I find crossing St Peter’s square an uplifting experience though perhaps not in the way the Lord intended since my eye is drawn to the many young, very good looking, well dressed priests who look like they should be in an Armani photo shoot. Michaelangelo would surely have appreciated these decorative elements.
Then we have the Swiss Guards in their flamboyant uniforms. I was so fascinated by their costumes the first couple of times I saw them that I didn’t even wonder why there were Swiss Guards in the Vatican in the first place. Well, it turns out that in the 15th century, Swiss Guards were mercenaries who were excellent soldiers and very much in demand in France and Spain. They also had a strong presence during the Italian Wars. Prior to 1860, Italy was not unified and consisted of a collection of fiefdoms, including the Vatican, vying for power. In 1506, Pope Julius II welcomed 150 Swiss Guards to the Vatican who were to act as his personal bodyguard and new army. This tradition has continued to this day where the Swiss Guards, who now number about 100 men, are responsible for the protection of the Pope and the security of the Apostolic Palace.
Military uniforms had a variety of styles before the 1900’s but by the end of the first world war, most armies had swapped their finery for stealth gear for everyday use i.e. the khaki and grey uniforms we see today. But not the Swiss Guards! They still wear the blue, yellow and red Medici colours and a beret for everyday use, while ceremonial occasions call for a white helmet with a red feathered plume. The uniform is composed of 154 pieces and weighs 8 lbs. So the question is: can they really fight wearing these heavy pantaloons? The answer is ‘Yes’, they are fully capable of fighting in their ceremonial dress and have access to pistols, guns and MK5 machine guns. So it’s not all feathers and frippery!
Interestingly, just a couple of days ago, I saw guards at the Port Sant’Anna entrance near Borgo Pio wearing simple, plain, blue uniforms. This is the only entrance to the Vatican that lets in cars and I saw somewhere that the guards at this entrance often wear the simple uniform because the ceremonial one, with its 154 pieces tends to get caught in car wing mirrors since the road is so narrow. Somehow, I don’t think this could possibly be true!