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Former Swiss Vatican Guards arrive in Rome

Music accompanied the guards on their 30-day march Keystone

A group of former Swiss Vatican Guards have arrived in Rome after re-enacting a legendary march from Switzerland undertaken 500 years ago.

This content was published on May 3, 2006 - 18:06

Their arrival marks the start of the events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the founding of the "smallest army in the world".

Some 70 former guardsmen, from 25 to 76 years of age, covered the same arduous 720-kilometre route from Bellinzona to the Vatican City.

The march – which took 28 days - followed the historic "Via Francigena" pilgrimage route to Rome. Fifty other former papal guards also walked part of the way.

Pope's blessing

A busy programme has been organised for the 500-year commemoration. The former Swiss guards will be officially welcomed by a delegation of officials from Rome and the Vatican, and will then receive a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday.

On Friday this year's Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, is to give a welcome speech on behalf of the Swiss government during an official ceremony in the Vatican City.

Various ceremonial events are planned for Saturday, including a swearing-in ceremony of new Swiss guardsmen in St Peter's Square, which will be attended by Leuenberger.

A wreath will also be laid in memory of the Swiss guards who died in 1527 defending the Vatican against the forces of Charles V. During the day, music will be provided by three choirs from Zurich, Lucerne and Fribourg, as well as the Zurich Opera Orchestra.

Mercenaries

On January 21, 1506, 150 Swiss mercenaries marched to Rome in response to an invitation from Pope Julius II, who sought his own private army.

Today some 110 papal guards are responsible for the security of the Vatican. Dressed in traditional tricolour Renaissance uniforms, sporting black berets and carrying either a lance or a halberd, they represent one of the most popular images of the Eternal City.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Mercenaries were one of Switzerland's most important exports from the late Middle Ages up until the 19th century.

It is estimated that as many as two million Swiss men swore their loyalty to foreign heads of state between 1250 and 1850.

There are currently 110 Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, where they must serve at least two years.

Guard recruits must be Roman Catholic Swiss nationals, between 19 and 30 years of age, single, high school graduates and at least 174cm tall. They must have also completed Swiss military service.

Guards on duty carry lances and either a halberd or lance, but are also armed with pepper spray, tear gas and – depending on the situation – automatic weapons.

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Key facts

Around 70 former Swiss Guards took part in the 720km march from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland to Rome.
They followed a pilgrimage route and arrived in Rome on May 2, two days before they are due to enter the gates of the Vatican.
There they will be welcomed by a delegation of Vatican officials, the Italian armed forces and this year's Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger.

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