Swiss Guard Uniform

The North West Chapter

Many believe that the renowned uniform of the Swiss Guard was designed in 1500 by Michelangelo Buonarroti. This fact could not be more dubious, however, the uniform as we know it today was officially introduced on November 22, 1914 by Swiss Guard Commander of the Corps Colonel Jules Repond. The commander redesigned the uniform as a set of 154 pieces according to a sixteenth-century model studied and approved by the newly elected Pope Benedict XV.

There is little information in historical records regarding the uniform worn by the first Swiss guards welcomed in Rome by Pope Julius II on January 22, 1506. This is because the guards did not then have a special dress, but wore the same clothing as other soldiers during their service: a loose shirt and tights, metallic armor covering the chest and arms, a halberd, and a sword. Shortly after 1506, however, Raphael represented a group of four Swiss Guards in his painting Mass at Bolsena in the Room of Heliodorus in Julius II’s apartments in the Vatican. Here the guards are shown wearing loose and colorful trousers ending at the the knee and a cassock or tunic and doublet that extended to the hip. 

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On several occasions over the centuries, the uniform of the Swiss Guard has undergone changes. In the 1820’s, new modifications were made to the uniform under Pope Leo XII, and they remained largely unchanged until the present uniform was introduced in 1914.

This doublet jacket was recently found in the warehouses of the Department of Historical Collections. It is a very rare example of a nineteenth-century uniform, much in keeping with the heraldic motifs of Pope Leo XIII. It continues to reflect the yellow and blue colors linked to the oak crest of the family of Pope Julius II and the red of the Medici family of Pope Clement VII – the two popes historically connected to the origins of the Swiss Guards in the Vatican. The shape of this jacket, however, is completely different from the uniform we recognize today. This uniform of the nineteenth century made its first and only public appearance on May 6th, 1915. The feast of the Pontifical Swiss Guard Corps is still held on this same day in remembrance of the tragic massacre perpetrated by the Lanzichenecchi during the famous Sack of Rome of May 6, 1527 when, together with the commander and his wife, 147 guards lost their lives in order to allow Pope Clement VII to flee from the Vatican, finding refuge in the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo. 

The restoration of this uniform is therefore very significant, not only because this item is a rare heirloom linked to the centuries-old history of the uniform of the Papal Guard, but also because it will be a rich addition to the permanent installation of the Swiss Guard collection in the Vatican, which displays selected pieces of antique armor related to the history of the Holy See.