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Vatican's Swiss Guards

May 08, 1988|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author and journalist living in Vienna

VATICAN CITY — About 8 million tourists and pilgrims, swarming to Rome for the Second Marian Year that ends Aug. 15, will not overlook a chance to ogle the world's most picturesque army--the Swiss Guards.

Held in fascination by the masses virtually every day (especially during big tourist months), the Swiss Guards are perhaps the world's most photographed soldiers, with nonstop cameras going clickety-click.

Brandishing a seven-foot pike or halberd, the men in those colorful uniforms, who look like toy soldiers, have the job of guarding the State of Vatican City and the VIP who sits at its head.

They compose the most famous army in the world--and it's no small wonder that thousands of tourists every week seek to have their picture taken alongside one of these papal protectors standing vigil at each of the three main entrances into the Vatican.

In addition to their duties in public, the guards patrol the Apostolic Palace corridor just outside the papal apartments 24 hours a day, and when the Pope goes in or out, the sentinel on duty gives a snappy salute on bended knee. The guards also do duty in the palace at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome where Popes usually spend the summer months.

But what is behind the Pope's glamorous personal army? Are those men in uniform really trained professional soldiers?

Designed by a Seamstress

Contrary to what most tourist guides tell visitors, the uniform of the Swiss Guards--with the slashed bouffant sleeves, striped doublet and hose, all in gold, white, red, yellow and blue--was not designed by Michelangelo. Nor by Raffaello.

Worn for the first time in 1914, the apparel was designed by an unknown Vatican seamstress who surpassed herself when Pope Benedict XV asked her to create a ceremonial attire for his Swiss soldiers.

The puffy sleeves idea, however, goes back to the middle of the 16th Century and may have been inspired by a Raffaello painting, from a design he copied that was then the style in France.

The Swiss Guards were founded in the 16th Century by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who, while Bishop of Lausanne, was so impressed by Switzerland's soldiers that he advised Pope Sixtus IV to sign an alliance with some Swiss cantons.

After Cardinal della Rovere became Pope Julius II, he brought in 150 Swiss soldiers in January, 1506, when the first stone of St. Peter's Basilica was laid. That makes the Swiss Guards the oldest military corps in existence.

Like other volunteer armies today, the Swiss Guards have a tough time finding enough recruits to keep their complement at 100.

Newcomers must be between 18 and 25 years old, about 6 feet tall, and must sign a contract to serve a two-year tour of duty. Few of them re-enlist, although some stay on for as long as 30 years.

Pay is low, work is monotonous, discipline is apparently the toughest of any army anywhere, private life is almost impossible, hours are too long and duty always includes Sundays.

No Wives Allowed

The men are not permitted to marry while in the service. Nor are they allowed to bring women friends into the Vatican for social visits. Most of their free time is given over to the required study of the Italian language and to technical and commercial courses to prepare them for a future as civilians.

Sworn to protect the life of the Pope at the risk of their own, the Swiss Guards narrowly escaped annihilation on the steps of St. Peter's during the sack of Rome in May, 1527, when 1,000 German and Spanish soldiers stormed the Vatican.

Three-quarters of the Swiss complement was destroyed, altogether 147 men, including the commanding officer (the invaders lost more than 800 soldiers). The remaining 42 guards protected Pope Clement VII and 13 of his cardinals as they fled along Vatican ramparts into the impregnable Castel Sant'Angelo fortress.

Since the 1527 fight the Swiss Guards have not had to fight any battles, but on several occasions have had to lay down their arms on papal orders rather than face extermination. This happened when Napoleon, during his invasion of Rome, carried the Pope off to France.

Firearms Stored

In World War II, Pope Pius XII made the guards store their firearms (all guns were later abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1970), so they patrolled the frontier between Vatican City and Italy with only their combination spear/battle-axes while ready to face Nazi Germany's Panzer tanks that never once crossed the border.

It was one of World War II's most curious sights to see the heavily armed, efficient Nazi troops stand by rather sheepishly as a lone Swiss Guard patrolled up and down with a hand weapon from bygone days.

A story that guards like to tell is the one about the coronation of Clement XIII in 1758. On that occasion some Swiss Guards turned away a Franciscan friar who did not seem to them to fit in with all the cardinals and dignitaries on hand.

Eleven years later, after that same ex-friar had been crowned Pope Clement XIV, he said: "I enjoyed this coronation. This time the Swiss Guards let me in!"

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