Emanuela Orlandi was 15 when she disappeared on her way home from a music lesson
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.
This graveyard may now hold the key to a 36-year-old mystery that has gripped Italy: the disappearance of 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi.
On Thursday, police will enter the site to exhume two graves in search of the missing girl.
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.
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, 15-year-old 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 tells the BBC. “But I can’t let go. I couldn’t be at peace if this is not solved.”
“It would be anguishing for my mother [if Emanuela’s remains are found]. She still lives inside the Vatican
Attention 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 has 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.
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,” says Pietro. “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 had to make a general request to the Vatican to open the tomb at the Teutonic Cemetery. A Vatican City state tribunal granted the request.
What will the Vatican 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],” insists Pietro.
But the Vatican press office stresses that the police will simply investigate the possibility that Emanuela was buried in the cemetery.
It will not investigate her disappearance. That falls to Italian authorities outside the Vatican’s jurisdiction.
Emanuela Orlandi (R) disappeared 40 days after another 15-year-old girl in Rome, Mirella Gregori, portrayed here in a mural (L)
When police exhume the two graves, the Orlandi family will be allowed to attend, as will the family members of those buried in the tombs. DNA tests will then be carried out on the remains – a process that may take weeks.
Pietro has to prepare himself for what the exhumation might find.
“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.”
A brother’s final memory
Pietro refuses to discard the remote chance that his sister is somehow still alive. He remembers the last day he ever saw her.
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?”
Read more from James in Rome
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