Murder at the Vatican

An unsolved Renaissance mystery casts light on the dark world of extortion, revenge and power politics at the heart of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci was strangled in his cell in the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome on 4 July 1517. He was 26. He had been a prisoner in the papal fortress for six weeks, one of five cardinals accused of plotting to poison Pope Leo X. His execution was judicially sanctioned, but in the most dubious of circumstances. Right from the start, observers asked whether there was really a plot, or whether Petrucci and his colleagues were framed by Leo in his pursuit of power, wealth and the interests of his family, the Medici. The ‘abominable case’ of the Cardinals’ Conspiracy is one of the great Renaissance mysteries.

The affair had begun on 15 April that year, when four of Petrucci’s associates were arrested. They included Marcantonio Nini (his major-domo), his business agent, a groom and his cousin Scipione Petrucci. Two judges were appointed to conduct the investigation. The first, Giangiacomo di Gambarana, who was on the legal staff of the governor of Rome, was nothing out of the ordinary. The appointment of a second, not required by law, was unusual. Domenico Coletta was vice-castellan of the Castel Sant’Angelo (the papal fortress on the banks of the Tiber). But he was also an associate of a branch of the Petrucci family deeply hostile to Cardinal Alfonso. The prosecutor was Mario Peruschi. His reputation preceded him. At least two suspects in Peruschi’s previous cases had died in custody.

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Murder at the Vatican