Pipino: Gentleman Thief
Magicians, Mafiosos, a Missing Painting, and the Heist of a Lifetime
Venice was built to confuse. The floating Italian city has few straight lines: Each cobblestoned footpath veers and twists, the buildings lean, and small bridges vault sideways. For tourists, it’s like entering a labyrinth. Locals have tried to help, scrawling arrows on the walls. They are supposed to point to San Marco Square, the city’s most prominent attraction, but sometimes the arrows point in opposite directions.
The beauty is that it doesn’t really matter. Somehow, everybody ends up in San Marco anyway, as if by magic. Befuddled tourists emerge from narrow alleys and abruptly find themselves standing on the edge of a grand square with a towering 323-foot-tall bell tower. To get some perspective on the mystery, many visitors ride the elevator to the top of the tower. On the observation platform, they can use coin-operated telescopes to scan the vast medieval tangle of waterways, churches, and tiny, hidden piazzas.
But on an afternoon in the spring of 1991, a well-dressed Italian man was monopolizing the single west-facing telescope, preventing anyone else from getting a good look at Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, and San Polo, the wealthy neighborhoods on the far side of the Grand Canal. Vincenzo Pipino was attractive in a classic Italian way, which is to say he wasn’t good looking at all. He had prominent moles, a high forehead, and slicked back hair, but he radiated a sense of confidence, as if he owned the entire city. In a way, he did. He had robbed many of the buildings he was looking at, and had cased most of the others.
To the southwest, there was the Palazzo Barozzi, a charming, five-story Baroque building at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Count Barozzi had hired Pipino to steal art from his fellow aristocrats and, as a result, had an attractive collection of masterworks. Further up the canal stood the Ca’ Dario, a fifteenth-century marble-fronted palazzo leaning slightly to one side. Periodically, a new owner bought the place and filled it with fine art, apparently unaware that the building was cursed. Many of its owners over the centuries have been murdered, driven insane, or gone bankrupt after buying the place.
Finally, Pipino’s view through the telescope came to rest on a centuries-old palazzo on the far side of the Grand Canal. It had an enclosed garden, a sign of extraordinary wealth in a city where every inch of dry land is worth a fortune. He scrutinized a skylight. It looked to be about forty feet above a secluded alley. The brick façade was crumbling, and the roof tiles would be brittle. A dangerous climb, but worth it: The building was owned by Raul Gardini, one of the richest men in Italy.
A few days later, Pipino wended his way through an increasingly narrow series of alleys. He had a bold sense of style, often pairing a red velvet suit with white shoes or a white-checkered jacket with a thin black tie. He aimed to look like an eccentric gentleman, not a thief.
He turned down an alley that was barely wider than his shoulders, passing tall lacquered doors. Minutely detailed bronze figurines of African women served as door handles. The lane dead-ended in a black door: the back entrance to the Gardini Palazzo. He rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. He rang again — still nothing.
Pipino glanced over his shoulder. Claudio*, a longtime friend, trailed behind him and now stood guard at the alley entrance. Claudio was sharp-eyed and reliable, but, as a lookout, he had a shortcoming: He was hard of hearing. At times (like now), it seemed silly to rely on a nearly deaf watchman, but it was hard to find trustworthy accomplices. Pipino waved a few times before catching Claudio’s attention. Claudio gave the thumbs up.
Pipino started climbing. Over the years, salt-water from the Adriatic had corroded the surface of Venice’s ancient buildings, leaving the bricks pockmarked and brittle. It was easy to avoid the most damaged masonry, but sometimes even solid-looking stonework was unreliable. As he neared the roofline forty feet up, the pressure from his foot disintegrated a brick almost instantly. He fumbled for a moment — a fall at this height would be deadly. Brick shards plummeted to the cobblestones below and echoed in the alley.
But Pipino had been scaling the sides of Venice’s palazzos for more than three decades. He’d hung from rusted rainspouts and rotted wooden shutters. By now, he was accustomed to the risk. He took a breath, regained his balance, looked up, and started climbing again.
Even as a boy in the 1950s, Pipino was awed by his hometown. It was the ultimate playground: no cars, boats everywhere, and tons of hiding spots. He was the oldest of five children and liked to lead his younger siblings on adventures through the winding alleys. He was closest with his baby brother Alfredo, who had a similar desire to explore the enchanted city. They’d sneak through the neighborhoods and swim together in the canals on hot days. With no automobiles, they could hear bells tolling all over the city. The festivals were a highlight. During the Festa del Redentore, residents strung together a quarter-mile-long line of boats so everybody could walk across the impromptu bridge to an outlying island.
But the city was also in shambles after World War II. Italy’s economy was ravaged by inflation, and the boys’ father had trouble supporting the family. He was a ferryboat captain and there were times when they didn’t have enough to eat. As a ten-year-old, Pipino came up with a solution: grab croissants off the tables at the fancy cafés in Piazza San Marco.
The police in the square often chased him. He liked that part. He’d dash through clusters of pigeons, causing an eruption of feathers and curses as the band at Cafe Florian played a waltz. He’d sprint down the Calle de la Canonica, vault over the eleven stairs of the bridge leading into Castello, and disappear into a maze of crowded passageways.
Alfredo couldn’t run like his brother, but he still yearned to master the city. One day, when he was nine years old, a beggar with a yellowish beard waved him over. Cautiously, Alfredo approached. The man held out a wooden match. He had drawn a single line across the stem with a pencil. He snapped his fingers and the single line became two lines. Then, the man held a coin up and made it disappear. Alfredo was mesmerized and started learning everything he could about illusion.
