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Anime geeks may already be acquainted with the series known as Lupin the Third. In it, a classy male burglar and his team of bandits work together to steal priceless goods. There's hijinks, hilarity, and once in a while, touching moments, too.
The character of Lupin has remained extremely popular in otaku culture, even though the manga is decades old—and much of that deals with the dashing persona that the titular character has. Lupin III himself was supposed to be the Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief best known from Maurice Leblanc's novels.
The trope of the Gentleman Thief is one that appears too good to be true. Real life couldn't possibly have thieves that are sophisticated, charming, witty, and oddly moral while also being adept at theft, could it?
Not too long ago, there was a real-life version of a Gentleman Thief. His name was Vincenzo Pipino, and he was only recently arrested on unrelated charges.
From Very Humble Beginnings
Vincenzo Pipino was not a wealthy man.
He was born in Venice after World War II, to a struggling family who often had a hard time finding food to eat. He was one of five children in his family—the oldest, to be precise.
Like other young children after the war, Vincenzo found himself in a world that was best described as anarchy. There was little parental supervision to go around and even less discipline.
To pass the time, he'd hide in alleyways and explore the city streets with his siblings. And, they'd get hungry. Vincenzo quickly noticed that he was adept at stealing food from wealthy diners' plates when they were eating at outdoor bistros.
It didn't take long for police to recognize Vincenzo's antics and start chasing him through the floating city's streets. The adults may have been fast, but Vincenzo always remained more agile.
Within a matter of years, Vincenzo's speedy hands and runner's legs made it easy for him to become a master pickpocket. He'd regularly spend nights outside, looking for ways to steal and perfect his craft.
His brother Alfredo was also known for his speedy hands—but unlike Vincenzo, he used his hands for magic tricks. Once in a while, Alfredo would tutor his brother to become better at feats that required slight of hand.
It wasn't that Alfredo didn't have a desire to join Vincenzo on his exploits; it was that he just didn't have the talent it took to be a runner. Alfredo said it best:
"I was born to be a magician. Vincenzo was born to be a thief." —Alfredo Pipino
The Golden Leg
Vincenzo's mother was not pleased about her son's thieving prowess—and really, what parent would be? Being a crafty mother, she decided to use her son's fear of ghosts to try to dissuade him from staying out on the streets of Venice and stealing.
So, she claimed that their apartment building was haunted by a neighbor who tripped on a stair from a bad leg. The ghost, which she called Gamba D’Oro (or the Golden Leg), would glow in the dark and catch boys who were out too late.
Vincenzo, being an outside-the-box thinker, decided that he should avoid the Golden Leg ghost by scaling the side of the building to get into his home. And so, he became an expert climber.
Venice's Robin Hood
Most modern-day thieves are interested in one (and only one) person: themselves. But, not Pipino. Even from a young age, he would give his spoils to people who weren't as well-off or would actively seek out people who could afford to lose some items.
When he was a teenager in the 1960s, he'd sell movie tickets he stole for cheap so that local kids would be able to see films. By the early 1990s, he acted as a burglar who would steal from Venice's wealthy, then resell his stolen goods to them in order to raise money for the poor, as well as himself.
If this sounds like a modern-day Robin Hood tale, that's because it was. And unlike most other men who tried it, Pipino managed to somehow strike a very careful balance between the rich, the mafia, and the police who tried to catch him.
A Moral Code Unlike Any Other
Part of the reason why Pipino was able to get away with his thefts was his moral code. You see, Vincenzo Pipino held himself to a very strict code that was designed to reduce the damage that his actions caused and keep Venice's overall economy intact.
When he would break into the wealthy's homes, Pipino would make a point not to make a mess. He even was known for pouring out sugar on a napkin rather than letting it spill on the floor.
In terms of his target heists, Pipino was equally picky. He wouldn't steal any item that was broken, out of concern that it could cause repairmen in the Venice area to lose business. He also wouldn't steal from the poor.
Any truly priceless artifacts would also find their way back to the homes they were stolen from—if the victims chose to buy it or if Pipino himself wanted to be charitable.
Hired By The Rich
Believe it or not, this gentleman burglar wasn't acting on his own most of the time. Many aristocrats hired him to rob others in their circle! Some of his clients included Count Barozzi, who was known throughout Venice for his incredibly large art collection.
At one point, being robbed by Vincenzo Pipino was seen as a compliment by the rich of Venice. The police, knowing that it was seen as a sign of good taste to be robbed by him, had an unspoken agreement with him about catching him.
Loved By Police
By duty alone, the police were supposed to hate Pipino.
