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Jan 22 - Swiss Guard arrive at Vatican

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Today in 1506 the first contingent of 150 Swiss Guards arrives at the Vatican.

Why did they arrive? How have their responsibilities changed? What is the story behind their flamboyant uniform? Was it really designed by Michelangelo?

Todays pod hopes to explain all these things.


Pope Julius II in 1503, had asked the Swiss Diet to provide him with a constant corps of 200 Swiss mercenaries., made possible through the financing of German merchants. The need to protect the Pope was pressing in a time of shifting alliances and local wars. Italy itself was only to become a unified kingdom in 1861, and until then was a collection of often feuding states, including the papal states. There was no clear distinction between spiritual power and temporal power. In the words of Ulrich Zwingli "The Swiss see the sad situation of the Church of God, Mother of Christianity, and realize how grave and dangerous it is that any tyrant, avid for wealth, can assault with impunity, the common Mother of Christianity," It is ironic that Zwingli would later become a prominent reformer and critic of the Pope, .another sign of the volatility of the time (for more on Zwingli see the Pod of Jan 17th). Pope Julius II later granted the Swiss Guard with the title "Defenders of the Church's freedom". Ad slightly different title than ‘Defender of the Faith’ which had been given to England’s Henry VIII, and is still on the reverse of all British coinage.

In September 1505, the first contingent of 150 soldiers started their march towards Rome, under the command of Kaspar von Silenen, and entered the city, today, on 22 January 1506, now given as the official date of the Swiss Guard's foundation. Famous for their colourful uniforms of blue, red, orange and yellow with a distinctly Renaissance appearance. It is a widely held myth that they were designed by Michelangelo, they were in fact introduced by commandant Jules Repond in 1914 although his design was inspired by 16th-century depictions of the Swiss Guard. Headwear is typically a large black beret for daily duties, while a black or silver helmet with red, white, yellow, black, and purple ostrich feathers for ceremonial duties. The commissioned officers (captains, major, vice-commander and commander) are distinguished by a completely red uniform with a different style of breeches, and golden embroidery on the sleeves and a longer sword. The tailors of the Swiss Guard work inside the Vatican barracks and the uniform may be the heaviest and most complicated uniform in use by any standing army today. A single uniform requires 154 pieces and takes nearly 32 hours and 3 fittings to complete.

Since the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, a much stronger emphasis has been placed on the non-ceremonial roles, and enhanced training in unarmed combat and small arms is now prioritised. Recruits to the guards must be unmarried Swiss Catholic males between 19 and 30 years of age who have completed basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces. They work closely with the Vatican’s police or security force, Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State. In a sign of the change of security threats the Gendarmerie is led by Gianluca Gauzzi Broccoletti, a cybersecurity expert. The Swiss Guard in their function as bodyguards are equipped with the SIG Sauer P220 pistol and the SIG SG 550 rifle also in use by the Swiss Army. As they have passed basic military training in Switzerland, they are already familiar with these weapons when they begin their service. The pepper spray used by the Swiss Army (RSG-2000) is also in use. The Glock 19 pistol and Heckler & Koch MP7 submachine gun are reportedly also carried by Swiss Guard members in their function as plainclothes bodyguards.


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