The family supported Alfredo’s interest in magic, but wasn’t pleased with Pipino’s thieving. His mother warned him to stop. He didn’t listen. When Pipino was thirteen-years-old, his mother decided to take more drastic action. She told him a neighbor had stumbled in the stairwell of their rundown apartment building, impaling herself on an exposed nail, and died on the spot. Now, his mother said, the lady’s ghost haunted the stairwell at night. Her leg — which had caused the fall — glowed in the darkness and would curse little boys who came home late. Pipino’s mother called the phantom the Gamba D’Oro — The Golden Leg.
The idea of the Golden Leg terrified Pipino and Alfredo. The boys referred to the ghost as their shared nightmare. Pipino developed a deep-seated fear of darkness, phantoms, and, specifically, the Golden Leg. He was a burgeoning thief with a fear of the night. But rather than let that slow him down, he worked harder. He was forced to become a better thief, because he resolved to operate only during daylight hours.
Pipino also started scaling the front of his family’s apartment building so as to avoid the haunted stairwell. He learned the delicate art of ascending decrepit facades with his fingertips, developing an instinctive sense for which bricks crumble and which would hold. By the time he was fifteen, he was making a name for himself as an expert climber. Whenever a popular film came to the Teatro Malibran, Pipino climbed the smooth stone of the Baroque exterior and dropped into an open window. He wound through the theatre, propped open a back door, and set up an “alternate” ticket booth, selling special low-price tickets to kids in the neighborhood who couldn’t otherwise afford the show.
As the boys grew, Alfredo admired his older brother’s technique but didn’t approve of the criminal exploits. While Pipino turned increasingly to crime, Alfredo was becoming a talented sleight-of-hand illusionist. Both brothers were gifted in the art of deception, but for different purposes. “I was born to be a magician,” Alfredo would say. “Vincenzo was born to be a thief.”
Pipino inched onto the roof of the Gardini Palazzo. He was forty-seven years old now, and moved with caution. He stepped in the channels between the rows of roof tiles, carefully distributing his weight. One misstep, he knew, could set off an avalanche of red and brown clay.
When he got to the window he’d spotted from the San Marco bell tower, it was locked, as expected. But the wooden frame was old, rotted in places, and gave easily. On some jobs he brought a pigeon with him, which he would release inside the house to determine if there were motion detectors. This time, he was close to busy Campo San Barnaba. If an alarm went off, he figured he could just run out the back door and disappear into a crowd.
Pipino slipped inside and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. No sensors. He walked quickly down three flights of stairs and opened the front door. Claudio was down the alley looking away. Pipino clicked his tongue. Nothing. He tried snapping. No response. Finally, he left the door ajar, trotted down the path and grabbed Claudio’s arm. Claudio jumped.
“Madonna,” Claudio swore. “You could have said something.”
“I did,” Pipino grumbled, ushering Claudio quickly into the mansion.
The place was sumptuous — white couches, antique furniture, fine Venetian silverware — but, as usual, Claudio was edgy. He never liked the added risk of working in broad daylight.
“We should be doing this at night,” he said.
Pipino knew his friend was right, but he didn’t like acknowledging it. “If you want to work at night, you can work with someone else,” Pipino said, heading upstairs.
“Where are you going?” Claudio asked. Pipino was bypassing the riches of the dining room for the second floor.
“Checking the bedrooms,” Pipino said.
Claudio knew it: Pipino was looking for cashmere.
Cashmere was his weakness. It was a common sight on other burglaries to see Pipino climb into the getaway boat with an armful of clothing. Upstairs, he conscientiously worked his way through drawers and closets. He found naked pictures of Gardini’s wife and respectfully tucked them back in the drawer. Over the years, Pipino had developed a code of conduct for himself and the few people he was willing to work with. No violence. No blackmail, either. He wasn’t interested in embarrassing anyone. And the work had to be neat. He detested a mess. He carefully perused a wardrobe and was pleased to find a beautiful blue cashmere sweater. He tried it on. It fit well.
Just then, Claudio barreled into the bedroom ready to grab anything that shined. He reached for an ornate, golden Mont Blanc pen.
“No, no,” Pipino said, stopping him.
“But it’s gold.”
“The pen is hideous,” Pipino said flatly. He had standards.
Claudio had worked with Pipino long enough to know when to ignore him. He pocketed the pen and moved on to the next room.
Pipino strolled through the rest of the house, scanning the artwork on the walls. He was unimpressed. Then he inspected a collection of silverware that Claudio had overlooked. Picking up a knife, he noticed a small lion’s head etched on the handle. Before the eighteenth century, master craftsmen in Venice marked the lion’s head on their creations. When Claudio saw Pipino loading the silverware into a bag, he was perplexed.
“Have you looked at them?” Pipino said, holding up a fork. The craftsmanship was impeccable. “If you don’t take them, it’s a sin,” he declared. “Plus, they’re worth about ten million lire.” That was roughly $100,000. Claudio nodded and moved on.
The last item Pipino grabbed was a football-sized wooden lion. It was the family’s icon and Pipino knew it was important. He managed to fit it in one of the four massive duffel bags they’d already filled with bounty. He and Claudio hefted the bags down the alley to a nearby canal and loaded everything into a water taxi they’d borrowed from a friend.
