In 1983, 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi disappeared from the streets of central Rome to attend a music lesson. Orlandi grew up in Vatican City, and this connection to the Catholic Church altered the perception of her disappearance from a standard missing-persons case to something more sinister. Over the course of three decades, multiple people have come forward to either offer theories, cast blame, or take credit for her kidnapping, although no one has ever been arrested for her abduction.
In the years since Orlandi went missing, she’s been spotted - supposedly alive and well - in countries as far-flung as Turkey, yet workers for the Vatican believe she suffered a horrible fate. Orlandi’s family is still holding out hope that she’s alive, although they’re realistic about the possibility that she’s long since passed. It’s a sad, strange story that becomes more twisted and confusing as the years go by.
Emanuela Orlandi grew up in Vatican City, home of the Pope and a popular tourist destination. On June 22, 1983, she was on her way home from a flute lesson when she disappeared. At some point in the evening, she called home and spoke to one of her sisters, but after that, her family never heard from her again.
Last seen at a bus stop in Rome's city center, Orlandi subsequently vanished. Her family has received varying reports and clues as to what happened to her. While her brother continues searching for her, he's haunted by their last conversation - an argument over whether or not he would take her to the flute lesson. He told The Guardian:
It’s a very painful memory - she insisted I take her, and we rowed over it. Then she left, slamming the door. I never thought it would be the last time I saw her. I’ve gone over it so many times, telling myself if only I had accompanied her maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
The Orlandi family has been chasing leads regarding Emanuela's disappearance since 1983, which has led them down some strange roads. In 2019, they petitioned the Vatican to allow them access to the tomb of Princess Sophie of Hohenlohe, who died in 1836. A source pointed them toward the tomb in an anonymous letter, and with Vatican-appointed forensic scientists, they opened two burial places where Orlandi's remains were supposedly buried.
When the scientists opened the tomb, there was no trace of Orlandi - nor traces of anyone else. Supposedly, no one had been inside the tomb since 1836, but it was clear something strange had happened. A Vatican spokesperson released a statement saying the space was "completely empty." The statement continued:
There were no human remains nor funerary urns... We expected everything today, but not to find two empty tombs. We want to know why we were sent there, and why there was nothing.
After decades of going back and forth with the Vatican over his lost sister, Pietro Orlandi said he was touched when the Vatican agreed to look for her in one of its tombs. He believes the church was somehow complicit in her disappearance, and its olive branch in 2019 showed Orlandi that there was "an admission that there is a possibility of internal responsibility."
However, with more missing bodies on its hands, it became clear there was a bigger problem in the Vatican than just one missing person. There are now multiple families who don't know where their loved ones are. Orlandi told the The New York Times, "Now, even the heirs don’t know where they’ve gone. I think this is a problem for the Vatican that will have to be justified."
The Orlandi family has had to deal with some incredibly strange tips and rumors about where Emanuela's body could be. The information ranges from hearsay to cryptic ramblings that open the search up to more questions than anything else. Pietro Orlandi has fielded all kinds of information about his sister and he tends to follow up on whatever leads he's given, no matter how strange they sound.
In 2017, Orlandi received information from multiple people claiming his sister was buried where an angel was pointing in the cemetery. As odd as that sounds, he believes it meant her remains are in the Teutonic Cemetery, a site adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica that contains a statue of an angel pointing.