The Italian Almanac

Swiss guard

Italian History - November 10

The common belief that Michelangelo designed the uniform of the Swiss Guard is a myth, according to the first insider's history of the colorful and secretive corps. "No document has been found supporting that story," said Guard member Christian Roland Marcel Richard, a sergeant who has spent eight years researching and writing the history. "Michelangelo was a lot of things. A tailor he wasn't".

The Guard was founded by Julius II, the pope who commissioned some of Michelangelo's major works including the Sistine Chapel. The Guard is the world's smallest army and gets its recruits from a group of Swiss towns and villages which for centuries have provided the Pope's personal mercenaries.

The 110-strong Guard, who have recently overcome a recruiting crisis, wear the antique blue and orange uniforms which generations of tour guides have happily attributed to Michelangelo. Recruitment terms are strict. Candidates have to be single males over the age of 18, at least 1.74m tall, and practising Catholics "of stainless character". They also have to have completed their compulsory military service in Switzerland.

Swiss Guards sign on for a minimum of two years. In the past the corps has been seen as a springboard for lucrative posts in some of the world's best-known security services and banks. But fewer young Swiss were drawn to the job in the late 1990s, spurring a fall in the number of volunteers. This recruitment slump was reversed by an appeal to more devoted Swiss men.

Last year the commander said the Guard would never recruit women.