If anyone thinks that the Vatican’s Swiss Guard has a mere representative function and that its members are only there to adorn the corners or take pictures with tourists, they are totally wrong. It is a military corps that really has the mission of looking after the Pope’s safety and guarding that small state. And although today it has only a hundred troops, in the past it was part of an authentic army and, as such, it took part in various military actions in defence of the interests of the Holy See.
To be exact, it was not only the Swiss who made up the pontifical army: there were also the Noble Guard of His Holiness’ Corps, the Palatine Guard of Honor and the Pontifical Gendarmerie (which was a kind of police force) and, further back in time, the Pontifical Zuavos, the Broken Lance, the Light Cavalry Guard, the Artillery Weapon, and so on. The first three bodies were dissolved in 1970 by Paul VI, in a process of demilitarization of the Vatican. A walk through the Vatican Historical Museum shows the different uniforms and equipment they used.
The eye-catching costumes of the Swiss Guard, which correspond exclusively to it, were not designed by Michelangelo, as the legend says, but are much more recent, early twentieth century, conceived by a commander named Jules Répond, who was based on Renaissance paintings but Raphael (the bright colors represent the surname Della Rovere but also used the red Medici). In fact, the guards use modern material, with short (pistols) and long (sub-machine guns) weapons, although only the famous halberds and, on solemn occasions, armour and morrion are visible to the public.
The origin of this institution can be traced back to the beginning of the 16th century. As at that time the Swiss mercenaries constituted the European warrior elite, Pope Sixtus IV signed a defensive alliance with the Swiss Confederation which later renewed their successors, using those troops in the territorial conflicts of an Italy that still had hundreds of years to be united. That is why the tradition of recruiting guards from among Swiss Catholics (who must also be between 19 and 30 years old, single, over 1.74 high and have experience in the Swiss Armed Forces) is maintained. In January 1506 Julius II decided to have a permanent corps against the threat of French invasion, so he hired 150 Swiss to form the so-called Pontifical Guard, with veteran captain Gaspar von Silenen in charge.
Their baptism of fire itself, already as a permanent body, arrived on May 6, 1527, when Charles V’s imperial army led the famous Saco de Roma. There were 20,000 men among whom were Spaniards and Italians but, above all, German lansquenetes, including several Lutheran contingents no matter how curious they may sound. The imperial troops disobeyed their commanders, irritated by the delay in payments and the hostile attitude of Clement VII, who always favoured the interests of France. The soldiers assaulted the city, killing, stealing and raping without restraint.
Arriving in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, they tried to enter by force and the Swiss were forced to form a circle around the pontiff, protecting his escape towards the interior of the temple, where there was the entrance to Pasetto di Borgo, a medieval passageway almost a kilometre long that led to the Castle of Sant’ Angelo. Clemente managed to take refuge while his guards covered the retreat with their lives. The last resistance was offered on the left side of the basilica, near the Teutonic Cemetery: there fell 147 of the 189 who fought, to the point that, at the end of that chaos, the Pope’s protection had to be provided by four companies of Spanish and German Catholics. A dozen surviving Swiss joined them and the rest opted to return to their country. The oath of allegiance ceremony that the Swiss Guard currently makes every May 6 commemorates these events.
In 1548, Paul III reorganized the Swiss Guard, increasing it to 225 troops. Some of them were part of a contingent that Pius V sent as reinforcement to the Holy Christian League, which Don Juan of Austria directed against the Turks. They embarked on one of the galleys and, thus, on October 7, 1571, they re-entered combat. But this time they were victorious: it was, obviously, in the battle of Lepanto, during which they managed to snatch two flags from the enemy.
From then on, a prolonged period of calm was imposed that lasted two centuries, until in 1798 Napoleon took possession of Italy and forced Pius VI to dissolve the Swiss Guard. This situation lasted three years because in 1801 Pius VII re-formed it, although with just 64 members that Leo XIII increased to 200 in 1824.
Tension soared again when the country was involved in the process of unification, during which the Vatican lost much of its territory and was surrounded by hostile troops. The small pontifical host was ready for defense along with its French allies but, at the same time, Napoleon III was defeated in Sedan and the Pope was left alone. Rome passed into the hands of Garibaldi and the Vatican troops were dissolved, leaving only the bodies mentioned at the beginning. They would never engage in combat again.