In the world of personal security work, it’s rare to see bodyguards taking risks with their wardrobe. Black is, well, the new black, whether it’s for a dull suit for members of a presidential detail or a tight-fitting T-shirt for a beefy chaperon whose task is to shield pop stars from the paparazzi. But the guardians of Pope Benedict XVI, spiritual leader to a billion followers, aren’t ones to shun the sartorial spotlight.
Few visitors to the Vatican can resist snapping a picture of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, the volunteer corps that for five centuries has protected the landlocked microstate and its head of state from invasion. The elaborate tri-colour livery, complete with breeches, of the 110-man unit is not the average warrior’s outfit. “There are 154 pieces of fabric in all, four times that of an average suit, plus the buttons, 44 in all,” says tailor Ety Cicioni, 41, while showing off a tiny red cross he has stitched on a guard’s jacket button.
Since 1997, Cicioni, together with a pair of assistants, has been in charge of making the contingent’s uniforms from scratch. “When I was hired, I had nothing to go on since the previous tailors, a husband-and-wife team, left no patterns. So I took a uniform home and deconstructed it to learn the ins and outs.” From the buttoned gaiters to the beret, Cicioni reverse engineered the ensemble and got to work sizing up new arrivals. Every four months, 12 recruits arrive and within a month each will need a made-to-measure uniform.
Trainees at the start of their 25-month tour of duty initially make do with the night uniform, a simpler deep blue take on the dress uniform – the public can see this version at the heavily trafficked Sant’Anna gate, where soldiers check vehicles and pedestrians entering the Vatican grounds on business. “Tourists love to take pictures of the guardsmen but if they wore the dress uniform here it would create chaos,” says Captain Lorenzo Merga, a 17-year veteran.
During their service, soldiers are supplied with a formal winter and summer uniform. Each requires 32 hours of work and three fittings to complete. “It’s done by hand ‘Made in Vatican’ would be written on the label if we had one,” says Cicioni, fiddling with his Italian flag tape measure. “Each must be perfect since it is seen by a lot of people, not to mention the Holy Father.”
Dress shoes, meanwhile, are produced in standard sizes and sourced from Montegranaro in the Marche region, a town with a decades-old manufacturing tradition for elegant footwear. Pairs of black leather lace-ups and half boots come with sturdy soles to survive the many heel-clicking salutes and the slippery stone surfaces when the weather turns wet.
While the uniform appears unchanged since the Renaissance, the current version is based on a restyling done in 1914 when the then acting commandant of the guards decided to freshen up the drab red and black ensemble. For the doublet-style jacket and short trousers he chose blue and yellow stripes and a splash of red detailing, colours taken from the coat of arms of the Rovere and Medici families, whose members served as pontiffs in the early years of the corps’ existence. Fancy headgear was substituted with a simple pleated Basque beret. To lighten the load, the gorget around the neck was replaced. In its place today is a simple detachable plissé collar made of stiff cotton. Still, weight is a nagging problem for Cicioni. “It would be great to have super fine fabric for the summer heat but I need something durable otherwise the uniform won’t hold up.”
Sourced from Biella, Italy’s fine textile capital, the garment’s wool alone weighs 3kg. Added to this is another 2kg for the dress sword and belt, with its brass buckle and fasteners, while at Christmas and Easter ceremonial armour and a helmet topped with dyed ostrich feathers is required.
Standing in his Vatican atelier, conveniently located in the guards’ barracks, Cicioni gives the once-over to the uniform of Vice-Corporal Fabio Bortoluzzi. Sensitive points for wear include under the arms from repeated saluting, especially for low-ranking soldiers who carry halberds – troops also train with modern weaponry, using the same Swiss firearms encountered during mandatory military service in their homeland.
On duty in his wool attire, a stone-faced Bortoluzzi, who hails from the Bernese Oberland, does not appear bothered by the 30c temperatures outside. At ease, he quickly admits: “It’s not Switzerland but you get used to it.”
The Pontifical Swiss Guards is the closest the Vatican has to a standing army. Formed in 1506 by Pope Julius II, the hiring of Swiss mercenaries for protection was not an uncommon practice at that time. In 1527, the corps distinguished itself during the sack of Rome, with many guardsmen giving their lives to save Pope Clement VII – each year on 6 May, the battle’s anniversary, new members are sworn in. Candidates must be Catholic, single males of Swiss nationality.