Short History of the Swiss Guards, Vatican, Rome
They may look almost comical, with their MC Hammer pants, enormous shoulder pads, fluffy hats and brightly coloured uniforms; but the Vatican’s Swiss Guards demand some serious respect, thank you very much. Once used to guard prominent Royal Courts, mercenaries hailing from Switzerland had a notorious reputation for fierce loyalty, optimal combating skills and unequalled discipline. While many Swiss Guards regiments existed in Europe since the mid-15th century, the Papal Order is the only one still in existence.
They may not look it, but the guards all visitors photograph on their Rome vacation are mean, lean, protective machines! Book your holiday rental apartment near the Vatican in Rome and come discover the illustrious and intriguing history of the most revered bodyguards in Italy.
Once upon a time…
Many, many moons ago (506 to be exact) Pope Julius II invited a group of renowned Swiss mercenaries to act as a kind of Papal army. Some may wonder what on earth the Vatican would need an army for, but let’s not forget that the correct name of the old Roman Empire was actually the Holy Roman Empire. The church has been at the forefront of battles (over land, subjects and so on) since its existence, and there came a point in time when the Holiest seat of all, home to not only the Pope but innumerable priceless works of art, required a little ‘safeguarding.’
Not having any wars of their own to fight, these young, virile and honourable Swiss soldiers would spend the European summers fighting wars on behalf of their neighbouring countries (old-fashioned community service?) and would retreat to their sleepy villages in winter to enjoy their remuneration. Within a century they were regarded as the most sought-after soldiers in Europe.
Nowadays, getting a post at the Vatican is not as easy as it sounds. Aside the obvious and rigorous background checks, the Swiss Guard must be a Swiss national, Catholic, unmarried, between the ages of 19 and 30, have undergone rigorous Swiss military training and be at least 174 cm tall. Once accepted, the terms of service can be as short as 2 years, and as long as 25. Now that’s devotion!
About that uniform…
Apparently, it was Raphael who decided that red, orange, blue and yellow would be complementary colours for the most respected soldiers in the country. Considering the Vatican is home to some of Raphael’s most astonishing masterpieces, we’ll forgive him this little fashion faux pas. Today’s uniform was designed in 1914, yet still carries the unmistakable Renaissance style of the original model. The modern Swiss Guard wears striped blue, yellow and red uniform, pristine white gloves and high collar, and a black beret. More functional ‘daily’ blue uniforms are used by new recruits and opulent ceremonial versions, complete with ostrich-feathered hats and pompous gear, are reserved for special ceremonies.
The Vatican tailors take about 32 hours to complete one full uniform, and the end product is made of 154 different pieces of fabric, and weighs an astonishing 3.6kgs.
The primary function of the Swiss Guards…
It is true that up until the 1980s the role of the Papal Swiss Guards was primarily ceremonial yet, after Pope John Paul II’s assassination attempt, this was severely revised to include modern combat training; and a higher priority was given to the guards’ ability to actually defend the Pope, his Home and the Vatican in general.
Visit the Vatican on your next Roman holiday and don’t forget to take the obligatory photo of the Papal Swiss Guards. You may be one of only a handful of tourists who will appreciate the noble standings of these formidable chaperones.