The Noble Guards, the Palatine Guards, the Papal Gensdarmes, and the Swiss Guard, were all that remained by 1900 of the military forces of the Popes. Founded by Scipio Africanus about the beginning of the Christian era, Caesar Augustus seems to have been the first to organize them into an Imperial Guard, stationed at the palace. For three centuries they swayed the fortunes and fates of successive Emperors. From a select body of some 10,000 native Romans, ostensibly raised to protect the Imperial city and the Emperor, they were increased to 50,000, and becoming absolutely uncontrolled, deposed, murdered and elected Emperors, on two or three occasions even going so far as to put up the imperial dignity to the highest bidder (a.d. 193). Whether we can regard them as a body guard is doubtful. When their numbers were increased, they were assigned a fortified camp and their presence at the palace was not in any sense desired. It is true that they took some of their protegees under their own protection, and even revenged the murder of one. However, that does not entitle them to a claim as a personal guard. In the fourth century they were reduced, assigned to a camp outside the walls, and about the year 330 the Emperor Constantino, after a severe struggle, finally disbanded them.
The Palatine Guard contended that their history went back farther than that of the Swiss. A point that has never been settled and to avoid rivalry the Commander of the Palatine Guard and the Colonel of the Swiss Guard walk on each side of the Pope's litter, or sedia gestatoria, in the processional. The Palatine Guards was one of the largest regiments of the Papal army and was recruited from families of good standing in the neighborhood of the Vatican. The regiment consisted of four companies of sixty men armed with bayonetted rifles. Their principal duty was to keep back the crowd during processions and ceremonies, when the Pope goes to the Sistine Chapel, or to St. Peter's.
The Palace Gendarmes were called Carabinieri by their founder, Pope Pius VII and were raised in 1815. He copied their uniform from the French guards. They comprised about 100 privates and have a very striking full dress uniform with bearskin shakos, gauntlets and shining jack boots. They are to be seen everywhere in the Vatican mounting guard in the gardens, loggias and museums. The Gardia Nobile, or Noble Guards, were scions of patrician families. One of the requirements of enlistment is that their forefathers shall have been nobles for thirteen generations. Their origin is to be traced to Paul IV who organized 100 men of the best families into the Cavalli Leggieri. The Gardia Nobile consisted of 75 men; 2 captains, a lieutenant, sub-lieutenant, 7 essenti, 2 corporals and 2 sergeants, 2 trumpeters and 50 guards, probably the most officered small body in the world.
The Pope's "Guardia Nobile" was one of the few survivals of those companies of gentlemen troopers who were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the ornament and the defence of all the royal courts of Europe. The Company dates back its origin to the year 1485, in the Pontificate of Innocent VIII., whose father, the Cardinal Aran Cibo is credited with the institution of the first Papal Company of Guards. The Noble Guards, a creation of Pius VII, were recruited from that portion of the Roman nobility which had not deserted the Papal Court for the Court of the King. This corps consisted of a Captain-Commandant (Lieut .-General Prince Rospigliosi, in 1907); an hereditary Standard-Bearer of the Santa Romana Chiesa (Lieut .-General the Marchese Filippo Naro Patrizi Montoro, in 1907) ; two lieutenants, who are also Brigadier-Generals ; a supernumerary Lieutenant (the late Pope's nephew, Brigadier-General Count Camillo Pecci di Carpineto, in 1907); an honorary Sub-Lieutenant, who was also a Brigadier-General; nine Esenti, with the rank of Colonel; and forty-eight Noble Guards. They were the original bodyguard of the Pope ; they rode beside his carriage, accompanied him on his journeys, and attended state functions.
In 1505 Pope Julius II made an arrangement with the Cantons of Zurich and Lucerne, by which they provided him with a guard of 250 men, the present " Guardia Svizzera Pontificia." The Swiss have always been associated with the defence of the Papacy, and a guard of Swiss were quartered in the Vatican in the Pontificate of Nicholas V. (1447-55). The documents and traditions of the Vatican, however, assign the origin of the present bodyguard to the pontificate of Julius II. In the attack on Rome, 1527, they were nearly all killed, some actually falling before the altar of St. Peter's. They are still quartered at the Vatican, and wear their distinctive dress.
For more than five hundred years the Swiss Guard have been the chief military force of the Popes. They are commanded by a Captain-Commandant (Colonel the Barone Leopold Meyer de Schauensee , in 1907); a Lieutenant, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel; and a SubLieutenant, with the rank of Major; and they are a hundred and twenty in number. They always mount guard in three places-the Portone di Bronzo, at the Bronze Doors, where the Vatican is entered from the Piazza of St. Peter's ; at the Cortile della Sentinella, on the right turning out of the Cortile del Forno to ascend the hill which leads to the entrance of the Sculpture Gallery ; and in the grand antechamber of the apartments of the Pope. At the Bronze Door a sentry is on guard, and a dozen others hanging about, unless the approach of a high ecclesiastical dignitary or an Ambassador to the Papal See is signalled, when they fall in and salute.
