Everyone who visits the Vatican notices the colorfully dressed Swiss Guards who provide security for the Pope. This year marks the 500th anniversary of this elite military unit. And Robert Royal has written The Pope's Army (Crossroad) to celebrate their history.

According to legend, Michelangelo designed the uniforms, but no one really knows who created them. The outfits are pictured in frescoes by Raphael (1483-1520), and in the early 20th century, the Swiss Guards used those paintings to recreate the original costumes.

The Swiss Guards' colorful history begins with Pope Julius II, who also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Julius inherited a weakened papacy and he needed expert soldiers in order to help him regain his lost territory. At the time, the Swiss were known as the best fighters.

Here are a few highlights from Royal's history:

  • In 1527, the Swiss Guards saved the life of Pope Clement VII when the Holy Roman Emperor sacked Rome and attacked the Vatican. The Guards rushed Clement to a secret passageway that led to the fortified Castel Sant'Angelo, while one of his cardinals held up a purple cloak to hide him from view.
  • In 1943, during World War II, German bombs struck the Vatican wine cellar and broke about a hundred bottles of fine cognac. There was a pool of liquor six inches deep, and the Swiss soldier who discovered the damage fetched his fellow soldiers to make good use of what might have been a tragic waste.
  • With the popes' eventual loss of political power, they learned to become pastors to the world. As a result, the role of the Swiss Guard changed from a military to a ceremonial one. Nevertheless, in an age of terrorism, the Guard still needs to protect the Pope's life. In 1970, an assassin tried to kill Paul VI in Manila. And in 1981, another assassin assaulted John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.
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