The Body Snatchers

It would have taken at least four grave robbers, police reckon, to move the heavy marble stone sealing the tomb labeled Enrico, and make off with the oak coffin and body inside. The crime took place somewhere around the Ides of March, in a small cemetery in northern Italy's wealthy lake district. The body was that of Enrico Cuccia, the man who was revered and reviled as the father of modern Italian capitalism. Cuccia, founder of Mediobanca, the Milan-based merchant bank that dominates Italian finance, died just last June at 92. The culprits tried to cover up the crime, closing up the tomb behind them. But Cuccia's elderly housekeeper, still on the family payroll, visited weekly to change the flowers and noticed that the tombstone had been cracked. Police and family members were summoned and found an empty chamber but few other clues.

The Italian papers went wild, speculating that Cuccia's body had been taken by the mafia, by satanic cultists, perhaps even his own family or business associates. Only two days after the robbery, Mediobanca investors ruled against reform of an institution that has become a symbol of the secretive and undemocratic style of capitalism in postwar Italy. No one embodied that style more than Cuccia, the master puppeteer of Italian finance. After half a century under his autocratic direction, Mediobanca had gained hold of controlling or influential shares in most of Italy's major private firms, from banks and insurance companies to giants like Fiat and Montedison. He was an all-powerful, mysterious figure, but who would have wanted his body?

The hunt is on to find the grave robbers and divine their motives. Mediobanca spokesmen deny reports that the bank board held a secret meeting to discuss the scandal only hours after the crack in Cuccia's tomb was discovered. No ransom note has turned up. In the village cemetery in Meina, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, police combed the tomb for clues and announced they had a new theory, but wouldn't say what it was. "This is an investigation we have to do in the office. It's secret, completely secret," prosecutor Fabrizio Argentieri told NEWSWEEK. But he would say this: "The crime was organized well and done with a maximum of attention [to detail]. They had a purpose."

Cuccia was a holdout against the forces modernizing European finance. Italy's largest investment bank, Mediobanca is one of the few that have not merged with larger international banks. Partly as a result, critics say, Mediobanca is in a decline that accelerated with Cuccia's death. Slow to pick up on the high-tech sectors, the bank managed only three of Italy's 49 initial public offerings last year. Onetime ally Fiat, the carmaker, turned to Goldman Sachs instead of Mediobanca to do a stock deal with General Motors. And when Mediobanca suggested merging two chemical and energy companies in which it is a major shareholder, investors in one of the firms, Montedison, rejected the merger. "No one would have dared tell Cuccia the things they're telling [CEO Vincenzo] Maranghi," said one Mediobanca insider. "People had a really hard time saying no to Cuccia."

Cuccia is often lionized as the father of Italian capitalism, but he began his career as a creature of the Italian Treasury. Formed in 1946 by Italy's three largest state-owned banks to provide medium- and, later, long-term financing for industry and business, Mediobanca was led by Cuccia from the start. He managed to maintain a reputation for absolute integrity even during Tangentopoli, the scandal involving business bribes to politicians that convulsed Italy in the 1980s and '90s. Cuccia leveraged his reputation when he took Mediobanca public in 1988, with a syndicate that took 50 percent ownership and gave Cuccia virtually total control. "He was a powerful figure," said Giorgio La Malfa, leader of the Republican Party and an old friend and associate of Cuccia. "He could make a deal or prevent a deal just by saying he could not agree with that. Shareholders were happy, the bank was fruitful and they did what Mr. Cuccia wanted them to do."

Still partly state-owned, Mediobanca had an inside track in the wave of privatizations that are still transforming Italian business. But the art of the deal was everything, and Cuccia didn't hesitate to pit Mediobanca's own holdings against one another. Mediobanca first managed the privatization of Telecom Italia, and then engineered its takeover by the much smaller Olivetti computer firm. Even today, Mediobanca has major stakes in 65 firms, most of them Italian, and many of the stakes are large enough to dictate management decisions and board appointments. When he died last summer, former prime minister Giulio Andreotti remarked, "At times, he was more important than the government."

