Decked out in their colourful uniforms, and standing guard at points throughout the Vatican City, the Swiss Guards must surely be the most photographed young men in Rome.
La Guardia Svizzera Pontificia, the Corps of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, has been in charge of protecting the Holy Father for over 500 years. The institution officially came into being on January 22nd, 1506, during the reign of Julius II (r. 1503-1513).
New recruits enrol each year on May 6th, the anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527, when 147 Swiss Guards lost their lives in defence of the pope.
Many guide books are fond of peddling the myth that their flamboyant costumes were designed by no less a figure than that great all-rounder, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
In truth, the design is much younger than the institution itself, dating back no earlier than 1914. The designer was Jules Repond, who also served as a commandant with the Swiss Guards between 1910 and 1921.
To become a Swiss Guard you must, of course, be Swiss. You must also be a member of the Catholic Church, single, aged between 18 and 30, have completed your military service, be a minimum of 174 cm (5 feet 8 inches) tall and, last but not least, you must be male.
Although the prospect of female Swiss Guards has not been definitively ruled out, I don't think they are likely to be seen on duty any time soon.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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