The boat was a gorgeous twenty-nine-foot motoscafo. It looked like a rustic, floating limousine — sleek, dark wood, crisp white curtains and sliding cabin doors. It could hold twelve people (or a stack of loot-laden duffel bags). Another benefit: There were hundreds just like it carrying tourists and locals through the canals at any given time. Pipino relaxed in the back as they melted into the traffic on the Grand Canal. They had netted about $400,000 worth of loot, not including Pipino’s soft new cashmere sweater.
The knock came three days later. Two officers were standing at Pipino’s door.
“Would you like a drink?” Pipino offered.
They didn’t. They were there to convey a message: Antonio Palmosi, the chief of Venice’s special investigations unit, wanted to talk. Pipino had been expecting this. In fact, he was looking forward to it.
By the early 1990s, the police viewed Pipino as the most talented thief in modern Venetian history. Over the previous three decades, he had been responsible for a string of daring and idiosyncratic heists. He was best known for stealing masterworks from the homes of Venice’s nobility and was thought to have excellent taste in art. He was also versatile: He once infiltrated the Swiss Consulate and made off with 150 million lira in cash. In the late 1970s, he tailed Cary Grant, who portrayed one of the most famous thieves in film history, and robbed him while he slept in his hotel room. Later, he freed a forlorn gorilla from the zoo in Rome (he felt bad for the animal), and robbed the Venice Casino, all of which made him a local legend.
Pipino had a simple philosophy: Aristocrats liked to flaunt their wealth; thieves liked to take it. Sometimes the burglar took something important and aristocrats would pay to get the item back. Pipino had heard that some palazzo owners took it as a badge of honor that he had slipped through their windows because it confirmed their good taste. He viewed it as the price the rich had to pay every so often to exhibit their wealth and taste. Usually, the police negotiated “an arrangement” to get the works back. As Pipino saw it, everybody won. The police got to look like heroes, the bourgeois could brag that they’d been robbed by a famous thief, and Pipino made a living.
In many ways, Pipino admired the cops. It was as if they were all actors in the same play. He was particularly fond of Palmosi, whom he viewed like a colleague, maybe even a friend. The guy was an honest detective who wore his ties loose and his mustache bushy. When he arrested other thieves — criminals who left evidence behind and got nabbed — Palmosi treated them to fresh pastries. When they were bailed out, he popped a bottle of Spumante. “I hope not to see you for a long time,” Palmosi would say as they clinked glasses.
Pipino and Palmosi often met for coffee. They would sit at an outdoor table in one of Venice’s small, cobblestoned squares, and gossip about the neighborhood. Palmosi was a skilled cop, just as Pipino was a talented criminal. There was an understanding between them: Pipino’s job was to steal; Palmosi’s job was to catch him. To face off against lesser talents would demean them both.
After being summoned, the thief met the detective at a café. (Pipino insists the following conversation happened. Palmosi denies the specifics.)
“There was a robbery at the Gardini palazzo off Calle Cerchieri,” Palmosi said, according to Pipino.
“Is that right?” Pipino said.
“The thieves took a wooden lion that was important to the family. Perhaps you’ve heard something about it?”
Pipino swore he hadn’t heard a thing. It was terrible. The family must be shocked. He offered to do what he could to recover the lost lion simply as a citizen of Venice. He wouldn’t ask for a single lira.
Then Pipino started complaining about parking. He currently docked his boat on the side of a canal. There was no awning, and the rain filled the boat with water. It made for soggy shoes, and Pipino wore nice shoes. This would not do.
“You know, the Gardinis have a very nice covered dock right near my house,” Pipino pointed out, almost as an afterthought. “There’s even an empty berth.”
Pipino sipped his espresso and smiled.
A few days later, the Gardinis got their lion back. Not long after, Pipino roared out of the Gardini’s dock in his Moschettiere speedboat. Palmosi insists that he didn’t play a role in any of it but, from Pipino’s perspective, everything had worked out. The family crest was restored and his leather loafers were dry. Pipino accelerated across the wide Giudecca canal, playing the part of the Italian thief with gusto: gold chain, nice tan, partly open shirt filled with the breeze. Venice, as always, was lovely. The water shimmered, the dome of San Giorgio Maggiore gleamed, and the short skirts along the quays seemed particularly short.
A good day to plan a theft, Pipino thought.
He tied up near the Piazza San Marco and headed for the Marciana, a Venetian library that opened in 1560. He often spent his days poring over fragile manuscripts, learning about the lives of the Venetian aristocracy and the art they commissioned for their palazzos. It was fascinating to discover the history of his hometown. It was also a good way to identify his next target.
He had planned a quiet day at the library, so it was with some alarm that he saw a man named Andrea Zammattio waiting for him at the door.
“Hi, uncle,” Zammattio said. Younger criminals sometimes called Pipino “uncle” out of respect.
Pipino was instantly wary. Zammattio was a member of the Mala del Brenta, the local mafia organization in the Veneto, the northeastern part of Italy that includes Venice. Under the leadership of Felice Maniero, a thirty-seven-year-old dandy who went by the name Faccia d’Angelo — Angel Face — the group had assassinated many of its rivals. Now they controlled everything from water taxis to drug trafficking in Venice.
As his nickname suggested, Maniero was good-looking, with a deceptively warm smile. But he was also a lunatic with mommy issues. In 1994, when Maniero was arrested and jailed in connection with eighteen murders, reporters asked him for comment. “I’d like to say hello to my mother,” he said, wearing a cravat and trying to wave with handcuffed hands.
