The disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican City employee, who vanished off a Rome street one summer day after attending a music lesson, has given rise to one of Italy's most enduring mysteries, fuelled by false leads, red herrings and never-ending media attention.
The latest instalment of this drawn-out drama, which began 36 years ago, took place early on Thursday, when, acting on a series of tips to the family, a Vatican-appointed forensic anthropologist began exhuming two tombs in a cemetery adjacent to Vatican City and to analyse the contents.
"I don't want to think about what will be inside," said Emanuela's brother, Pietro Orlandi, who has led the family's decadeslong efforts to arrive at the truth behind her disappearance. "Until I am presented with a corpse, it's my duty to look for her and hope she's still alive."
The family’s quest has taken its members on various tortuous paths – following tips, anonymous letters and reports of sightings. “Every tip could be the real thing, so I’ve had to verify them all,” Orlandi said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I couldn’t live with the doubt that I’d missed something.”
The most recent twist to the tale began at the end of 2017, when Orlandi was approached by the first of several people working inside the Vatican suggesting to him that Emanuela might be buried in the Teutonic Cemetery, for centuries a final resting place for people of Germanic origin.
His sources told him to seek the place in the cemetery, which is located between St Peter’s Basilica and the Paul VI Audience Hall, where an angel was pointing. That led Orlandi to the tomb of Princess Sophie of Hohenlohe, who died in the 18th century.
That tomb was being exhumed on Thursday by Giovanni Arcudi, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Arcudi has been authorised by a prosecutor in Vatican City to analyse the contents of the tomb – as well as the adjacent tomb of Princess Carlotta Frederica of Mecklenburg, who died in 1840 – and take samples for DNA testing. The theory is that Emanuela's body is in one of the tombs.
In an interview released by the Vatican on Wednesday, Arcudi said he couldn’t be sure how long the examination of the tombs would take, as that depended “on the state, quality and quantity of the remains that we will find”.
From an initial examination of the bones, he and his collaborators would be able to approximately date them, he said. “We can distinguish whether the bone has been there 10 years, 50 years or 150 years,” he said, and whether more than one body had been buried in the tomb. He added that DNA testing would try to establish “in a definitive and categorical way” any connection to Emanuela, although those tests would take longer to execute.
If Emanuela's remains are in the tomb, one of Italy's most notorious cold cases will be laid to rest. Her fate has been linked to Bulgarian agents, the KGB, the Sicilian Mafia, an American archbishop involved in a Vatican bank scandal, the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Rome's most nefarious criminal gang. This isn't even the first exhumation in search of her remains.
Through the family's lawyer, Laura Sgro, in February, Orlandi formally asked the Vatican to open the tomb of Princess Sophie. The family received approval last month to open both tombs, although Orlandi was not sure why. "They came through," Sgro said. "It was all very quick, in Vatican time."
Orlandi said he had called on the Vatican to investigate only after receiving several tips about the cemetery from people working within the Vatican, although none of his sources were there at the time his sister was kidnapped. He said he had been “positively surprised” by the Vatican’s assistance.
“For the first time in 36 years, the Vatican has concretely done something important,” he said. The Vatican has always denied any involvement with Emanuela’s disappearance “and has refused to collaborate”, Orlandi said. Opening the tomb “signals a change of position”, he said.
When he met Orlandi in 2013, Pope Francis told him that his sister was "in heaven" and left it at that, Orlandi said. He said that even if nothing is found, the effort itself is a step forward. But finding her remains would also be heartbreaking. "My mother lives in the same house in Vatican City where we all grew up," he said. "It's about 300 meters from the cemetery. To know that Emanuela had been buried there all that time..." He left the sentence unfinished.
Orlandi said that whatever the outcome, he would continue to pursue justice. “No one will ever be able to silence this story,” he said. – New York Times