Vatican opens burial chambers in hunt for princesses and missing teen

Franck IOVENE
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Two tombs opened earlier this month were found to contain neither the remains of the missing teen nor of the two princesses ostensibly buried there

The Vatican on Saturday opened two burial chambers discovered under a trapdoor as it attempts to get to the bottom of a riddle involving two 19th-century princesses and a teenager who went missing 36 years ago.

The ossuaries were found last week under the floor of the Pontifical Teutonic College after the shock discovery earlier this month that the bones of the princesses had disappeared from tombs in the Teutonic Cemetery.

The graves of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe and Princess Charlotte Federica of Mecklenburg, who died in 1836 and 1840, were exhumed after an anonymous tip-off that they may hold the remains of a missing Italian youngster.

Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican employee, was last seen leaving a music class in Rome in 1983 aged 15, and theories have circulated for decades about who could have taken her and where her body might lie.

The family had received a picture of an angel-topped grave in the Teutonic cemetery, and a message which simply read: "Look where the angel is pointing."

But in a surprise twist, not only was there no trace of Orlandi, the remains of the princesses were gone too.

The Vatican said the bones were likely moved during work on the cemetery and college during the 1960s and 1970s.

- 'Thousands of bones' -

On Saturday, bones were unearthed from under the Pontifical Teutonic College and analysed at the site by Professor Giovanni Arcudi -- a specialist in forensic medicine appointed by the Holy See -- in the presence of an expert appointed by the Orlandi family, the Vatican said in a statement.

Morphological analysis of the bones "will continue on Saturday, July 27", it added. Earlier, the Vatican said it was "not possible, for the moment, to predict how long it will take".

A sample would be taken from each set of remains for DNA analysis.

"We didn't expect there to be so many bones," said geneticist appointed by the family, Giorgio Portera. "Thousands of bones have been found so we imagine they correspond to dozens of people."

Given the different sizes of the bones, they could just as well belong to children as adults, he added.

Federica Orlandi, the sister of the missing girl, said the discovery of the bones had been a very powerful experience "...because it could be that the bones of my sister are there.

"But we don't want to think too much about that until we have the results," she said.

- 'Seek the truth' -

The missing teenager's brother, Pietro Orlandi, 60, whose 88-year-old mother still lives within the Vatican walls, told AFP he hoped his sister was still alive.

"I will have to carry on. Until I find Emanuela, it is my duty to seek out the truth," he said.

According to theories widely circulated in Italian media, the teen was snatched by mobsters to put pressure on the Vatican to recover a loan.

Another claim often repeated in the press was that she was taken to force the release from prison of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.

In 2017, conspiracy specialists were driven into a frenzy by a leaked -- but apparently falsified -- document, purportedly written by a cardinal and pointing to a Vatican cover-up.

Five years earlier, experts exhuming the tomb of a notorious crime boss at a Vatican-owned church uncovered some 400 boxes of bones.

Enrico De Pedis, head of the Magliana gang, was suspected of involvement in her kidnapping and some speculated the youngster may be buried alongside him -- but DNA tests failed to find a match.