Spirit of the Masons lives on in the murky recesses of Italian life: A Calabria prosecutor has uncovered a chilling plot - a Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the state. Patricia Clough reports from Rome

Italian fiscal police, investigating possible swindles of European Community funds by pig- breeders in the tiny Calabrian town of Roccella Ionica, came upon something very odd last year. It was a makeshift Masonic temple, complete with throne and chairs arranged in a horseshoe, neatly folded hoods and Masonic symbols on black-draped walls.

The Grand Master of the lodge turned out to be Baron Pasquale Placido, a local aristocrat who had come down in the world. In his house they found a huge archive of secret documents, including correspondence with one Licio Gelli, former Grand Master of the sinister P2 secret lodge, whose members were key figures in all areas of Italian public life, and in the lodge's intrigue to subvert and possibly take over Italy.

For Dr Agostino Cordova, the tenacious cigar-smoking public prosecutor in nearby Palmi, the discovery turned out to be one of the first key pieces in a vast puzzle he and other magistrates are putting together on the secret activities of Italian Freemasons. The picture it now reveals, although still incomplete, is chilling.

The P2, or at least the spirit behind it, is not dead; apparently excised, it has instead grown again secretly in many other parts of Italian society.

Mr Cordova and his colleagues have come across strong evidence that a large number of secret - and so illegal - Masonic lodges are operating alongside, and in some cases protected by, legal Masonic lodges. Even respectable lodges, they believe, have secret members - high-ranking police officers, magistrates or public officials - whose identities are disguised in the lists of members, or who are not listed at all.

Like the P2, uncovered in 1981 and banned, these lodges bring together in criminal conspiracy some of the most powerful or influential people in the country: politicians, Mafia bosses, senior police officers and civil servants, suspected members of the secret services, bankers, businessmen.

There is evidence that they have bred arms-running rackets and corruption, enabled Mafia criminals to get off lightly, recycled dirty money and been behind bomb attacks and assassinations. Suspicions focus primarily on Sicily, Calabria and Campania, the regions dominated by the Mafia, where almost one-third of Italy's 30,000-odd Masons are based. Whether they are all linked in one single conspiracy or are operating individually is still not clear. Licio Gelli, although still on trial in connection with the P2 plot in a slow moving and almost forgotten case, is free and evidently still active. And while about one-third of the P2's 2,500-odd members were identified and many removed from their posts, most of the rest have not been unmasked.

So sinister has the picture become that the United Lodge of England, the oldest, biggest and - in Italian eyes - most authoritative Masonic organisation in the world, last month suspended recognition of the main Italian organisation, the 18,000-member Grande Oriente d'Italia.

The move, which in effect bans visits between Italian and English members, has been made 'pending clarification'. The Irish, Scottish and French lodges are taking similar measures.

Two months earlier, the growing accusations caused a dramatic split in the Grande Oriente. Claiming that he was being obstructed by his Masonic brothers from cleaning up the organisation, its Grand Master, a bearded professor of philosophy called Giuliano di Bernardo, with some 300 others, quit to found a new one called the Grand Regular Lodge of Italy.

Accused by his successor, Armando Corona, of failing to defend the Grande Oriente from the accusations against it, he in turn complained that all his attempts to break the links among the Grande Oriente, the P2 and other secret groups had failed. Then Mr di Bernardo, who suspects that there are some 1,500 secret Masons, met Mr Cordova in a secret place and, it is reported, told all he knew.

The English Masons expect the 'clarification' to come from Mr Cordova. But while anti-Mafia prosecutors can now work unimpeded and the corrupt and conspiratorial old political system appears to have collapsed, mysterious forces still seem bent on obstructing Mr Cordova's investigations.

From the beginning, he has been kept desperately short of staff by the authorities in Rome. And now, as mountains of documents fill his offices and his investigations cover the whole country, instead of the 10 deputy prosecutors he is legally entitled to, he has only five.

Mr Cordova's office has been subjected to repeated 'inspections' by the Justice Ministry. His nomination by his fellow magistrates for the post of super-prosecutor of the Mafia was blocked by the former justice minister, Claudio Martelli, a Socialist. And a promotion to public prosecutor of Naples was also torpedoed.

Ten days ago Mr Cordova protested to the parliamentary anti- Mafia commission about a 'general reluctance' among the carabinieri and fiscal police to carry out the investigations he required. He said he had been brought out-of-date lists of members or been given little clue to their identities. And he had been told there were no lodges in areas that were 'well known to be swarming with them'.

Mr Cordova left no doubt in members' minds about why he thought such reluctance had arisen. The various police forces, he made it clear, were full of corrupt Masons.

He has recently sent the High Council of the Judiciary, its self- governing body, a list of names of fellow magistrates who, he has discovered, are Masons. There is nothing illegal about membership in itself, but in dozens of cases the magistrates allegedly used their position to help Mafia criminals.

Mr Cordova's report includes evidence from Mafia pentiti. One allegedly spoke of a network of lawyers, magistrates, police officials, politicians and others that 'gave us protection, such as acquittals, reduced sentences and house arrest (instead of jail), and in return we killed anyone who was a nuisance to them'. And he told the anti-Mafia commission that 19 hitherto unknown P2 members were past or present members of parliament; one was a member of the anti-Mafia commission.

Many of the jigsaw pieces Mr Cordova is trying to piece together are startling. There is the case of the hold-up in 1990 in which 100bn lire ( pounds 43bn) worth of securities were stolen from a bank transport van. Two years later a Swiss woman called Winifred Kollbrunner was arrested while attempting to sell some of the stolen securities in Geneva. Ms Kollbrunner turned out to be employed as a kind of ministry consultant by Mr Martelli, who is under investigation in connection with the case and with the existence of a secret bank account allegedly opened in his name by Mr Gelli. She is suspected of selling the securities through a network of Masons in several Italian banks. Before leaving the Grande Oriente lodge, Mr di Bernardo suspended four Masons accused of being involved in the affair, including a former grand master of the lodge at Palmi and a former director-general of the Finance Ministry.

Mr Cordova has come upon evidence of Masonic involvement in illegal trade in guns, tanks and missiles from Pesaro and Brescia, in a Mafia operational base in Milan, of rackets involving toxic waste disposal in Naples, Brindisi and Savona and in fraudulent bankrupcty.

Sicilian magistrates are also probing the deaths of three people involved in Operazione Cesare, the code-name for investigations into links between the P2 and the island's Mafia. One was Boris Giuliano, an Italian secret service officer who, according to Tom Tripodi, a former undercover CIA agent who had been working with him, was killed 'because he had discovered the role of the P2 in the recycling of drug money'.

Giovanni Spadolini, Senate speaker and prime minister at the time of the P2 scandal, has said: 'There is an intrigue, still in many ways to be identified, between the P2 and the Mafia. Behind the destabilisation of Italy (by bombs and massacres in the past 30 years) were centres of corruption, very powerful and very closely linked to the political system . . . The P2 question is not closed.'

(Photograph omitted)