VATICAN CITY—Pietro Orlandi didn’t know exactly what he should be hoping for as Vatican workers pried the heavy marble lids off a set of tombs in the Teutonic Cemetery inside the Holy See’s fortified walls Thursday morning.
If the remains of his sister Emanuela—who disappeared from near an Opus Dei church in the center of Rome in 1983 when she was 15 years old—were there, it would mean that his hunch that the Vatican had something to do with her disappearance was right. If her bones weren’t there, he told The Daily Beast before the exhumation was set to begin, it means she could still be alive and he still might one day find her. “I want to believe she is still alive,” he said. “And if she is, I need to find her.”
Orlandi, whose mother still lives in a Vatican apartment inside the city state for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, had received an anonymous tip last year that his sister was in the only tomb in the cemetery where someone lays fresh flowers and keeps a red votive candle lit. The tomb in question is marked by a sculpted angel holding a scroll that says Requiescat in Pace, Rest in Peace, but bears no name.
Orlandi petitioned Pope Francis, who consented to have the remains inside the angel’s tomb and an adjacent one belonging to German princesses with ties to the German Catholic Church, exhumed and tested.
On Thursday morning Giovanni Arcudi, the Vatican’s chief forensic scientist, donned a hazmat suit and crawled deep inside the tombs to collect samples that were to be used for DNA testing. Once the lids were lifted, the workers discovered the tombs were linked and comprised an area about the size of a small hotel room below the ground.
He emerged empty handed. The tombs were empty—and now the Vatican has another mystery on its hands with the case of the two missing German noblewomen.
“The careful inspection of the tomb of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe has unearthed a large underground compartment of about 4 x 3.70 meters (13.12 x 12.14 feet) completely empty,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said in a statement. “Subsequently the opening operations of the second tomb-sarcophagus took place, that of Princess Carlotta Federica di Mecklemburgo. Inside it, no human remains have been found. The family members of the two Princesses were informed of the results of the research.”
Renovation work in the late 1800s and again in the 1960s and ’70s could have resulted in the removal of the princesses’ bodies. But records kept during the work did not immediately confirm where they might have been reburied. It is also not known if they were buried with jewels or other valuables.
The cemetery is not accessible to the public without going through Vatican security.
Now, those who have followed one of the greatest missing persons mysteries ever to shroud the Vatican and Italy, have a new quandary. Is the disappearance of the princesses somehow related to the disappearance of Orlandi?
The tip about Emanuela came in the form of an anonymous letter with a photo of the angel and the lit votive candle. Was whoever sent that letter somehow aware that the princesses also are missing?
Laura Sgro, lawyer for the Orlandi family, told The Daily Beast that she believes whoever sent the tip also knew about the missing women. “It seems now an even greater mystery, rather than a casual coincidence,” she said after the tomb was unearthed. “Nothing happens inside the Vatican’s veil by coincidence.”
“We expected everything today, but not to find two empty tombs,” Sgro later told Sky News. “We want to know why we were sent there, and why there was nothing.”
Orlandi’s disappearance has been linked to everyone from the Sicilian Mafia to Paul Marcinkus, an American archbishop who was the president of the Vatican bank during its most scandalous period.
Some have speculated that Orlandi’s father, a Vatican functionary, knew too much or was being blackmailed.
Others are convinced that Orlandi was kept as a sex slave for cardinals and priests and that she was eventually killed when she grew too old.
More recently, an Italian journalist unearthed what appeared to be an expense sheet for the young woman that included gynecological visits and travel to England.
The Vatican has sternly denied that it has anything to do with her disappearance.
Pope Francis met with Orlandi’s brother Pietro shortly after he was elected to the papacy, during which he said that the young girl was “in heaven” causing Pietro to wonder how he would know that with such certainty.
“I wish so much that this whole story was a hoax,” Orlandi told The Daily Beast last summer when he first received the tip. “I really wish Emanuela was not here.”
Orlandi’s wish has been granted and he will keep up the search for his sister. But for the Vatican, the mystery is now far more complicated.