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Calvi, `God's Banker,' Got Caught in Real-Life `Da Vinci Code'

'A cast of extraordinary crooks and charlatans beside whom Mr. Brown's fictional characters pale into banality.'

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Calvi, `God's Banker,' Got Caught in Real-Life `Da Vinci Code'

May 22, 2007

Review by Steve Scherer

The Last Supper: The Mafia, the Masons and the killing of Roberto Calvi. Philip Willan, freemasons, freemasonry

This is an undated handout photo of Philip Willan, author of ''The Last Supper: The Mafia, the Masons and the killing of Roberto Calvi''. Source: Philip Willan via Bloomberg News.
(Bloomberg) -- The Cold War spawned an unholy alliance in Italy, uniting the Vatican, the Mafia, U.S. and U.K. spy networks, freemasons and the country's most powerful politicians. Banker Roberto Calvi pulled financial strings for elements in each of these forces, and it would cost him his life.

Almost 25 years after Calvi was found hanging under London's Blackfriars Bridge on June 18, 1982, Philip Willan tries to unravel the mysterious death in ``The Last Supper: The Mafia, the Masons and the Killing of Roberto Calvi.''

A British journalist who has worked in Rome for 27 years, Willan lays out evidence of ``a real-life `Da Vinci Code': a fiendishly complex plot, a struggle for power, skullduggery in the Vatican and ruthless individuals who do not balk at murder.'' The meticulously researched book makes for a surprisingly smooth and fascinating read amid the current Calvi murder trial in Rome.

At the time of his death, Calvi was chairman and chief executive of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy's largest private bank. Dubbed ``God's Banker'' because of his ties to the Vatican, Calvi didn't stumble by accident into the web of Cold War intrigue, Willan shows: He willingly participated in it.

Calvi shifted money around the globe to fund illegal arms purchases for anti-communist movements from South America to Poland, Willan writes. Along the way, the banker became a nerve center for forces combating Soviet influence in Italy, home to the West's biggest communist party.

`Vast Panorama'

``The death of a secretive, reclusive and somewhat unpopular banker may seem a small thing of itself,'' Willan writes. ``But the Calvi murder opens up a vast panorama on to the true nature of recent Italian history and how the Cold War was fought over this beautiful but divided land.''

Italian prosecutor Luca Tescaroli has argued that convicted Mafia boss Giuseppe ``Pippo'' Calo and three other men conspired to kill Calvi. The four deny wrongdoing, saying Calvi committed suicide. The defense completes its closing arguments today; a verdict may come as early as June, Tescaroli says.

In 1982, an inquest in the U.K. ruled that Calvi took his own life; a second inquiry there a year later failed to establish whether it was murder or suicide. Willan concludes it was murder, though he presents facts suggesting that Calvi's death was more than a Mafia hit for failing to repay laundered drug money, as Tescaroli maintains.

Pistols and Cocaine

As portrayed in this book, Calvi's death resulted from a Cold War conspiracy involving scores of dubious characters, including a pistol-toting, cocaine-sniffing Sardinian businessman with ties to the Roman underworld. At the time, Calvi was threatening to expose everyone's secrets in a desperate bid to save Banco Ambrosiano from bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail, Willan writes. The bank collapsed after his death.

Willan draws no conclusion about who, precisely, ordered the death. He instead gives voice to dozens of people who crossed paths with the banker in the last days of his life. Though Mafia thugs may well have strangled Calvi and strung his body from the bridge, the decision to kill him probably came from elsewhere, starting with the freemasons, who were in touch with the Italian government, the Vatican, and U.S. and U.K. spies, Willan says.

Though this plot may sound implausible, Willan backs it up with trial evidence and interviews conducted over three years. He infuses the text with his knowledge of Italy during the Cold War, a subject he explored in his 1991 book, ``Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy.''

Masonic Lodge

Willan describes Calvi's ties to Propaganda 2, an Italian Masonic lodge whose members included top-ranking members of Italy's spy networks, police and even former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He devotes ample space as well to the late Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the former head of Vatican bank Istituto per le Opere di Religione, which faces no charges in the trial. Willan also repeats reports that members of Opus Dei lured Calvi to London, an assertion the Catholic movement denies.

The Last Supper of the title refers to a dinner that a waiter, cited during the trial, says Calvi shared in an Italian restaurant in London's Knightsbridge neighborhood with the people he had turned to for help. It is, Willan says, something straight out of Dan Brown's ``The Da Vinci Code.''

``Our guides to the Calvi case are not an American professor of religious symbology,'' Willan says, ``but a cast of extraordinary crooks and charlatans beside whom Mr. Brown's fictional characters pale into banality.''

``The Last Supper'' is published by Constable & Robinson (350 pages, 8.99 pounds).

(Steve Scherer writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Steve Scherer in Rome at scherer@bloomberg.net.

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in Italy