It was Niccolò Moretti, caretaker of St. Peter’s Basilica, who made the discovery that started it all. The time was 6:24 a.m., but owing to a wholly innocent error of transcription, the Vatican’s first official statement incorrectly reported it as 6:42. It was one of numerous missteps, large and small, that would lead many to conclude the Holy See had something to hide, which was indeed the case. The Roman Catholic Church, said a noteworthy dissident, was but one scandal away from oblivion. The last thing His Holiness needed now was a dead body in the sacred heart of Christendom.
A scandal was the last thing Niccolò Moretti had been expecting to find that morning when he arrived at the Vatican one hour earlier than his usual time. Dressed in dark trousers and a knee-length gray coat, he was scarcely visible as he hurried across the darkened piazza toward the steps of the Basilica. Glancing to his right, he saw lights burning in the third-floor windows of the Apostolic Palace. His Holiness Pope Paul VII was already awake. Moretti wondered whether the Holy Father had slept at all. The Vatican was swirling with rumors he was suffering from a crippling bout of insomnia, that he spent most nights writing in his private study or walking alone in the gardens. The caretaker had seen it before. Eventually, they all lost the ability to sleep.
Moretti heard voices behind him and, turning, saw a pair of Curial priests materialize from the gloom. They were engaged in animated conversation and paid him no heed as they marched toward the Bronze Doors and melted once more into the shadows. The children of Rome called them bagarozzi—black beetles. Moretti had used the word once as a child and had been scolded by none other than Pope Pius XII. He’d never said it since. When one is chastised by the Vicar of Christ, he thought now, one rarely repeats the same offense.
He hiked up the steps of the Basilica and slipped into the portico. Five doors led into the nave. All were sealed except for the one at the far left, the Door of Death. In the opening stood Father Jacobo, an emaciated-looking Mexican cleric with strawlike gray hair. He stepped aside so Moretti could enter, then closed the door and lowered the heavy bar. “I’ll come back at seven to let in your men,” the priest said. “Be careful up there, Niccolò. You’re not as young as you used to be.”
The priest withdrew. Moretti dipped his fingers in holy water and made the sign of the cross before setting out up the center of the vast nave. Where others might have paused to gaze in awe, Moretti forged on with the familiarity of a man entering his own home. As chief of the sampietrini, the official caretakers of the Basilica, he had been coming to St. Peter’s six mornings a week for the past twenty-seven years. It was because of Moretti and his men that the Basilica glowed with heaven’s light while the other great churches of Europe seemed forever shrouded in darkness. Moretti considered himself not only a servant of the papacy but a partner in the enterprise. The popes were entrusted with the care of one billion Roman Catholic souls, but it was Niccolò Moretti who looked after the mighty Basilica that symbolized their earthly power. He knew every square inch of the building, from the peak of Michelangelo’s dome to the depths of the crypt—all forty-four altars, twenty-seven chapels, eight hundred columns, four hundred statues, and three hundred windows. He knew where it was cracked and where it leaked. He knew when it was feeling well and when it was in pain. The Basilica, when it spoke, whispered into the ear of Niccolò Moretti.
St. Peter’s had a way of shrinking mere mortals, and Moretti, as he made his way toward the Papal Altar in the gray coat of his uniform, looked remarkably like a thimble come to life. He genuflected before the Confessio and then tilted his face skyward. Soaring nearly one hundred feet above him was the baldacchino, four twisting columns of bronze and gold crowned by a majestic canopy. On that morning, it was partially concealed by an aluminum scaffolding. Bernini’s masterpiece, with its ornate figures and sprigs of olive and bay, was a magnet for dust and smoke. Every year, in the week preceding the beginning of Lent, Moretti and his men gave it a thorough cleaning. The Vatican was a place of timeless ritual, and there was ritual, too, in the cleaning of the baldacchino. Laid down by Moretti himself, it stated that once the scaffolding was in place, he was always the first to scale it. The view from the summit was one that only a handful of people had ever seen—and Niccolò Moretti, as chief of the sampietrini, demanded the privilege of beholding it first.
Moretti climbed to the pinnacle of the front column, then, after attaching his safety line, inched his way on all fours up the slope of the canopy. At the very apex of the baldacchino was a globe supported by four ribs and crowned by a cross. Here was the most sacred spot in the Roman Catholic Church, the vertical axis running from the exact center of the dome straight down into the Tomb of St. Peter. It represented the very idea on which the enterprise rested. You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. As the first crepuscular rays of light illuminated the interior of the Basilica, Moretti, faithful servant of the popes, could almost feel the finger of God tapping him on the shoulder.
As usual, time slipped from his grasp. Later, when questioned by the Vatican police, he would be unable to recall exactly how long he had been atop the baldacchino before he saw the object for the first time. From Moretti’s lofty perspective, it appeared to be a broken-winged bird. He assumed it to be something innocent, a tarpaulin left by another sampietrino or perhaps a scarf dropped by a tourist. They were always leaving their possessions behind, Moretti thought, including things that had no business being in a church.
Regardless, it had to be investigated, and so Moretti, the spell broken, maneuvered himself cautiously around and made the long descent to the floor. He set out across the transept but within a few paces realized the object was not a discarded scarf or tarpaulin at all. Moving closer, he could see the blood dried on the sacred marble of his Basilica and the eyes staring upward into the dome, sightlessly, like his four hundred statues. “Dear God in heaven,” he whispered as he hurried down the nave. “Please take pity on her poor soul.”
The public would know little of the events immediately following Niccolò Moretti’s discovery, for they were carried out in the strictest tradition of the Vatican, in complete secrecy and with a hint of Jesuitical low cunning. No one beyond the walls would know, for example, that the first person Moretti sought out was the cardinal rector of the Basilica, an exacting German from Cologne with a well-honed instinct for self-preservation. The cardinal had been around long enough to recognize trouble when he saw it, which explained why he neglected to report the incident to the police, choosing instead to summon the true keeper of the law inside the Vatican.
Consequently, five minutes later, Niccolò Moretti would bear witness to an extraordinary scene—the private secretary to His Holiness Pope Paul VII picking through the pockets of a dead woman on the floor of the Basilica. The monsignor removed a single item and then set out for the Apostolic Palace. By the time he reached his office, he had settled on a course of action. There would have to be two investigations, he concluded, one for public consumption, the other for his own. And for the private inquiry to be successful, it would have to be carried out by a person of trust and discretion. Not surprisingly, the monsignor chose as his inquisitor a man much like himself. A fallen angel in black. A sinner in the city of saints.