The police had a hard time keeping Maniero locked up. In 1987, he sawed through the bars of a prison cell and escaped through the sewer system. Later, in 1993, he was arrested aboard his sixty-foot yacht (named after his mother), only to escape prison again. Like Magnum P.I., he had a red Ferrari 308 GTB. Unlike Magnum P.I., he lived with his mother.
Any dealings with Angel Face were bound to be trouble. His gang had gotten increasingly dangerous. The previous year, they used military-grade explosives to attack a passenger train. They made off with about $5 million in currency from the postal car, but not before killing a twenty-two-year-old woman and injuring thirteen others. Pipino hoped it was just a coincidence that he had bumped into one of the boss’s minions, but he knew better.
“The President sent me,” Zammattio said. He was trying not to mention Maniero’s name in the crowded plaza. “He’d like a favor.”
Pipino knew that the government was trying to shut Maniero down. In 1987, prosecutors in the south had won convictions against 475 mafiosos in a landmark trial. Now, police in the north were on the offensive and had recently arrested Maniero’s cousin, Giuliano Rampin, a key figure in the organization. They had constant surveillance on the group’s senior leadership. Maniero had tried bribing the cops to get them to back off, but it wasn’t working anymore. He needed additional leverage and had come up with a cunning way to improve his negotiating position: He decided to steal some fine art.
Zammattio explained that Maniero wanted to bust into the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum with a contingent of armed men and make off with a stash of paintings. He would then trade them in exchange for stepped-down surveillance and his cousin’s release. To maximize his bargaining power, he needed Pipino to identify the best paintings and organize the heist so it went smoothly.
Pipino felt a chill. Aside from the fact that people might get killed, Maniero’s plan could spell the end of Pipino’s career. If a group of armed thugs raided a museum and terrorized tourists, Venice’s museum directors and wealthy art owners would invest in security upgrades. Armed guards, surveillance cameras, motion-detection systems; a city on high alert. Pipino had been plying his trade on a deliberately small scale, working to ensure that the art found its way back to its owner without upsetting the delicate balance he had struck with the police force. This Ca’ Rezzonico job would ruin everything, Pipino thought. It would give thieving a bad name.
The problem was, he couldn’t say no to Maniero. Until now, the big boss hadn’t meddled in Pipino’s work. But if Pipino was viewed as disloyal, Maniero could ban him from stealing in the region, or simply have him killed.
“Tell Felicetto,” Pipino said, thinking quickly, “that I have an idea.”
Two days later, Pipino went to the mainland to explain his plan to Roby*, one of Maniero’s most trusted lieutenants. They met in a cornfield so they could be sure no one was listening.
“Robbing a museum is crazy,” Pipino said. “We’re all going to lose.”
“So what?” Roby said. He was a soldier who did what he was told.
“I’ll get you a piece of art, and, on my word, the news will be heard worldwide,” Pipino continued carefully. “But I’m going to do it alone.”
“You alone?” Roby asked, sounding surprised.
Roby stared at Pipino for a moment before responding.
“Okay,” he said finally. “What are you going to steal?”
“Just read the newspapers. You’ll find out.”
On October 9, 1991, Pipino lined up with other tourists at the entrance to the Ducale, a regal palace that served as the seat of the Venetian Republic. Over the centuries, successive rulers had expanded and embellished the structure to fit their moods. The effect is a striking blend of Gothic spires, Renaissance arches, Mannerist statues, and Byzantine filigrees, all of which give the structure a dreamlike feel. It was as if a giant had constructed the impossibly detailed palace from a variety of different Lego sets. Now a museum, it is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Pipino joined a large tour group in the central courtyard and followed the crowd into the palace. The interior was jammed with everything needed to run an empire: grandiose paintings, six-foot tall globes, suits of armor, interrogation chambers, secret passageways, and hidden rooms. Conveniently, an enclosed bridge connected it to a foreboding prison. Lord Byron imagined condemned criminals pausing at the bridge’s tiny window for a last look at the outside world and famously dubbed it the Bridge of Sighs. Pipino had been here many times before. Now, he lingered quietly at the back of the pack.
As the tour crossed into the prison, the polished marble of the palace gave way to roughly fashioned limestone scored with chisel cuts. There were rows of cells fronted by thick wooden doors. Pipino let the tour get ahead of him. It was dark, too dark for Pipino’s liking, but hiding in the prison was the best plan. There were no treasures housed here, so it was lightly guarded. When the voices of the tourists faded, Pipino ducked inside a cell and closed the heavy wooden door behind him.
In the cell, it was so dark Pipino couldn’t see his own hand. He was a grown man; he shouldn’t have been scared. But there are things that never leave you, especially when you’re completely alone. In the darkness, he was like a kid again, sharing a room with Alfredo, and trying to forget the ghost stories their mother told them.
Alfredo worked for years at the transportation union, but spent his nights and weekends performing magic at parties, conventions, and birthdays. He was known for his skill with cards. He could make them disappear and reappear in someone’s pocket and transform one card into another. He performed with an expression of wonder, as if each trick was new to him as well.
Not long before Pipino set in motion the Ducale operation, Alfredo opened a magic club. It was Alfredo’s lifelong dream, and he’d been saving money for years to make it happen. He was thirty-nine years old, recently married, and finally had a shot at making it as a full-time magician. Crowds loved his good-natured tricks and the infectious giggle he shared when someone looked truly stupefied. He named his venue the Magic Castle, after the famous venue in Hollywood.
