(Bloomberg) -- Pope Francis’s guards need a new barracks and they’re getting help from a different kind of power -- a central banker.
Former Swiss National Bank President Jean-Pierre Roth, who oversaw the 2008 bailout of UBS, is now chairman of a foundation working to refurbish the quarters of the Vatican-based unit famous for its Renaissance-style uniforms, including striped pantaloons and helmets festooned with feathers.
His advocacy for the Swiss Guards isn’t the path usually chosen by central bankers. Many have tended to go for think tanks and academia -- such as former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and ex-Bank of England chief Mervyn King. Finance attracted Roth’s SNB successor Philipp Hildebrand, who is now vice chairman of BlackRock. Roth, who retired from the SNB in late 2009, also serves on the boards of both Nestle and Swatch Group.
The Pontifical corps, whose recruits even today must be unmarried Swiss Catholic men under the age of 30 and have “irreproachable reputations,” have served the Papacy since 1506 and look after the pontiff’s safety. But their accommodation is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be rebuilt.
“It’s not only that the buildings need an overhaul, but there’s also the need for more space,” Roth said in a telephone interview. “The number of guards will be expanded somewhat in coming years, and the rules on marriage were made more flexible. The 19th-century layout doesn’t work any more.”
The initial cost estimate for the works is 50 million francs ($51 million), though Roth’s committee will be taking a closer look at the finances next year. Costs will be borne largely by the Vatican, with the foundation contributing technical expertise. An architecture firm in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton of Ticino -- the region where Swiss guards do their initial training -- will design the new buildings.
The existing ones include a tailor’s workshop for the famous blue, red and yellow striped uniforms, designed by a commander a century ago, though often erroneously attributed to Michelangelo.
Along with the uniforms, the force’s weapons provide a link with history. Standing guard at the Papal Palace, they hold halberds, long poles with an ax blade and topped with a spike.
When not on call, the corps’s 110 members have a musical ensemble and a soccer team -- named FC Guardia -- that sometimes plays guards from the Vatican museum. Five Polish nuns prepare their meals of meat, pasta and Swiss delicacies, replete with a salad buffet, their website says.
“As a Swiss, I’m proud of the guards,” Roth said, explaining his motivation to tackle the project. “It’s a sign of the Vatican’s trust.”
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