount to little, for these are thieves without the slightest honour. The story of Calvi is populated by liars and scoundrels. Casillo, alleged to have been the man who strangled him, just happens to have been blown to bits in a car bombing in 1983. Carboni denies everything. So who to believe?
To this day, no important witness has come forward. On the Thames, no-one heard or saw anything. Of course, hanging yourself from a bridge is a peculiar means of suicide if in your hotel room you have a suitcase full of barbiturates. But drugging someone and then balancing on a boat to string him from scaffolding is an equally odd method of murder.
And why would the Mafia, allegedly owed huge sums by Calvi, have left $10,700 stuffed in his pockets? Yes, it might have been a murder dressed up as a suicide. But it could equally have been a suicide intended to look like murder. Calvi had a $3m life insurance policy.
So we are left, now as then, with three broad possibilities. The first is suicide - not an unreasonable supposition in the case of a man on the run from justice, trapped without friends or valid passport in a foreign city, who learns that the bank he runs has collapsed, leaving the prospect only of ruin, prison and disgrace. Suicide seems to have been the option chosen by Robert Maxwell under marginally less desperate circumstances. So why not Calvi?
The second likelihood, stronger after the 1997 arrests, involves the Mafia, Those who cross the honoured society are usually liquidated by it. Carboni's contacts notably included Di Carlo, who was based in London at the time, handling Mafia drug trafficking. Though he claims to have been in Rome at the time of the murder, he could easily have organised it. And a Calvi on trial in Italy, seeking to buy leniency by telling investigators all he knew, was not an amusing prospect.
But in so exotic a tale, for Calvi to have been the victim of a common Mafia hit would be anti-climactic. Certainly, he was a common criminal. His perverted financial talents aside, he was the most undistinguished and commonplace of men. But he did move amid massive events.
In the last three years of his life, the tectonic plates of world geopolitics were shifting. There was a Polish pope in undeclared alliance with Ronald Reagan's White House to overthrow the evil Soviet empire. Poland, where nationalism and Catholicism were one, was the epicentre of their labours.
Six months after his death, Calvi's lawyer Giorgio Gregori told me his client claimed to have channelled $50m to aid the Vatican's Ostpolitik in general and the independent Polish trade union, Solidarity, in particular. "If the whole thing comes out," he murmured in his conspiratorial way, "it'll be enough to start the third world war." Thus the final, and most sensational theory. It rests, like the second, on the risk posed by a man with nothing to lose, blurting out the truth. Except that this truth would be truly sensational - of how Banco Ambrosiano was financing the church which was financing the trade union which would undermine the country whose loss would set in motion the collapse of the Warsaw Pact andthen of the Soviet Union.
In this case, those with the motive would be the CIA and the Vatican. The humble, devious banker from Milan would have been a soldier of the free world, but one too dangerous to allow to tell the tale. Alas, for all the ruthlessness of the two suspects (the CIA for decades, the Roman Church for more than a millennium) I cannot quite believe it.
Another autopsy will not settle the argument. The initial one carried out by Sir Keith Simpson in 1982 found no evidence of foul play. The soft body tissue which alone might have yielded a clue has long rotted away. So we may continue to believe what we will - which is the charm of unsolved mysteries.
Each time I pass Blackfriars Bridge, my mind goes back to Calvi's last hours. Once in a while, I even dream about them. But in my dream there are no silent assassins, no boats slipping along the black river, no cryptic reports of a contract completed. In this dream I see a man broken and with nowhere to turn, leaving Chelsea Cloisters. Perhaps without knowing it, he makes his way towards the river. I imagine him walking east along its embankments, aimless and in despair. Then, at the firstglimmer of dawn there is the bridge, the glimpse of a ladder, the scaffolding, the rope and stones lying in a nearby building site and, finally, the self-inflicted death.
But in another sense, Calvi was murdered - murdered by those he had turned to for help but who merely frightened and plundered him: the IOR, the P-2, the politicians, the Mafia. Which of them pushed him over the edge, I do not know. But on that June night, death for Roberto Calvi was a damnation - but also a release.
Rupert Cornwell wrote `God's Banker', a biography of Roberto Calvi, published by Victor Gollancz in 1983Reuse content