The Swiss Guards: still one of the Vatican’s tourist draws
The Vatican’s Swiss Guards are popular all over the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for their colorful yellow, red and blue striped uniforms, nipped at the waist, with puffy sleeves, and billowing pantaloons, their helmets adorned with crimson plumes. They resemble no other army anywhere.
And brandishing seven-foot pikes known as the halberd, their expressions implacable, they appear formidable despite their festive wardrobe. The Guards patrol the Apostolic Palace, home of the Pope, 24/7. When the Pope passes them, his sentinels stand at attention to salute: His Holiness’ safety is their primary purpose.
Popular lore suggests that Michelangelo designed the flamboyant outfit. This, it turns out, is a myth. According to the Vatican website, when Swiss soldiers first arrived in Rome to protect the Pope, there was no mention of their garb and, it can be assumed, they dressed like soldiers of that period.
However, the website goes on to point out, “… it is quite certain that those Swiss Guards were shod and dressed, ‘vestiti usque ad calceas,’ at the Pope’s expense; they probably wore the white cross of Switzerland or the Papal crossed keys sewn on their chest. Their weapons were the halberd and the broadsword and their shoulders, chest and arms were protected with metal armor.
In the 16th century, soldiers usually wore a doublet or jacket, fitted at the waist and ending in a point at the front that went under the belt. Or otherwise they wore a longer doublet that reached to the knee.
Both the short and long doublet had no collar and the neck was usually left uncovered as can be seen in a miniature kept in the Vatican Library. The puffed parts of the sleeves and breeches were at times decorated with colored bands of material attached only at two extremes. Often these different colored bands were used by the mercenary captains to distinguish one company from another. The soldiers usually wore stocking to the knees.
The Swiss Guards owe their existence to Pope Julius II — as a papal aide, the Swiss warriors so impressed him that in 1478 he convinced Pope Pius to sign an alliance with the Swiss. Later, as Pope Julius II, he brought in 200 men in January 21, 1506, the year the first stone of the new St. Peter’s Basilica was laid.
The Swiss Guards are the world’s smallest military corps, one with very exacting stipulations that must be met to join the ranks. Today, numbering 110 men, the Swiss Guards may still be the world’s smallest army. Recruits must be between 19 and 30 years old, at least 174 cm tall and must agree to a two-year tour of duty. Additionally, potential Vatican soldiers must be Swiss citizens who attended military school in their native country; they must be observant, unmarried Catholics, of a good moral and ethical background with either a professional diploma or high school degree, per the Vatican website.
The papal Swiss Guard tradition has been marching on for nearly 500 years — making it the oldest, continually active military corps in history. Many tourists see the Swiss Guards as the perfect backdrop for a souvenir snapshot. Some even try their best to break the stoic seriousness of the guards not realizing that they ate not just for show but were highly trained for any emergency.
You don’t see them slouching or hanging around or smoking a cigarette like a carabinieri (Italian military police) as they take their jobs very seriously and bring great commitment to it. Enduring 24-hour shifts, most Swiss Guards find their greatest battle is putting up with thousands of tourists asking the same questions: “Is there a bathroom?” “Which way to the museum?” and “Why can’t I see the Pope?”
The Sack of Rome
The sack of Rome in 1527 marked the bloodiest day in Swiss Guard history when 147 Swiss Guards lost their lives defending Pope Clement. Only 42 guards survived. Wielding nothing but Renaissance weaponry, this tiny army kept Nazi soldiers out of Vatican City as Germany occupied Rome during World War II.
The last time the Swiss Guards ever lost to an invader was in 1798 when Napoleon swept through, disarmed and disbanded the corps and abducted two popes in two years. One of those popes, Pius VI, died in captivity. After that, the guard’s record is impeccable, keeping popes and papal territory safe and protected since their troops regrouped in 1800.It was an undercover Swiss Guard who helped shield Pope John Paul II during the assassination attempt against his life May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square.
Perhaps the darkest moment in the Guard’s history occurred in 1998 when its former commander, Col. Alois Estermann, and his wife, were murdered by a disgruntled corpsman, Cedric Tornay, who then turned the gun on himself. Pope Julius II formally requested the service of Swiss mercenaries — famed for their courage and loyalty — in June 1505. Just three months later, a regiment left Switzerland and headed on foot for Rome. One hundred and fifty Swiss soldiers arrived at the Vatican Jan. 22, 1506, the day that marks the official founding of the corps.
(The Swiss Guards figure prominently in the movie “Angels & Demons” opening across the Philippines on Friday, May 15. It is distributed by Columbia Pictures, local office of Sony Pictures Releasing International.)