Exhumed again: the macabre suicide riddle of God's Banker to be dug up again

EVEN IN death there is, for some, no rest. Sixteen years have passed since that damp June morning when Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the Soviet Union, Britain had just won the Falklands conflict and the body of Roberto Calvi was found hanging from the scaffolding beneath a bridge across the river Thames. Today, that same corpse - or at least the bones and husk, which are most likely all that remain - will be exhumed, yet again, from the cemetery at Drezzo in northern Italy where he was buried in November 1982. Yet another autopsy - the fourth in all - will be conducted. Those whose legacies are great unsolved criminal mysteries must forego the dignity of peace in death.

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 1983

News
Shoppers at Selfridges department store in central London
news

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game