Authors: Philip Willan
The fact that Calvi ran into judicial problems in 1981 did not completely shake the confidence of Banco Ambrosiano staff in their chairman, this source told me. These were things that could equally easily happen to innocent people in Italy at that time. In 1979 arrest warrants had been issued for the governor of the central Bank of Italy and his top supervisory official, in what was generally seen as a politically motivated legal move, possibly made at the instigation of P2. Perhaps the same thing had happened to an innocent Calvi? ‘Until the end we thought we were better than the others. We were successful, expanding, increasing our profits. Larger state banks were feeling the competition,’ says this former banker.
Like Rosone, though, this colleague remarks on Calvi’s social awkwardness. ‘He wasn’t
[unpleasant]. You felt uncomfortable with him because you didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t either, unless it was professional. He had no small talk. I remember parties in Rome where he would sit
in a corner and no one would speak to him. His very fluffy wife looked as though she was dressed for a cabaret, in bright colours, violet and pink, with ribbons.’
That lack of social ease, in a sector where personal contacts and political sophistication were essential, made Calvi vulnerable to the throng of political hangers-on, bagmen, fixers and influence-brokers who have achieved epic status in Italy under the collective title of
Journalists Gianfranco Piazzesi and Sandra Bonsanti quote a telling observation by the stockbroker Renato Cantoni in their book
La storia di Roberto Calvi.
‘Calvi belonged to a bourgeois middle-class family and suffered from a profound sense of inferiority, which he transformed into a granitic superiority complex,’ Cantoni comments. ‘Whatever happened around him was old hat, whatever information he was given was late, because he already knew it. A friend once told him something totally invented: well, he replied that he had already heard about it several days ago.’
It is probable that Calvi’s sense of insecurity actually increased as he climbed his professional ladder. There were good reasons to be concerned about one’s personal safety if one was a prominent businessman in Italy in the 1970s. Kidnappings and terrorist attacks were common. Calvi’s reaction was extreme, nonetheless. His fourth-floor executive suite in the Banco Ambrosiano building in Milan’s Via Clerici, just round the corner from La Scala opera house, was sealed off with heavy bullet-proof glass doors. Armed receptionists checked the identity of visitors. Calvi went to great lengths to ensure the privacy of his professional activities, installing a variety of security devices in his office. An electronic field was supposed to prevent bugs from transmitting out of the room, a scrambler telephone was meant to thwart eavesdroppers, and he clung obsessively to his personal briefcase, stuffed with his most sensitive documents and ‘weighing a ton’, according to his Rome driver, Tito Tesauri. This obsession with secrecy may simply have been the result of a personal paranoia; but it
could also be a sign that his activities were more delicate and sensitive than those of a normal banker.
From 1978 Calvi began to travel by bullet-proof Mercedes, hiring ten bodyguards to protect his seventh-floor apartment in Milan’s central Via Frua and between three and five to ensure his protection when he was in Rome. There were even guards on hand when he went on holiday to his country villa; usually three, who occupied a caravan in the garden. His fourth-floor flat in the centre of Rome had three alarm systems, including a panic button he carried with him in his pocket in the event of a kidnap attempt, and security cameras. He wouldn’t go to the cinema for security reasons. By the end of his career he was spending $1 million a year on his personal security.
In his book
The Calvi Affair
, Larry Gurwin observed: ‘One can only conclude that Calvi, in spite of his successful career, was a man haunted by fears: fear of showing his emotions, fear of appearing unworldly, fear of divulging his secrets, fear for his physical safety.’ Calvi’s fascination with ‘secret power’ was illustrated by his admiration for
, Mario Puzo’s chronicle of life – and many deaths – in an American mafia family, where conflict and intrigue were the order of the day and a horse’s head left at the bottom of your bed was worth more than a thousand menacing words. A financier confided to Gurwin how Calvi had once recommended the book to him. ‘Do you know
?’ Calvi asked him. ‘It’s a masterpiece, because everything is in it.’
One of Calvi’s lawyers reportedly exclaimed, during the banker’s trial for currency violations in 1981, that it was impossible to defend a man who had two brains. ‘Brain number one is good,’ said a stockbroker who knew Calvi well. ‘That’s the brain that has built up the Banco Ambrosiano into a big, solid, prosperous, well-run bank. Brain number two has no relation to the first. It’s the brain of a man afraid to look in the mirror in case his reflection should learn his secrets. Brain number two thinks the world is run by conspiracies.’