And no more popular. Socialists and communists often reviled him as a capitalist Devil incarnate. Though a Catholic himself, Cuccia's aloof exercise of power made him suspect even to the Catholic party, the Christian Democrats. Cuccia shunned politics and never gave a single interview or public speech. The only time Cuccia was even seen in public was when he walked to work every day at 7 a.m.

When his body was snatched, the mystery deepened. Neither the family nor police would comment on whether a ransom demand had been made for the body, which would not be a first for postwar Italy. (Previous targets include the corpse of Charlie Chaplin, which was recovered, and the 3-year-old son of an Italian football star, which was not.) In 1987 the body of industrialist and Mediobanca client Serafino Ferruzzi was stolen by the mafia. The $7 million ransom demand was never paid and Ferruzzi's body never returned. After Cuccia's remains were stolen, Telecom Italia chief executive and Mediobanca board member Roberto Colaninno remarked, "There is no limit to the bad in Italy."

Nor to theories about the robbery. One was that his body was taken by a satanic cult for ritual use. Another that Cuccia was a closet member of an obscure Jewish cult, the Frankists, whose members might have stolen his body. A hitherto unknown group called the Revolutionary Unemployed claimed responsibility for the "action" in a press release. An anonymous, angry investor wrote an Italian news agency to say he would return the body after the Milan stock index recovers from a low he blamed on Cuccia. Of these claims, the prosecutor Argentieri says, "We don't believe any of them very much."

Cuccia's cult of high finance behind closed doors will survive, at least for now. His designated successor Maranghi, 65, worked under Cuccia for 35 years and adopted his mentor's style. He was the only Mediobanca employee ever to visit the founder's private home or meet his family. Maranghi as chief executive has never given an interview, although he has opened a corporate press office and he doesn't walk to work. (One day last week, in the courtyard of the Mediobanca building, several retainers were busy cleaning Maranghi's black Alfa Romeo GT with feather dusters.) After the grave robbery, police investigators questioned Maranghi for three hours in the bank's elegant offices, tucked away in an alley behind the La Scala opera house, which faces the Piazzetta Enrico Cuccia. They had no comment on what Maranghi told them.

Maranghi was at the center of the struggle within Mediobanca. Perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not), two days after Cuccia's body went missing, his protege's authority was put to a vote of key shareholders. Rebuffing calls for more open rules of governance, they gave Maranghi all the authority held by Cuccia, with a few concessions to stronger shareholder oversight. Afterward a company insider called "a vote for the continuation of the setup of Cuccia's years."

Company officials insist the bank is changing fast enough. To critics who say they should expand into international markets, a spokesman asks, "Why, when Italy is one of the most lucrative markets around?" To analysts who want Mediobanca to sell its vast industrial holdings to concentrate on investment banking, they point to the deal cut last week to sell (in Euro) 1.8 billion in shares of Assicurazioni Generali, the Italian insurance giant, to French corporate raider Vincent Bollore. The money would be used to strengthen international alliances and private-banking services, leaving Maranghi firmly in control. "Yes, this is old-style capitalism," says one French source close to the deal. "But it's capitalism that works." Mediobanca underwritings of stock and bond offers are running roughly 25 percent higher this year than last. "So far they seem to be doing pretty well for a dying company," says La Malfa, noting that while London investment banks "have all been taken over by American or German banks, Mediobanca is still here."

Only the founder is gone. A Mediobanca spokesman denied any connection between the desecration of Cuccia's grave and the struggle over his legacy, and tried to downplay the frenzy over what struck many Italians as an embarrassingly medieval grave-robbing scandal. "We're Catholic," he said. "Once the body is gone, it doesn't matter where it is." Friends and associates say a mass on the first anniversary of his death will go ahead this summer. Only Mediobanca employees and Cuccia family members will be invited, and the location and timing of the memorial for Enrico Cuccia will be held in strict confidence. Just like his secretive life.