ROME, Italy - The guys in the striped balloon pants you see at the Vatican are part of the Pope’s private army. They belong to the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the oldest and smallest active military unit in the world. They serve as personal escorts to the pontiff, and as guards for Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo.
When you are not busy standing guard, there are inspections, drills, courses in self-defense and shooting practice. But it’s not all work. You might play in the band or be a member of the soccer team and play a game or two against the Vatican Security Corps. The one thing you won’t have to do is cook. The Albertine Sisters, Servants of God, have that covered.
In order to qualify as a guard, you must be between 19 and 30 years old, at least 5ft. 8” tall, have Swiss citizenship, be Roman Catholic and not married. You have to have completed basic military training with the Swiss Army, completed courses in body-guarding tactics and earned certificates of good conduct from an ecclesiastical, your parish priest will do, and a civil authority, like the mayor of your town.
During your two to 25 years of service, you would live in the barracks in Vatican City. During this period you will receive advanced training in self-defence, attend shooting practice, learn to speak Italian and study the organizational structure of the Vatican.
|Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer|
The 134 members of the Guard are armed with small arms and a traditional Halberd, a two-handed pole weapon popular during the 14th and 15th centuries. Back then, war was a way of life in Europe, and Italy was often under siege both from within its borders and out.
Within Italy, wars between powerful city-states were common. The Papal States, headed by the Pope, was just as aggressive as other city-states like Milan or Venice, in seeking to take over additional territory. Outside of Italy, both France and Spain, who were aware of Italy’s constant internal turmoil, saw Italy as a weak target, a ripe plum just waiting to be plucked from the tree.
In spite of the constant wars, Italy, France and Spain were relatively rich countries, while Switzerland, which borders both Italy and France, was very poor. Their only asset was the fact that, young Swiss men were willing to fight in anyone’s war. Switzerland became known as a country of mercenaries.
It’s estimated that in the early 1500’s there were about 15,000 Swiss men willing to serve as soldiers of fortune. It was a business, organized and controlled by the Confederation of Swiss Cantons (States). In return, the Confederation received corn, salt, and other commercial goods, important for a country with so few natural resources, and the men were able to support their families.
As wars were generally fought during the summer, the Swiss considered being a mercenary a summer job. They would go off and fight for a couple of months and then come home for the winter with their pay and their booty. They were very successful as mercenaries and soon earned the reputation of being the best fighting force in Europe.
The best fighting force in Europe was exactly what Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) wanted for his war against the Duke of Milan. While Pope Sixtus is remembered for commissioning the Sistine Chapel and establishing the Vatican Library, he was considered one of the most evil popes in history, and generally disliked by the Italians. He knew he couldn’t trust them to protect him, so he contracted a group of Swiss mercenaries to act as his bodyguards. They became the first Pontifical Swiss Guards.
What the Pope didn’t know and the Swiss did, was that the French King, Charles VIII, was preparing to invade Italy. They had already begun signing up to fight with him and were excited because they believed this war would last longer than just the summer. The longer the war, the more money they made.
They had guessed right. The war lasted for four years, 1494 – 1498. While that first French invasion failed, it set off a series of violent wars for control of Italy. Those wars, known now as the Italian Wars, continued for another fifty years, and didn’t end until 1559.
In the middle of the wars, Pope Sixtus died and his nephew, Cardinal della Rovere, became pope, taking the name Julius II. The year was 1503. With the Italian Wars well into their ninth year with no solution in sight, it was no surprise when Pope Julius II chose 200 Swiss mercenaries as his personal bodyguards.
In September 1505, the first contingent of 150 Swiss soldiers began their march toward Rome. They entered the city on 22 January 1506, which is used today as the official date the Papal Guard was founded.
There is no way of knowing what the swearing in ceremony was like back in 1506, but today new Guards are sworn in in the Cortile di San Damaso in the Vatican. It is the first time they get to wear the official blue, red, orange and yellow uniform that is similar to the uniforms they wore in the 16th century. Their unusual metal helmet and metal armor, however, goes back even further for they patterned after the helmets and armor worn by soldiers during the days of the Romans.
As the name of each new guard is called, he stands, holds his hand in a three finger gesture representing the Holy Trinity and repeats this oath:
"I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the see is vacant. Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!
Copyright © 2016 Phyllis Macchioni