Specialty Roman tailor has cassocks ready for a pope of any size

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 6:56 p.m.

ROME — A white zucchetto (a pope's skull cap, this one in the size of Pope Benedict XVI) and a small colorful figurine of a pontifical Swiss guard rest alone on red cloth in the front window of Gammarelli's specialty tailor shop.

The set of three traditional papal cassocks made for the next pope — in small, medium and large — have been delivered to the Vatican.

On Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals will begin their conclave. They will be locked in the Sistine Chapel until the 115 “princes of the church” elect the 226th pope.

Whoever he is, he will wear Gammarelli.

“It's something we are very proud of and very conscious of. It's a very important job,” said Lorenzo Gammarelli, 40, a sixth generation of the family that has owned this store since 1798.

They only began keeping records on the popes they dressed starting with Pope Pius XI in 1922. Images of the last seven pontiffs hang on the shop's walls.

Gammarelli figures his family has dressed “at least” seven popes, and this will be the eighth.

Four Gammarellis work in the wood-paneled shop in the shadow of the Pantheon.

The Vatican placed an order with the Gammarellis just days after Benedict XVI resigned.

Three to four days later, up to eight people produced three cassocks in a range to fit any size of pope, Lorenzo said.

Each papal ensemble includes a white woolen cassock with a white cape and silk sleeves. The cassock's 33 silk buttons represent the years of Christ's life.

A tufted fascia, or white silk brocade belt with a gold-fringed tip, fastens around the waist sash-like. Later, the new papal seal will be embroidered on it.

Over the cassock is a red velvet papal mozzetta, an elbow-length cape; it fell out of use after Vatican II but was brought back by Benedict XVI. It is now trimmed with rabbit instead of the traditional white ermine, Lorenzo said.

The Gammarellis have made three sizes of cassocks for incoming popes, except once: When John Paul I died in 1978, 30 days after his election, “we only made one for that conclave,” Lorenzo said.

He has “no idea” what happens to the two wrong-sized outfits.

“We consider all the cardinals that we know” before sizing and producing the cassocks, he explained. And they have an idea about sizes, since most of their business involves dressing church cardinals.

“We have many customers from all over the world, mainly America and Europe,” but also from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Over the years, some snafus have occurred, he confesses: “This is a story — I am not sure if it is true, but it is a story. When Pope John XXIII was elected (in 1958), they made a mistake. He needed the largest (size), but they gave him a small one. The back was open and they had to close it with pins.”

He laughs and admits he has been tempted to try on the papal garments but never did. Nor has he ever sewn a secret message into the garment, although he jokingly adds: “That's an idea! Maybe for the next pope I will.”

As the Gammerellis worked on the new ecclesiastic garments, Italian animal activists dressed in religious costumes and chains protested outside the shop.

Lorenzo said the media attention is much worse this time than when John Paul II died in 2005: “Now all the attention is on us, there is no dead pope, no funeral, and 5,000 journalists in Rome.”

The three cassocks will be held just behind the Sistine Chapel in the “Room of Tears,” so-called because of the emotion a new pope may feel as he dresses alone before facing a waiting world.

With the conclave set, electronic jamming devices to prevent eavesdropping are being installed in the chapel where Michelangelo's canonical fresco, “Last Judgment,” is painted on the altar wall.

“Staff who serve meals at the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals will stay during the conclave, will be sworn to secrecy,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote on her Internet blog. “Even who said ‘Pass the salt' is a secret.

“In this electronic age,” she wrote, “I worry that some cardinals may go into iPad and Twitter withdrawal.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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