But there was a hitch: The police had a hard time believing Alfredo was not involved in his brother’s work. After all, both specialized in making things disappear. Plus, they were close. When asked to describe their relationship, Alfredo would hold up his fist and squeeze it tight. “This is Vincenzo and me,” he would say.
In the early 1980s, before Palmosi became the head of the investigative unit, the police arrested Alfredo after one of Pipino’s thefts. They put him in jail despite his insistence that he had nothing to do with the crime. Pipino was furious at the cops’ ungentlemanly tactics. Alfredo was released without being charged, but Pipino resolved to do more to shield his brother from his work.
That was feasible when Pipino played by the rules. Now he was robbing the city’s most famous palace on behalf of a murderous mobster. Pipino needed to make sure this heist went perfectly. He would never forgive himself if Alfredo were dragged into what was about to happen.
Pipino heard the footsteps of the night guards walking down the corridors outside his cell. He timed their rounds; a guard passed every forty-five minutes. That would give him just enough time.
A guard walked by at around two a.m. Pipino waited until the footsteps faded before pushing the cell door open. It creaked, and he froze, listening. Silence. He slipped out and crossed over the enclosed bridge, back into the palace.
The first room he entered was the Sala di Censori, a severe, claustrophobic space lined with dark walnut panels and portraits of humorless, red-robed men. These were the Censori, the historical protectors of Venice’s public institutions. Most of the Censori gazed upon a luminous depiction of Mary and Jesus. It was painted around the turn of the sixteenth century by a member of the Vivarini school, a famed group of artists. The Madonna col Bambino was the focal point of the room, an acknowledgement that the Censori derived their authority from God. It was more than just a painting. It was a symbol of the power of the Venetian state, the perfect negotiating tool for Maniero. According to one Italian art expert, stealing it would be like taking the Constitution from the Capitol.
The painting hung about fourteen feet off the ground, above a door with wooden benches on either side. Pipino wedged a scalpel horizontally between his fingers. Then, with a tiny flashlight in his mouth, he stepped onto the left-side bench and reached up to the fregio, an ornamental ledge that ran the perimeter of the room. As he pulled on the narrow shelf, the antique wood cracked loudly. If he committed his full weight, it might collapse. Pipino dropped back to the floor. Then he heard footsteps. A guard was coming back.
Pipino padded quickly to the bridge. It was divided into two passageways by a limestone wall, but with spaces in-between that a guard could look through. Pipino chose a side and pressed himself against the stone in the middle of the bridge. If the guard chose to walk down Pipino’s side, the thief would have to run. But after a moment Pipino heard footsteps on the other side of the bridge. He held his breath as the guard walked by, only inches away on the opposite side of the wall.
Once the guard was gone, Pipino returned to the prison cell to wait for the next forty-five-minute window. By the time the next guard walked past, he was running out of time. It was about three in the morning. He hurried to a custodial closet he’d spied earlier. Inside, he found what he needed: a tall stepladder.
This time the work went quickly. He stood on the ladder, eye-level with the Madonna, and used the scalpel to gently separate the painting from the wall. When he was a kid, Pipino’s grandmother used to tell him that the rain was the tears of the Madonna, weeping over his wrongdoings. Now, the Madonna stared at him with sorrowful eyes.
Pipino quickly covered her with a lightweight blanket. Still, he couldn’t avoid the stern gaze of the Censori peering down at him from the walls. His face flushed. Palace judges used to hang criminals from two red columns on the western face of the Ducale, dangling the bodies for all to see.
Pipino hurriedly returned the ladder, stepped out a side door into a narrow alley, and was gone.
The next morning, Venice awoke to rumors that the Madonna col Bambino was missing. A janitor had discovered the theft. Palmosi arrived at the Ducale soon after sunrise. The Sala dei Censori was cordoned off, and a police photographer’s flash lit up the blank spot on the wall where the Madonna had hung. The Censori now looked toward a hole, their divine authority gone. The symbolism was unmistakable. It was an affront to the authority of the state, a boundary breached.
Palmosi noted the elegance of the theft. Nothing else was disturbed; there were no signs of forced entry. The choice of the Madonna was clearly calculated and revealed a deep understanding of the city’s art. This was no ordinary thief. Pipino might as well have left a business card.
But the thief had left something else: At the base of the wall, a fine layer of dust had fallen on the bench when the painting was dislodged. Palmosi kneeled and saw the faint outline of a shoe print. Pipino had made a mistake. The photographer snapped a series of photos of the print.
The shoes were Clarks, a British brand. The police forensics team reported the make to Palmosi the next day at police headquarters.
“Go get him,” Palmosi told two officers. “And get his shoes.”
Then another officer handed Palmosi the morning paper. The lead story trumpeted the Ducale break-in and included details about the print: “Investigators found, as the only evidence, the footprint of a gym shoe stamped on a wooden bench that the thief stepped on to remove the painting.”
Palmosi was irate. Someone from the museum must have talked to the reporter. Now it was a race: Would Pipino see the news and get rid of his shoes, or would the officers get to him first?
Pipino was looking forward to a lazy day. Maybe he’d have lunch along the waterfront, watch the boats go by. While he thought about it, he made a cup of coffee and sat down with a copy of Il Gazzetino. He was pleased to see his handiwork on the front page: “Expert thieves were able to score an incredible art heist last night in the heart of Venice.” Very flattering.
Then he stopped. The article also noted that the police had found a footprint. Pipino looked down. The Clarks he’d worn were sitting nearby. He stood up abruptly; he knew the cops were on their way.
