Not all the pilgrims who come to Rome and try to take a picture with the Swiss who stand guard to the Vatican entrances know the history behind these soldiers who swore allegiance to the Pope.
We must go back to the age of the Renaissance and to the reasons that led Pope Julius II to make the Swiss come to Rome in 1506: the Swiss soldiers were considered invincible for their fortitude, their noble sentiments and their proverbial loyalty. The great Roman historian Tacitus, many centuries earlier, had said: "The Helvetii are a nation of warriors, famous for the value of its soldiers". For this reason, the Swiss cantons, with their alliances, played an important role in the European politics of the time. As allies of Pope Julius II in 1512 they decided the fate of Italy, and received from the Pope the title of Defenders of the Church's Freedom.
At that time it was normal to be a mercenary, and the core of the Alps housed a nation of warriors. Given the precarious economic conditions of that time the first Swiss cantons, with about 500,000 inhabitants, formed an overpopulated country: poverty was widespread. There was nothing left but to emigrate and being a mercenary was the best job one could have.
Although in 1479 Sixtus IV had already formed an alliance with the Confederates with a treaty which provided for the possibility of recruiting mercenaries, January 22nd 1506 is considered the official birthday of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, because on this day a group of a hundred and fifty Swiss, under the command of captain Kaspar von Silenen, entered the Vatican for the first time. Here the soldiers were blessed by Pope Julius II, who ordered the construction of barracks to house the soldiers near the church of S. Pellegrino, in what is now known as Via del Pellegrino.
Currently two thirds of the Swiss Guards are occupied daily to stand guard at the entrances of the Apostolic Palace, that is in the Cortile di San Damaso, in the Cortile del Belvedere, in the stories of the various Loggias, in the Sala Regia, in front of the offices of the Secretariat of State and the private apartment of the Pope, as well as at external entries, i.e. the gate Petriano (former Holy Office), arch of the Bells, the Bronze door and Porta Sant’Anna. The Swiss Guard is an Honor Guard that also provides services of control and order every time the Pope is present, i.e. during the liturgical celebrations in St. Peter's, the General Audiences, during visits of Heads of State, Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors. In addition to these official services, the day of a guard is occupied with a series of inspections, training, marches and shooting exercises.
Finally it is good to mention that all those who have served in the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, whatever rank they reached, once completed their time in the army force, they maintain a bond with the Guard through the Ex-Guardsmann Association, which regularly publishes in Switzerland the periodical Der Exgardist. The members of the association also meet regularly at regional level and at federal level and in the latter case shall also attend the meetings, if possible, the commander and the chaplain. The most important meeting, however, is the one that takes place in the Vatican on the 6th of May of each year, on the occasion of the oath of the recruits.
Author: Luisanna Vespa