The Barrack of the Swiss Guard is in the back part of the Vatican, behind St. Peter's, in the courtyard entered between the Sistine Chapel and the Borgia Rooms. Close by this in a very narrow space the dual monarchy which existed at Rome after 1870 was strikingly en evidence. There is a sort of square, with a fountain in the middle, at the back of St. Peter's, which is called the Cortile del Forno, at the end of which is the Courtyard of the Vatican, known as the Cortile della Sentinella, with a gate guarded by the Swiss, the only point at which you can drive into the Vatican. On the other side of the road, which leads up to the Sculpture Gallery and Gardens, on a little hill, is the Zecca, the ancient Mint of the Popes. This was the only piece of Italian territory within the Vatican precincts. On its terrace were the superb Carabinieri of the King ; the resolute and active men, lions of strength and bravery, who show the fibre of which the Romans, who conquered the world, were made. The soldiers of the Pope and the soldiers of the King had been facing each other here, almost at bayonet's length, for many years.
When the Swiss Guard was recruited to its full strength there were about 300 men commanded by a colonel, a captain, a lieutenant, six sergeants and six corporals. The Guard today consists of 5 officers, 25 NCOs and 70 halberdiers. Only unmarried Swiss males of the Catholic faith - historically, mainly from the four original Swiss cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Luzern) and Valais - are eligible for serviece. Moreover, they must all be between 19 and 30 years of age, at least 174 cm tall and must have fulfilled their basic military training in the Swiss Army. They are privately contracted for this special Foreign Service for at least two years.
The Swiss Guard wear a uniform as wonderful in its riot of color as an old fashioned bed-quilt with stripes of black, yellow and red. There is a legend that Michael Angelo who designed the uniform may have enjoyed himself at their expense. The Guards' Renaissance-style uniform dates from 1915, and was not designed by Michelangelo as the popular myth would have us believe. The dress has not remained unaltered over the centuries, though the attractive attire that they wear today can be traced back to a designer. In the chronicles telling of the welcome given by Pope Julius 11 on January 22nd, 1506, to the first Swiss Guards, there is nothing referring to their dress, and this would seem almost certainly to indicate that they were dressed like any other soldiers of that time, when, it must also be said, there was no such thing as a military uniform. However it is quite certain that those Swiss Guards were shod and dressed, "vestiti usque ad calceas" at the Pope's expense; they probably wore the white cross of Switzerland or the Papal crossed Keys sewn on their chest. Their weapons were the halberd and the broadsword and their shoulders, chest and arms were protected with metal armor.
In the 16th century, soldiers usually wore a doublet or jacket, fitted at the waist and ending in a point at the front that went under the belt. Or otherwise they wore a longer doublet that reached to the knee. Both the short and long doublet had no collar, and the neck was usually left uncovered as can be seen in a miniature kept in the Vatican Library, of Julius II's entry into Bologna, where von Silenen is shown bare-necked. The puffed parts of the sleeves and breeches were at times decorated with coloured bands of material, attached only at the two extremes. Often these different coloured bands were used by the mercenary captains to distinguish one company from another. The soldiers usually wore stockings to the knees.
In another painting, "The Flight of Elidor", also in the Vatican, Raffaello shows a group of soldiers of the Swiss Guard around Julius II. They are dressed in wide knee-length breeches and a hiplength doublet, the typical dress in Rome of those days and indeed all over Italy. Besides the "saio", a long doublet, the men also sometimes wore a "saione", an even longer garment. For protection against rain and cold, a black cloth cape was worn. It was sleeveless, open at the sides and held in position with a blue cord, and covered back and front, as can be seen in the fresco of Pius III's coronation by Pinturicchio in the Library of Siena Cathedral.
The metal helmet was soon replaced with a morion, or metal high-crested open helmet with the front and back edges turned upwards. Still today the Guard wears the morion on particularly solemn occasions such as the Ceremony of the "Swearing-in" of the recruits. The French Revolution also left its mark on the uniform of the Swiss Guard, which adopted some of the practical styles, such as the cocked hat with a ribbon cockade and the French-styled collar, as well as an unusually wide shoulder-belt or bandolier, made of leather, worn from the right shoulder down to the left thigh, ending in a sabre-holder.
It is mainly thanks to Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921), who was gifted with an exceptionally fine taste for colors and shapes, that the Swiss Guards wear such fine dress today. After much study and research and drawing inspiration from Raffaello's frescoes, he abolished all types of hats and introduced the simple beret worn today, which bears the soldier's grade. Furthermore he replaced the pleated gorget or throat-piece with a plain white collar. He also improved the cuirass and had it remodelled after the original design. Nowadays, only the full dress-uniform is worn with a special gorget, white gloves and pale grey metal morion with ostrich-feather plume: white for the Commandant and Sergeant Major, purple for Lieutenants, red for Halberdiers and yellow/black on a black morion for the Drummers. The Guard's morion bears the oak of the Rovere family.
With the passing centuries there have been a few minor changes, but on the whole the original dress has been maintained. It is commonly thought that the uniform was designed by Michelangelo, but it would seem rather that he had nothing to do with it.
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