Pipino hurried out the door with the shoes. The alleys of Venice were an easy place to be surprised by a police detail. He cautiously twisted through narrow lanes to a park that bordered the water, quickly filled the shoes with rocks, hurled them in, and watched them disappear into the lagoon.
Fifteen minutes later, the police knocked on his door. Pipino answered, barefoot and breathing heavily.
“Buongiorno,” he said brightly. “Caffé?”
He welcomed the officers inside and they scanned the apartment. No Clarks. The officers glanced at each other.
“Palmosi wants to talk to you at the station,” one of them said.
“Of course,” Pipino said, smiling. He just had to put on a pair of shoes.
Alfredo woke up that Friday morning and, as usual, drove to the Magic Castle. He too unfolded his morning edition of Il Gazzetino. Reading it over an espresso at the club’s bar, he saw the headline: “Attacco a Palazzo Ducale.”
“Dio mio,” he muttered.
The painting had just disappeared and nobody knew how it was done. It was the performance of an accomplished illusionist. Alfredo knew there was only one man in Venice who could have pulled it off.
But then Alfredo saw another headline. The previous day, armed men had staged a dramatic robbery at a church in the nearby city of Padua. Carrying shotguns, they smashed a glass case in the sanctuary and marched out with St. Anthony’s Chin, the Saint’s actual jawbone. The papers didn’t name Maniero, but everybody knew that the mob boss was at war with the police. It looked like Maniero was collecting bargaining chips. The stolen holy relic, together with the theft at the Ducale, constituted an insult to church and state, a message that crime reigned. Alfredo knew the dual robberies would trigger a massive police response.
He threw back his espresso and prayed that things weren’t spiraling out of control.
Pipino had no idea that Maniero was planning a second heist. He felt betrayed. Not only had Maniero used force, he’d stolen a holy relic. Pipino was as Catholic as his countrymen. And of course, he was superstitious. Even the Pope had issued a public statement condemning the robbery of the chin. Pipino’s elegant and well-orchestrated theft would now be lumped together with an armed assault on a church. His effort to contain Maniero’s violence had failed.
The police station was just off the Piazzale Roma, a short ferry ride across the Giudecca Canal. Pipino figured that he and Palmosi would talk this through as they always did, but when he arrived, the detective just glared at him.
“You’ve crossed the line this time,” Palmosi seethed.
Pipino was taken aback. Palmosi was raw and direct. No theatrics, no ceremony, no respect.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pipino said reflexively.
“You’re a liar!” Palmosi shouted.
Pipino had anticipated that Palmosi would be unhappy, but he wasn’t prepared to be treated like a common criminal.
“I want to help, Chief,” Pipino stammered, trying to get things back on track.
Palmosi stared, unmoved. “Special surveillance is right around the corner,” he said.
Palmosi had an arsenal of legal tactics, and he was carefully deploying them. Special surveillance was one of the most drastic. It was intended for the Mafia and violent criminals, not a cat burglar with a taste for fine art. It would mean Pipino would be barred from meeting anybody with a criminal record, which was most everybody he knew. Just having coffee with an ex-con could land him in jail. For up to three years, the police would keep close watch over him, effectively spelling the end of his thieving.
He was in a precarious position, and it didn’t stop with the prospect of special surveillance. The cops had arrested Alfredo before. What was stopping them now? Even if Alfredo was promptly released, the bad press could kill business at the newly opened Magic Castle.
“I can give you my word, a thief’s word, that you’ll recover the Madonna,” Pipino said. He always offered his word, but this time it would be more complicated: Maniero already had the painting.
“How can I trust you?”
“I am your friend,” Pipino said simply.
From the look on his face, Palmosi didn’t believe it. But this was his only lead, and the detective’s first duty was to retrieve the painting. Palmosi decided to give Pipino a chance to redeem himself.
“If I said yes….”
“I’ll need some room. No cops following me.”
Palmosi didn’t answer directly. Instead, he put the pressure back on Pipino. “I don’t have a lot of time,” he said.
The painting had disappeared into the heavily armed control of the Mala del Brenta. Maniero had stash spots all over the region, usually guarded by professional killers. Retrieving the painting would make the initial heist look easy. But, at this point, Pipino didn’t feel like he had a choice.
“You’ll get the Madonna back in twenty days,” Pipino promised.
Pipino tells many stories about what happened next. Some of the facts conflict, which may be his intent. Like a good illusion, there are things the audience sees, and things it doesn’t. The most ambitious tricks accommodate multiple perspectives: the general public, the audience volunteer, the skeptic who’s seen it all. Each group sees something different, but no one sees the whole truth. If the magician is good enough, though, the performance will baffle and amaze everyone.
The first story was for Palmosi: I didn’t do it, but I can get it back. The next explanation was a classic piece of misdirection. Pipino insists that soon after meeting with Palmosi, he left for a beach vacation in the Seychelles. In other words, for the next twenty days, he wasn’t even in the country.
Nobody believes that. “If the Seychelles was the name of a bar, then maybe he went to the Seychelles,” says Giorgio Cecchetti, a reporter for La Nuova Venezia, who followed the Ducale heist.
A recent review of Pipino’s passport revealed that he did go to the Seychelles, but not until March of 1992, four and a half months after the heist. Cecchetti didn’t know what Pipino was really up to that October, but he knew that Pipino was in trouble. The thief was caught between the law of the land and the law of the mob. Palmosi would do everything he could to recover the painting, but Pipino couldn’t be seen to act against Maniero. “Maniero would have had him killed,” Cecchetti says.