There was really only one source of relief for Calvi from the fear and stress generated by his work, and that was his family. Calvi acquired his ‘fluffy’ wife in 1952, five years after he joined the Ambrosiano. Clara Canetti was a vivacious brunette who was studying chemistry at the university of Bologna. She was engaged to someone else when Calvi first met her in the Adriatic resort of Rimini. Undeterred, he began an assiduous courtship. Little would stand in his way when he set his heart on gaining something. It was a characteristic that also applied in the professional sphere and it would earn him bitter enemies. Clara’s younger brother, Luciano, who was 12, opposed the relationship, but he was won round by the gift of two water-pistols.
Clara has described their first meeting – on the beach of the Pensione Ariston where they were both staying – in an unpublished memoir. ‘He was very handsome: magnificent shoulders, nice legs, a Clark Gable-style moustache; he was rather forward and a bit presumptuous, I would say.’ The war veteran charmed her with tales of his experiences on the Russian front. They talked about books. In addition to Italian authors, Roberto enjoyed Dickens, Wodehouse, Thackeray and Balzac. Clara could picture him as the hero of a Balzac novel, looking out over the roofs of Paris and promising himself: one day this city will be mine! He proposed to her over lunch in a fish restaurant and celebrated her acceptance by standing on his head on the beach.
‘We got married in the sacristy of San Carlo, because the church had been destroyed in the bombing and hadn’t yet been rebuilt,’ she wrote. ‘It was just family, because that was what Roberto wanted: he was, even then, discreet and reserved, perhaps timid.’
The couple went on holiday in Switzerland, travelling around the country by train. In those carefree days Roberto may not have paid much attention to the Swiss banks. Later they would become a vital window on the world for the Banco Ambrosiano, landlocked by Italy’s severe laws on the export of currency.
Their first child, Carlo, was born in July 1953, followed six years later by a daughter, Anna. These were happy times for the family; boom years for the Italian economy and good years for the hard-working banker, who was steadily clawing his way up the Ambrosiano hierarchy. Relief from the strains of work was available in Drezzo, a village on the Swiss border where the family had a weekend home. Here Calvi played the role of gentleman farmer, raising chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs. It was while helping to cut up a turkey that he sliced open the index finger of his right hand. He drove himself to hospital and fainted after giving instructions that the finger was not to be amputated. It required plastic surgery and forced him to wear a protective sheath thereafter, a fact that would later have a bearing on the investigation into his death.
Francesco Pazienza, Calvi’s financial and security consultant in the last year of his life, has described the impression he made on the occasion of their first private meeting. Calvi was wearing a dark suit, pale blue shirt and sober, dark blue Mila Schön tie, he remembered. ‘When I got to know him well I discovered that he had a wardrobe that was very extensive but entirely devoid of imagination. He had dozens of suits that were all the same and lots of pairs of shoes, all identical and all black,’ he wrote. ‘Only in the summer did he allow himself some small variation on the theme, wearing suits of a slightly less funereal grey.’
His skin colour was milk white, and the few hairs ringing his skull were of an unnatural black, he recalled. For someone so sartorially unadventurous, Calvi did have a touch of vanity: he used to dye his hair almost every day, with the assistance of his wife.
The house at Drezzo provided a discreet venue for business meetings. In later years Calvi was able to use long walks in the garden to cement his relationship with senior Vatican bank officials and other business associates. Similarly, in the Bahamas, where the family bought a house at Lyford Cay, holidays were occasions for the small-scale entertaining in
which Calvi felt most at ease. The Sicilian financier Michele Sindona and Archbishop Paul Marcinkus of the Vatican bank, partners in Calvi’s Nassau-based Cisalpine Overseas Bank (later to be known as Banco Ambrosiano Overseas Ltd, or BAOL), would both be houseguests. When the extrovert Marcinkus arrived for the first time, he threw his arms around Clara and started singing ‘
’. Later, as Clara recalled in her memoir, relations cooled and Marcinkus would stay instead at the home of the bishop of Nassau when he visited the Bahamas for BAOL board meetings. The cause of the tension, she understood from her husband, was the size of the Vatican’s debt to the Banco Ambrosiano.
