Vatican's Tailors Recall Their 'Easy' Customer

Times Staff Writer

Behind the Pantheon, the scissors of nimble- fingered men glide through cloth, and cassocks are sewn with handmade buttons and watered silk.

The men measure sashes, snipping silver, unraveling gold. They are quiet, deliberate, moving amid scents of wood and wool and the crinkle of brown paper packages addressed to priests and cardinals and, perhaps one day soon, a new pope.

The Gammarelli clerical tailors have fitted the spiritual leaders of the Roman Catholic Church since 1798, when Pius VI fancied embroidered sleeves and a fur-bordered cape. They knew the waistline of John XXIII and the inseam of Paul VI. And, as his body stooped over the years, they trimmed a few centimeters from the ivory hemlines of John Paul II's robes.

When white smoke coils from the Sistine Chapel in a few weeks, announcing the church's 265th successor to St. Peter, the Gammarellis will be ready with pincushions and chalk. There's no guarantee they will serve the new pope -- Pius XII opted for his family's tailor -- but if tradition holds, the silver-haired guys in the crooked alley off Via Santa Chiara will remain intimate with Vatican hallways and dressing rooms.

"In this world, nothing is sure," said Filippo Gammarelli, whose great-great-great-grandfather Antonio founded the shop. "We hope the new pope will be our customer."

The Gammarellis are strategic entrepreneurs. They have prepared boxes of cassocks to be sent immediately to the papal apartment. "We always have to do three because we don't know the size of the new pope," Gammarelli said. "Will he be small, medium or large?"

Like the finest barbers, the finest tailors are discreet. They are privy to the secrets of power and the nuance of personality, knowing the cut of a heel, the width of a back. Dressed in cuffed blue pants, a tweed jacket and shoes, polished yet worn, Gammarelli will speak of patterns and fabrics. He will note how the American clergy prefer zippers to buttons and how Velcro has transformed the sash, but he will smile and quietly demur when asked for even a hint of a papal secret.

"Pope John Paul was not a difficult customer," he said. "It was easy to work with him."

An ecclesiastical tailor is bound by tradition. Maybe a blush of purple or green, or a yellow cross, but nothing flashy; the church has designated colors for its offices.

Clerical dress has become less baroque since Vatican II. Ermine fur and labyrinth embroidery are not as popular in a Vatican that has settled into a modern simplicity. Cardinals wear crimson, priests sport black; the pope's cassock, with its 30 buttonholes, is the shade of a swan's wing.

"It takes three months to make one cassock," said Gammarelli, whose brother, Annibale, takes the measurements of popes and many of the dozens of cardinals appointed by John Paul in recent years. "To ensure the work is perfect, it's all done by hand.... One tailor cuts. Six to seven to eight people sew. One lady makes only buttonholes."

Gammarelli stands near boxes of clerical undergarments and drawers of shirts and lace. He lifts a bag of buttons made of white silk. They are for the pope. He opens another drawer. More buttons; red and magenta, they look like tiny gumdrops. Near an old desk by the window, broad-rimmed black priest hats seem like quaint props from a dustier time. Measurements are called out. Fabric is rolled and unrolled.

A few priests slip in to see if their orders are done. The fitting room is dark. Up the wooden stairs, past an oil painting of Pius VI, the button lady and the men who sew work behind closed doors.

Gammarelli is not sure how his family got into the holy attire business. "Maybe my great-great-great-grandfather knew some people in the Vatican, I don't know," he said.

He remembers how John Paul's body changed, a once robust figure in billowing robes diminished by time. "It happens to us all," Gammarelli said. "Unfortunately."

Vestments usually hang in Gammarelli's sunlit storefront. They have been folded away. The window is empty except for a white papal skullcap resting on red velvet. It is a tribute to John Paul, the longest-reigning pope in modern history and one of Gammarelli's most reliable customers.

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