Under the watchful gaze of former popes in framed photographs hanging on the walls, tailor Ety Cicioni races to stitch the brightly coloured uniforms for pontifical Swiss Guard recruits ahead of their swearing-in ceremony.
“Twenty-five years ago it seemed almost impossible, but you end up knowing how to do it by heart,” Cicioni told AFP at his workshop in the barracks of the world’s oldest army, right in the heart of the Vatican.
“Despite the number of pieces, it’s like a mosaic that I put together automatically,” the balding 50-year-old said, as he slipped a piece of coloured fabric under the needle of his sewing machine.
Cicioni, armed with scissors, navigates between ironing boards, wooden racks bearing spools of thread, and an overhead rail with freshly made jackets and pantaloons.
In recent weeks, visits for fittings have multiplied.
Everything must be ready for the swearing-in ceremony on Friday, during which some 30 Swiss citizens, who have to be single, Catholic and aged between 19 and 30 years old, will commit to safeguarding the pope for at least 26 months.
“From the arrival of the new recruits, we only have one month to make the uniform before they start their service,” says Cicioni, who has only three fellow tailors to help make three outfits for each guard.
The uniforms are striped in red, yellow and blue, and they get one for winter, one for summer and one for night.
Each set, with its gaiters, pantaloons and jacket with white collar, is made from fabric that comes from the town of Bielle in Piedmont in northwest Italy, which is renowned for the quality of its textiles.
Putting together the 154 pieces takes some 39 hours of painstaking work.
Buried With It
On top of that “there are also the everyday things,” Cicioni says.
“A guard who has a tear, a button to sew back on, a broken hook: we also take care of these little emergencies,” he jokes.
The halberdiers’ uniform, immortalised by snap-happy tourists from all over the world, has evolved since the creation of the Swiss Guard in 1506 by Pope Julius II, featuring sometimes more red or more black.
The current model, redesigned by the Swiss colonel Jules Repond, dates from 1914.
Donning the Renaissance-style garment can be a challenge.
“At first, it takes them 15 or 20 minutes to get dressed. There are so many buttons they don’t know how to do up,” Cicioni says with a chuckle.
He began making the uniforms in 1997 under pope John Paul II, and stresses the patience and technical skill needed.
“We are trying to modernise the process because, of course, techniques change and everyone brings their own something to it,” says Cicioni, who has a measuring tape draped over the elegant suit and tie he wears to his workshop every day.
After a long day crafting puff shoulders and fixing zips, he would see the young guards socially.
“When I arrived, we used to go out together. The relationship has changed now, but there is a great deal of respect,” he said, praising the “sacrifice” that their commitment represents.
When they leave, the guards must return their uniforms, unless they have served for more than five years.
“In that case, they can take it with them, but they do not own them. After death, the uniforms must be returned, or be placed with the deceased in his coffin,” he said.