Clara Calvi’s memoir records her pride in her husband’s professional achievements. ‘Roberto’s successes made me happy and I am and always was his greatest admirer. Even today I am very proud of him and proud of the name I bear. They killed him, they didn’t defeat him,’ she wrote. ‘If he had been able to conclude his very delicate negotiations with Opus Dei he would today be the most powerful man in Italy.’
Calvi’s widow was lucid and combative when I visited her in an old people’s home in a leafy suburb of Montreal in the summer of 2004. Wheelchair-bound and with the symptoms of advanced Parkinson’s disease, she was still defending her husband’s memory and accusing his enemies with the same determination she had shown ever since his death, her voice now reduced to an almost inaudible whisper. Gianni Agnelli (the Fiat car magnate), former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, Licio Gelli and Umberto Ortolani were all on the list. She mentioned the names of others, people still involved in Italian public life or prominent in the Vatican, whom she said her husband had identified to her as members of P2. Andreotti had threatened her husband, warning him that he must not speak to the magistrates, she said, and the wife of the Socialist party leader Bettino Craxi had called her after Roberto’s death, ‘because they wanted to keep me sweet. But I have always spoken out.’
Her husband kept important papers in London, Clara Calvi said. And she recalled a euphoric phone call received from him shortly before his death. ‘He said to me: “Darling, just be patient for a while, because something marvellous is going to happen that will completely change our lives.” A few hours later he was dead.’ The principal threat to the family came from the Vatican, she was sure of it. But her husband had been ingenuous and had trusted the wrong people. ‘He needed protection because he had so many enemies. When he saw a good business opportunity, he pounced on it. That’s what had made him so many enemies.’ Clara Calvi reserved particular venom for Licio Gelli, who was supposed to have provided that protection: ‘It makes me angry to think he’s still alive.’ And for Flavio Carboni: ‘My husband trusted Carboni, and he turned out to be a murderer.’ Whether or not Mrs Calvi was right to believe this will be determined by the decision of the courts in Rome. Under Italian law a defendant is not considered guilty until two levels of appeal have been exhausted.
As well as identifying the Vatican as a threat to her husband, Clara Calvi set the drama of his last days within the context of the Cold War. ‘We visited the whole of South America. My husband was setting up banks everywhere,’ she said. ‘Who paid for the Berlin Wall? The pope? It was Roberto who paid. He was a banker, not a charitable foundation. He asked for the money back. They wouldn’t give it.’
Latin America and Eastern Europe: these were the key fields for Roberto Calvi’s political work.
As the person who was probably closer to her husband than any other, Clara Calvi’s memories provide an indispensable guide to the hopes and fears, and plans, that marked his final days. As someone who has refused to be silenced or cowed by fear, her words provide crucial guidance in reconstructing the forces and factors that may have determined his death. Calvi may not always have told his wife the truth, but her testimony has the authentic ring of genuine personal conviction.
On a May afternoon in 1982, at his country home near Drezzo on the Swiss border, Roberto Calvi took out his handgun and started cleaning it. It was an old 9mm Walther P38 which normally sat in its box in a wardrobe, gathering dust. His daughter Anna asked what he was doing, never having seen him take the revolver out before. ‘If they come, I will shoot,’ he told her, showing her how to hold and aim it. ‘I asked him who on earth might come and he told me that during that period many people could have had an interest in eliminating him, explaining that he had already seen signs that the operation he was working on was creating enemies.’ From then on he began to carry the handgun with him wherever he went, keeping it in his briefcase.
Anna Calvi was giving evidence to investigators from Milan at the Italian embassy in Washington on 22 October 1982, four months after her father’s death. Her 19-page statement provides the fullest account of Roberto Calvi’s last days from the person who was in closest touch with him at that time. Having given evidence in the immediate aftermath of the murder and at the London inquests, Ms Calvi – aged 23 when her father died – made a conscious decision to turn the page on this chapter of her life. While her mother and brother hired detectives and lawyers to seek to track down Roberto Calvi’s assassins and spoke copiously to the press to defend his memory, the daughter, who was the last member of the family
to speak to him by phone, has kept clear of their legal battles and opted for silence.