mystery of Sant’ Apollinare
by Philip Willan
18th century church of Sant’Apollinare is a stone’s
throw from Rome’s central Piazza Navona and is said to have
been built over a temple to the sun-god Apollo. In recent times it
has stood over an altogether more troubling object: the tomb of a
murdered Roman crime boss.
Ernesto “Renatino” De
Pedis was shot dead on February 2 1990 as he rode his scooter the
wrong way down the one-way Via del Pellegrino, a narrow street full
of shops selling antiques and books that leads into another central
square, Campo dei Fiori. The presence of his body in the church crypt
was a singular honour for the murdered Magliana Band boss, whose
fortune was built on loan-sharking and illegal gambling, with a little
help from contacts in the secret services.
tomb is an impressive white marble affair with the name “Renatino” picked
out in gold and sapphires on the side. A photo of its occupant rests
atop it, flanked by a small terracotta angel. It illustrates a strange
commingling of the sacred and profane that was one of the hallmarks
of the Calvi case, while violating canon law, which specifies that
only popes, cardinals and bishops should be buried in church.
honour was accorded the murdered criminal by Cardinal Ugo Poletti,
the head of the Rome diocese, on the recommendation of Monsignor
Piero Vergari, who celebrated the funeral. De Pedis had been “a
great benefactor of the poor who frequent the basilica and has given
concrete assistance to many charitable initiatives,” Vergari
wrote to Poletti on March 6 1990. “He gave particular aid to
the young, concerning himself especially with their Christian and
human education.” A strange role model indeed!
is possible De Pedis performed altogether more delicate activities
for the benefit of the Vatican than the financing of Sant’Apollinare’s
charitable work. By coincidence, a 16-year-old girl disappeared without
trace after attending a flute lesson at a Vatican-owned music school
adjoining the church on June 22 1983. The kidnap of Emanuela Orlandi,
the daughter of a Vatican messenger, was apparently used by a terrorist
group in a failed bid to obtain the release from prison of Mehmet
Ali Agca, the Turk who had shot Pope John Paul II two years earlier.
The physical resemblance between De Pedis and the photofit image
of the last person seen talking to Orlandi on the evening of her
disappearance has been remarked upon, and several witnesses have
suggested a connection between the Magliana Band boss and the girl’s
Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti commented on the case in an interview
published in the Corriere della Sera (September 24 2005). He recalled
the bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining permission for the burial
of his illustrious predecessor Alcide De Gasperi in the porch of
the church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and speculated on the health
certificates that would normally have been required for the removal
of De Pedis’ corpse from its original resting place in the
Verano cemetery to its final berth in Sant’Apollinare’s
crypt. “Perhaps De Pedis, having been assassinated, presented less
risk of infection,” he observed, with typical dry humour.
Catholic Church’s post mortem honouring of De Pedis contrasts
starkly with its treatment of Piergiorgio Welby, a paralysed sufferer
from muscular dystrophy who campaigned for the right to be detached
from the artificial respirator that had kept him alive for his last
nine years. Welby achieved his desire in December 2006. He was denied
a Catholic funeral, requested by his relatives, as the church considered
his death an assisted suicide.