Emanuela Orlandi search: Empty tombs fail to solve Vatican mystery

By James Reynolds
BBC News, Vatican City

  • Published
Picture of Emanuela Orlandi who disappeared in 1983Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Emanuela Orlandi was 15 when she disappeared on her way home from a music lesson

Two tombs exhumed and opened after an anonymous tip-off in the search for an Italian teenager who went missing 36 years ago are empty, the Vatican says.

The family of Emanuela Orlandi received a letter earlier this year suggesting the 15 year old's remains might be in the Vatican's Teutonic Cemetery.

But a police search found no human remains in the tombs, the Vatican said.

Not only did the tombs not contain Emanuela, they also did not contain two princesses thought to be buried there.

"No human remains or funeral urns were found," the Vatican said in a statement on Thursday.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Investigators open one of the tombs at the Vatican cemetery
Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Any remains would have been tested for DNA in connection with the teenager's disappearance

Ms Orlandi's family had hoped the Vatican graveyard held the key to a mystery that has gripped Italy since 1983.

What is the Teutonic Cemetery?

Inside the world's smallest state, the Teutonic Cemetery is easy to miss.

The plot of land, located on the original site of the Emperor Nero circus, is tucked away behind high walls in the shadow of St Peter's Basilica.

The cemetery is normally used as a burial ground for German-speaking members of Catholic institutions. Tourists aren't allowed along the path which leads towards the graveyard.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Orlandi family will be allowed into the cemetery when the two tombs are opened (file pic)

The nearest you can get is a gate protected by a single Swiss Guard.

If you crane your neck from this gate, you can just about make out the entrance to the cemetery in the distance.

What happened to Emanuela?

On 22 June 1983, Emanuela was on her way back home from a flute lesson. She was seen at a bus stop in the centre of Rome. Then, she simply vanished. No-one has seen her since.

Decades of speculation have followed. Was she kidnapped and killed? If so, where is her body?

Emanuela's family have had to chase endless leads and rumours.

"Many people tell me, just let it go, enjoy your life, don't think about it anymore," her older brother Pietro told the BBC. "But I can't let go. I couldn't be at peace if this is not solved."

Pietro Orlandi
"It would be anguishing for my mother [if Emanuela's remains are found]. She still lives inside the Vatican
Pietro Orlandi
Emanuela's brother

Attention has always focused on the fact that Emanuela was the daughter of a Vatican City employee. Might this have something to do with her disappearance?

Why focus moved to cemetery

In March 2019, the Orlandi family received an anonymous letter.

It showed a picture of an angel above a tomb in the Vatican's Teutonic Cemetery.

Was this a clue to where Emanuela was buried?

The family knew that it had to approach the Vatican. But it had had no luck with its previous inquiries.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hopes were raised when bones were found at the Vatican's embassy in Rome last year, but they turned out to be more than 50 years old

"For them, the case was closed," Pietro said. "Under Pope Francis, the wall has become higher. I met him a few days after he was elected (in 2013), and he told me 'Emanuela is up in the sky'.

"I thought: OK, the Pope knows something. But then I made all types of requests to meet him again, to have an explanation. And he never wanted to meet me again."

So there was no hotline to the Pope.

The family made a general request to the Vatican to open the tomb at the Teutonic Cemetery. A Vatican City state tribunal then granted the request.

What did the Vatican agree to do?

"For the first time the Vatican show that they're considering the possibility that there may have been internal responsibilities within the Vatican [for Emanuela's disappearance]," insisted Pietro ahead of the exhumation.

But the Vatican press office stressed that the police would simply investigate the possibility that Emanuela may have been buried in the cemetery.

Her disappearance would not be investigated. That falls to Italian authorities outside the Vatican's jurisdiction.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Emanuela Orlandi (R) disappeared 40 days after another 15-year-old girl in Rome, Mirella Gregori, portrayed here in a mural (L)

The Orlandi family was allowed to attend the exhumation process, along with the family members of those believe to be buried in the tombs.

Before the tombs were opened, Pietro said he had to prepare himself.

"It would be anguishing for my mother [if Emanuela's remains are found]. She still lives inside the Vatican, only 200, 300 metres from that cemetery. To even think that she has been so close to my sister for so long without knowing it, it makes me feel horrible.

"In fact, I actually hope that Emanuela is not there."

And that turned out to be the case. He told reporters that the two tombs had no trace of anything, neither of Emanuela nor or the two princesses, "who theoretically should have been buried there".

A brother's final memory

Pietro still refuses to discard the remote chance that his sister is somehow still alive. He remembers the last day he ever saw her.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The family of Emanuela Orlandi have long campaigned to find out what happened to her

"She and I had a very close relationship. We both liked music, She was trying to teach me a Chopin piece, we only got through two pages and then she went missing. I hope one day she comes back to teach me the rest."

One thought refuses to leave him.

"Last time we met was actually not a very nice memory," he recalls.

"We had a fight, because she had a music lesson. It was really hot, and I refused to go with her because I had something else going on. So she slammed the door and left, and that's the memory I have.

"I've often thought, what if I had actually gone with her?"