In 2010, Pipino published a book in Italy detailing some of his exploits. In it, he rolled out another story about the Ducale heist, this one likely aimed for Maniero. Pipino writes that he engineered the return of the painting before he even stole it. When he first met with Maniero’s lieutenant, Roby, to set the operation in motion, Pipino claims he struck a deal. Pipino would steal the art and Roby would return it to the authorities within twenty days.
It’s a peculiar account. The tight timing would have limited Maniero’s negotiating power, consequently undermining the purpose of the whole endeavor. But it’s a useful story for Pipino, as it pins the blame on Roby for subsequent events.
Each story caters to a specific group: the police, the press, the mob. In each case, Pipino insisted that he did next to nothing after leaving Palmosi’s office.
Now, Pipino wants to tell one more story about what happened during those twenty days. He is seventy-one and worried about his legacy. As he grew older, scaling buildings was no longer a viable way to make a living. Eventually, he fell victim to the lure of easier money: He’s currently serving an eleven-year sentence for trafficking cocaine.
He’s in prison, but it is Italian prison. The Due Palazzi (the Two Palaces) is a penal institution on the mainland where Pipino coaches a basketball team, edits a satirical news bulletin, and maintains his customary fine wardrobe. On a warm July day last summer, he sat in the visiting room wearing loafers and a collared shirt from the San Remo yacht club. The room was bright and airy — no telephones behind glass walls here. Pipino was relaxed but still cautious. Maniero disappeared into the witness protection program in 1995 and helped the government dismantle the organization he built. But he is alive somewhere, and still feared.
Pipino tapped the side of his espresso cup, as if pondering what card to play next.
“This is a hypothetical story,” he said at last. “None of what I’m about to say happened.”
Unlike some mob bosses, Felice “Angel Face” Maniero never wanted a mansion in a ritzy neighborhood. He wanted one in his hometown, the small farming community of Campolongo Maggiore, about twenty miles west of Venice on the mainland.
Construction on Maniero’s mansion started in 1979 and took three years. The place looked like someone had built a beautiful house and then dropped it. Wild angles jutted out in a variety of directions and the bedrooms were all polygonal. The windows were bulletproof, and there was an elaborate water filtration system in case anyone tried to poison him.
Maniero loved art. He bought a Renoir and a Miro. They may have been fakes, but they looked real. Either way, they inspired him. With his resources as a boss, he hired the post-modernist collagist Mario Schifano to be his live-in art teacher. To everyone’s surprise, Maniero had talent. His creations expressed a sense of chaos and balance that was impressive. Maybe because he was a murderer and an extortionist, his art never got its due outside Campolongo Maggiore (where it is periodically displayed in City Hall).
One day, not long after his encounter with Palmosi, Pipino arrived at Maniero’s gate. He’d requested an audience with the boss. Two men with shotguns waved him in. The grounds were lined with massive hedges and dotted with odd sculptures: a seven-foot-tall wishbone, and another that appeared to be an ancient Mayan astrological tool. Armed men roamed the garden.
The guard rang the bell beside two smoked-glass doors. Maniero himself met Pipino at the entry. He knew Pipino and respected the thief. Pipino was also eight years older and had the bearing of an elder statesman. Maniero embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, leading Pipino inside.
“You look well,” Pipino replied, trying to sound casual. Just months earlier, Maniero had offered a truce to the Rizzi brothers, a rival clan. But when they met to plan a robbery, Maniero and his men opened fire and killed all of them. He had a bad case of acid reflux and was reportedly taking barbiturates to deal with the pain. The drugs, underlying psychopathy, or some combination thereof made it hard to gauge what the man was thinking.
“Let’s go downstairs,” Maniero said, opening the door to the basement. Pipino tried to keep calm as they wound down the wooden stairway. They entered a room with dark wood paneling and lights designed to look like pink, blue, and yellow flowers. The style was like a bachelor pad designed by a teenage girl.
They settled into chairs and Maniero looked expectantly at Pipino.
“I want to talk about the painting,” Pipino began.
“Okay,” Maniero said.
“It’s a big story now in the news,” Pipino said. “If it comes back damaged, it will be really bad for both of us.”
“I just want to make sure that it’s being properly cared for,” Pipino continued.
Maniero explained that the painting was in a shed behind his cousin’s house. It was covered and the weather wasn’t that hot right now, anyway. Plus, the shed housed Maniero’s pets. Nobody would get inside.
Pets? Pipino was confused, but felt more questions would arouse suspicion. So they chatted about a more typical subject: Maniero’s legal troubles. Pipino was an expert on the Italian legal system; he’d spent decades studying the penal codes to best avoid incarceration. Maniero was dealing with special surveillance and it was making his life difficult. Eventually, Maniero said he had other business to attend to. He embraced Pipino again before seeing him off.
“I appreciate the favor you did for me,” Maniero said. “I won’t forget it.”
The next day, Pipino ran two errands. First, he visited a man he called “The Professor,” a friend and expert forger who lived in the countryside. Pipino explained that he needed a replica of the Madonna. Nothing fancy — he didn’t have much time. The Professor agreed and asked few questions. The next stop was a veterinarian. Pipino figured he’d need an animal tranquilizer to take care of Maniero’s pets, especially if they were guard dogs. He got extra doses just in case.
About a week later, Pipino arrived back in Campolongo. It was late, roughly ten o’clock, and the moon was nearly full. He hiked along the Brenta River carrying the replica Madonna and a knapsack. To a trained eye, the replica wouldn’t pass scrutiny, but it was good enough. The water flowed darkly past; Maniero was known to bury bodies along the Brenta. Pipino didn’t want to be here, least of all at night.
