The Italian Almanac

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Swiss guard

New Guards

Thirty new Swiss Guard recruits and a promoted officer will be sworn in after the celebration of a special Mass in St Peter's by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State. Members of the Swiss Guards, the oldest army in the world, traditionally swear their oath of allegiance on May 6, to recall the deaths of 147 guards during the Sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V in 1527. Only 42 guards survived the attack and ensured that Pope Clement VII (Giulio de' Medici) escaped the ignominy of capture.

Founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II, the Swiss Guards are also the world's smallest army, numbering 110. They are recruited from a group of Swiss towns and villages which for centuries have provided the Pope's personal mercenaries. During the Middle Ages and in Renaissance times, the Swiss had the reputation of being Europe's most reliable mercenaries - tough fighters who hardly ever changed sides.

Recruitment terms are strict. Candidates have to be single males, at least 1.74m tall, practising Catholics, to have completed their compulsory military service in Switzerland and to be ''of stainless character''. 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 have been drawn to the job lately, preferring to stay in their native cantons. Part of the problem has been the salary, just over 1,000 euros a month for a raw recruit - though the Vatican is quick to stress Guards can save about 75% of their pay thanks to free digs and the city-state's famously cheap canteen, pharmacy, tailors and health services.

The antique blue-and-orange uniform worn by the guards was once believed to have been designed by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo, but historians believe this is more myth than fact.