He was breaking into peoples' homes and stealing from them, in broad daylight. However, his charming demeanor, "no harm, no foul" style of thieving, and mellow outlook on life made it hard for people to hate him—cops included.
It was the police's job to catch him, but that doesn't mean that they went out of their way to do so. In fact, many befriended him because his personality shone that much.
One such man was a very frustrated Detective Antonio Palmosi. The two were known to drink coffee together, taunt one another, and also act as frenemies. Palmosi still doggedly tried to catch Pipino in the act, but never could.
He Had Favorite Thefts
During his adult life, he was mostly known for stealing priceless artwork from the rich and famous. However, art wasn't his favorite item to take. If there was one thing that Pipino loved, it was fine clothing.
The people of Venice got fairly used to seeing his dapper figure leaving on a getaway boat, hands filled with cashmere and other fine baubles. To a point, it became an ongoing joke!
Mafia Pressure And The Impossible Job
It goes without saying that the local mafia, Mala del Brenta, would eventually take notice of Pipino's thieving prowess and recruit him as one of their own. However, Pipino wasn't comfortable with working for them—and that angered them.
The mafia is notoriously violent and the items that they took rarely, if ever, came back into the hands of those who were robbed. If Pipino worked with them, it would undoubtedly ruin the careful balance he cultivated between the police, the rich, and the mafia.
If he refused, he could be killed. If he agreed, this would lead to his career being ruined. How could the Gentleman Thief of Venice balance things out?
Vincenzo Pipino realized that he was literally outgunned when it came to the mafia. He couldn't say no—but he could perform a heist that would make the mafia approve of him and let him go with their blessing. So, he approached local mafiosos and claimed he had a plan.
What that plan was, was beyond anything anyone ever expected. He explained that he would do a solo mission, and that his target would be kept a special secret.
His Greatest Target Yet
The Palazzo Ducale, also known as Doge's Palace, was one of the most beautiful museums of Venice. It also happened to be one of the most heavily guarded in Italy.
Pepino didn't just target any painting. His mission was to steal the Madonna col Bambino—a national symbol that spoke of Venice's divine power. Like a true gentleman, he knew that this heist was going to be extremely high risk.
Knowing this, he went alone.
To start his grand heist, Vincenzo Pipino joined a large tour group in the Palazzo Ducale. As the tour commenced through the palace's prison area, he lagged behind and eventually hid in a small, little-noticed corner of the prison. There, he stayed until the palace closed for visitors.
He stayed in the cold, damp dark, alone, for hours until the coast was clear. Considering his fear of ghosts and darkness, this was a serious feat for Pipino. As he noticed the guards making their rounds every 45 minutes, he realized when it was time to strike.
The room with the painting had just enough marble columns and shelves for Pipino to hide—but the painting itself hung about 14 feet in the air. Though he had some close calls with guards, he was able to use a ladder from a nearby custodial closet and a scraper to pry the painting off the wall.
He carefully made his way out of the Palazzo, then delivered the goods to the local mafia. Within hours, a janitor discovered that the Madonna col Bambino went missing, and Detective Palmosi was sent to investigate.
A heist like this was likened to taking the US Constitution from the Washington D.C. Capitol building. It seemed almost impossible. It was clear from the start that it was the work of none other than Pipino himself.
And Now, To Bring It Back
This heist was not something that the police or the wealthy could tolerate. This was no longer something that was harmless; it was the theft of one of Venice's most prized symbols. It was a national tragedy and was treated like such.
Palmosi met with Pepino in their usual cafe, and calmly explained to him that he would be going away for a very long time if the painting was not returned. There was no negotiation; it would happen. Palmosi gave him 20 days to return the painting.
The house where the painting remained was guarded by two large tigers, not to mention multiple mafioso guards that packed plenty of heat. To get police to forgive him, Pepino would have to forge a copy, break into the house where it was placed, bypass the tigers, and switch the paintings.
If anything, it seemed like an impossible mission. But could he do it?
The Return of the Madonna
No one really knows how the final heist happened, but the painting eventually found its way into the hands of law enforcement in the midnight hours.
Though Pepino himself claims that he was not responsible for the return of the painting, the sedated tigers and Palmosi's accounts suggest otherwise.
The final act of Vincenzo Pepino's wild thieving career remains a mystery—even if he published a book about it in 2010. With a man like him, it's hard to parse the truth from the fiction. Much like Lupin the Third, Pepino's tale is one that's larger than life.
How did he do it? Did he do it, or did he negotiate with the mafia to get it back? The world may never know.