The Pontifical Swiss Guards have been protecting the Popes and the Vatican since 1506... think about that. Over 500 years of tradition and military valor. They may seem a bit frilly to modern eyes, but underneath the traditional Renaissance garb, they are all well trained, special forces selected especially from the Swiss Army for the Vatican detail.
The Swiss Guard is also the smallest army in the world with typically only about 125 soldiers and officers serving at at a time. There are strict requirements: You must be a Swiss man, younger than 30, a minimum 5' 8" tall, be a Catholic with a high school diploma or higher. Your Swiss military service must be with good merits. You can't be married when you come into the Guard, but can marry later on. You must serve for at least two years at the Vatican. Guardsmen (no women yet) are paid a tax free salary of €1,300 per month.
Many think that Michelangelo designed their uniforms, but actually their original uniforms were slight modifications of the outfits worn by the Swiss arm at that time with the addition of the crossed keys symbol of the Vatican. The modern uniforms we see when visiting the Vatican today are actually a redesign by one of the Guard's own... Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921).
Repond studied the frescoes in the Vatican itself for the inspiration that led to the colors of the Medici (blue, red, yellow) on the Guards medieval, (and what some see as) clown-like outfits. He also introduced the fairly simple beret as the main headgear, although the metal and ostrich feathered helmet (called a morion) are still used for full dress assembly (along with white gloves). The Pierrot-like ruffled collar was morphed into a simplistic white collar. For everyday outfits, they wear a simple purple uniform which still maintains a Renaissance flair.
Although the Swiss Guard is supposed to be a rigidly trained, elite military group, Pope Francis sees it a bit differently. The Pope was angered after he saw a young Swiss guard standing outside his papal suite all night. The Pontiff told the young man to sit down for a rest, but the Guard replied that sitting was against strict orders. Apparently, the Pope replied, "I give the orders around here" and brought the guard a cappuccino. Because of this event and others he witnessed, Pope Francis fired the chief officer of the Guard, Colonel Daniel Rudolf Anrig for being "too strict" in 2014. Another deciding factor was Pope discovering that Colonel Anrig had moved into a luxurious apartment over the Swiss Guard's barracks in the Vatican.
Still, the Swiss Guard remains a tough, intensely trained army to protect the both the Pope and the treasures contained at the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica. There are the Guard that are apparent to all visitors, with their colorful dress, but there are also members with more stealthy duties akin to the U.S. Secret Service. Whenever you see the Pope in public, they surround him looking away from the Pontiff into the crowd. They all are packing some pretty serious heat: fully automatic and compact Sig 552 machine guns are hidden under their jackets. But don't write off the soldiers on public duty... they receive specialized training with their Renaissance-age weapons, and are very cable of using their 9-foot long steel pike to stop an attacker or terrorist. There is also a arsenal of weapons, both modern and old, that the soldiers train with constantly with. Of course, handguns are used... notably the SIG P220 pistol.
Besides the Swiss Guard, the Pope and Vatican City itself is protected by the 200 year old Gendarmeria Corpo della Città del Vaticano (Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State)--its own uniformed police force. They are on duty in St. Peter's Square, direct traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular), and investigate crime within the Vatican City boundaries. Essentially, they are the State Police of Vatican City. They are even trained in counter-terrorism, explosive ordinance disposal and anti-sabotage techniques.
In addition to all this, there is an infrastructure to go along with all of the Papal protection, led by the Inspector General of the Vatican. It's the Inspector General that leads security teams when the Pope has a state visit somewhere in the world.
As you can see, Pope Francis, and all that is contained in Vatican City are well protected... well proven by the 3 hour long lines trying to get into St. Peters Basilica!
So, when visiting the Vatican, take all the photos of the Swiss Guard that you like... just remember, they are not clowns... they are real, workaday soldiers dedicated to their task-- to protect the Pontiff.
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