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....MUCH MORE