The other day I was passing by Porta Angelica and I noticed four very handsome man- tall, polished, and with beautiful faces. Of course I stared at them. Conveniently the light turned red, so we had to stop in the same intersection. I heard them speaking in German, then they switched to English, and ended in Italian. They were discussing whether to go for sushi at Konnichi Wa or just to go to an Italian restaurant. I thought they seemed charming and smart, and apparently very familiar with the area.
It wasn’t until after the light turned green and we began walking in different directions when I realized who these men were. They were Swiss Guards, the colorfully-dressed men who protect Vatican City. So who are this people, why do they wear those iconic uniforms, and why are they called ‘Swiss Guards’?
I did a little research, and I found some interesting facts about them that I would like to share with you!
- Long term tradition. Swiss soldiers began guarding Vatican City in 1506. At the time Swiss Cantons were very poor, and men started emigrating to other places in hopes of finding a better future. Most of the jobs available to immigrants were as soldiers. Swiss soldiers were seen as loyal, courageous, and hard-working, and as a result Pope Julius II invited them to protect him and the Vatican.
- Proof of Loyalty. The battle of the Sack of Rome occurred in May 6th, 1527 between the Spanish Catholics, Charles V, and Charles III of Bourbon (so it included Spain, France, and Italy). The armies were destroying everything in their paths across the city, and when they attacked the Gianicolo hill and approached the Vatican walls, the Swiss soldiers directed and protected the Pope to Castel Sant’ Angelo through the underground passages. Most of the Swiss guards were killed in this battle, and due to their heroic sacrifice the pope placed his trust in them and they have continued guarding the Vatican ever since.
- Recruitment. Since I mentioned above, May 6th was and still is today an important day for the Swiss Guard. This is why it is still the day when the new guards make their oath to be part of this army.
- Requirements. It is quite difficult to become part of this group of men. In order to become a Swiss guard, one must be: a man, between 19 – 30 years old, Roman Catholic, a Swiss citizen, unmarried, trained by the Swiss military, and at least 1.75 meters height.
- Who designed the uniform? It is believed that Michelangelo designed the original uniform, but evidence shows that it was modified in recent years by Jules Repond.
- Heaviest military uniform today! The Swiss guards have the heaviest and most complex uniform in today’s army. The uniform itself comprises 154 pieces, and it is taylor-made to each guard.
- What do they do? The guards take turns in their assignments. 2/3 of the guards in duty are in charge of protecting and guarding the entrances of the Vatican, while the rest act as a “secret service” team for the Pope in Rome and when he travels abroad. If you get to attend a Wednesday Papal audience, the Pope drives around while guarded by men dressed in suits. These men are still part of the Swiss guard; they just don’t wear the colorful uniforms because of protocols and because it is easier to move.
- Other activities. The guards are given free days and vacations when they are free to do as they wish, but since they spend much time with each other, they have created various extracurricular groups together such as sports teams, a choir, and a band.
- Do they get paid? Just like with any other job, they do get paid for their service. The starting salary is around €15,600 which provides for basic needs, and with time this salary can be increased.
- The smallest army in the world! Between 110 to 125 soldiers are part of this army, making it the smallest in the world.
Victoria Barreda de Alba
International Business Major
Class of 2017
Hometown: Reynosa, Mexico