By the time he got to the edge of the cousin’s property, Pipino’s nerves were stretched thin. He crouched down and surveyed the house. The lights were out. He could see the outline of a shed with a large caged dog run. He moved down the berm and snuck toward the shed. At about ten yards away, he saw a shadow move inside the cage. After a minute, he saw it again and was gripped by panic.
It was a golden, shining leg.
He knew it was impossible. But for an instant, Pipino was frozen by the same fear he had felt so many years ago in his apartment stairwell.
Then he saw what it really was: a tiger.
“O cazzo,” Pipino muttered. Oh fuck.
The tiger watched as Pipino slowly approached the cage and retrieved a nice piece of meat from his knapsack. He worked the tranquilizer into the meat, pushed it through the fence and waited. The tiger sniffed the unexpected late night snack and then devoured it.
Pipino waited — five, ten, fifteen minutes. The animal paced in the cage. He hoped the dose was strong enough. Finally, after thirty minutes, the tiger stumbled, lay down, and closed its eyes.
Pipino steadied himself and slipped into the shed. The darkness inside was punctuated by the earthy smell of fur and hay. He could see the bright outline of the large cat door. Above, in the rafters, he spotted a rectangular object: the Madonna.
Then he heard something that sounded like breathing. As his vision adjusted, he saw two large feline eyes staring back at him. Pipino felt like he was about to have a heart attack.
It was another fucking tiger.
The animal was lying down. Its tail flicked with interest.
“Ma che bel gattone,” Pipino whispered. What a beautiful cat you are.
He slowly pulled out another piece of meat, pushed in the tranquilizer and tossed it to the cat. The tiger promptly ate the offering. After that, the cat watched him closely, probably hoping for more. Pipino waited, frozen in place, until the animal closed its eyes and fell asleep.
Pipino moved quickly, worried that the first tiger might wake up. He pulled the Madonna down, gingerly replaced it with the replica, and stepped out of the shed. Then, for the second time, Pipino put the Madonna under his arm and made off into the night.
In the prison visiting room, Pipino sat back as he finished his story.
“But there weren’t any tigers,” he said, smiling. “I never stole the painting back.”
The whole thing sounded implausible, even more so than the beach vacation in the Seychelles. Maybe it was just another piece of misdirection, part of the ongoing illusion.
Yet, as with the Seychelles, Pipino’s tiger tale weaves in and out of reality. Some locals in Campolongo report that Maniero did own two tigers, named Romeo and Juliet. He was also known to stash stolen goods on his cousin’s property by the Brenta. Today, the property is in fact a tiger refuge, although the owner — as it turns out, also a magician — says his animals didn’t arrive until 1999.
More significantly, on November 7, 1991, the police reported that the Madonna was mysteriously returned. Palmosi says that Pipino got it back, although the former police detective doesn’t know how. Pipino wasn’t hit with special surveillance and his brother was never harassed.
Years later, a crooked cop on Maniero’s payroll testified that the mob boss returned the painting to him. The idea: Burnish the credentials of his inside man. It’s possible Maniero did this, not knowing he may have returned a forgery. Either way, Maniero claims to have achieved his primary goal. He says that he won the release of his jailed cousin with his other stolen treasure: Saint Anthony’s Chin.
“You see?” Pipino said at the end of prison visiting hours. “Everybody got what they wanted.”
In the end, nobody knows exactly what happened, besides the magician onstage. Everybody saw their own version of events. The truth vanished beneath the trick.
On Thursday November 7, 1991, Pipino strolled into police headquarters in Venice. There was a press conference scheduled: The cops were going to announce the recovery of the Madonna. Pipino got there early and was led into the chief’s office. The two men sat down and looked at each other.
“I’m still going to catch you,” Palmosi said. “With my own hands.”
Pipino smiled. Their friendship was back on track. Pipino would continue to steal and Palmosi would continue to try to catch him. It was all that Pipino wanted.
A beautiful, oversized book sat on the desk. It was a photo collection of the Ducale’s masterpieces, a gift from the museum for Palmosi’s successful recovery effort. It would look good in his office: a permanent reminder that he’d solved the case.
A lieutenant knocked and said that the press conference was about to begin. The cop and the thief said goodbye. They knew they’d be meeting again soon to discuss another missing painting or valuable heirloom. It was the harvest season: The new chiantis would be in soon. They could share a bottle while they talked.
A few minutes later, Palmosi stood in front of a room full of reporters. Two officers wearing berets held the Madonna. The journalists started taking pictures and readied their notepads.
Palmosi began by explaining that the Madonna Col Bambino had been found on the mainland after an anonymous tip. It was a nice win for the department and Palmosi looked like a hero. He played the part, folding his arms, projecting strength and confidence. He didn’t see Pipino in the audience.
After the reporters filed out, Palmosi returned to his office and sat down at his desk. He was about to start working on another case when he paused. Something was missing.
His Ducale book was gone.
Felice “Angel Face” Maniero helped the Italian government dismantle his organization, though many in the region believe he is still active.
Antonio Palmosi left the force in 2004, but is remembered as one Venice’s most talented and effective detectives.
Alfredo Pipino continues to practice magic in Venice, to the delight of tourists and locals. He is still close with his brother.
Vincenzo Pipino views the Ducale heist as his greatest achievement. He likes to say that he got nothing from it, other than Palmosi’s Ducale book.