Holy Stitching: Talking to the Pope’s Tailor

| Mon, 02/18/2013 - 10:17

Leader photo courtesy of Huffingtonpost.com and Gammarelli

As the hierarchy within the Holy city is set to be restored in a matter of days, it could hardly be a more fitting time to discuss the latest holy attire that is waiting in the wings to be altered by the Sarto Vaticano. The Pope’s tailor, Giovanni La Scala.

"Try lifting that" he says as he roasts chestnuts using an old school cumbersome steel iron. La Scala looks at me scornfully as I grab my iPhone to insert frantic finger punched notes, in awe of such a spectacle. I was for sure in the studio of a very old school Roman tailor, known as the 'sarto Vaticano'.

Minutes away from St Peter's Square, lies this secret (and I mean secret) bottega of one of Rome’s best kept secrets, one of the Vatican’s favourite tailors. La Scala, who served the Vatican for many years, laments the dying art of the sarto. Old school traditional methods and hand made perfection. Technology has ruined everything, everything is made in China today. Technology has killed the art of tradition. Especially the art of the sarto. For someone who perfected his craft by learning to sew before he could read and write, he finds this upsetting.

Almost as perplexing as the iPhone used to record notes during our suggestively surreal meeting. “Don’t you want a piece of paper”. In the good old days, he reminisces, it was all about word of mouth. He hasn't had an office phone in 50 years, and never uses a mobile phone. And yet his business is thriving. He needs not a name on the door. The only thing to suggest that 'tailor' is his trade, are the goings on behind the scenes.

Giovanni La Scala

La Scala came to Rome in 1952, after being trained by his mother, at five years of age, as a sarto. Soon enough, he gained the local nickname ‘sarto Vaticano’ and it was not before long that he was studying inside leg measurements of the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

A budding singer, he soon traded stitching suits for singing lessons and made his name as both a singer and a sarto. Once he had recorded a CD for John Paul II, performing privates concerts for him in both Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Paolina Chapel, his local name and fame was assured.

A very spiritual man, who credits Pope John 23rd with curing his infertility and blessing him with the gift of children, he is surrounded by black and white vintage photos of John Paul II, with not even a hint of order or digital back up copies for these priceless images.

At 80 years of age, he is proud to be a master of his trade. But doesn’t forget a poor childhood in Calabria and how far his ambitions took him. His proudest moment was when he won the Medaglia d'Oro for the best Calabrian in the world. He can also boast that he trained his brother, who then went on to become the Director of Tailoring at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. Keeping it in the family, Italian style.

Disegno Sarto

Talking of families, another family, Gammarelli had served the Vatican since 1793 as the official tailor, a tradition which seems to have been broken by the current Pope, Benedict XVI. As usual, scandal and mystery go hand in hand. Now, it is anyone’s guess as to who is the official Papal tailor, because word on the street has it that the Pope and the Cardinals chose local artisans in the Borgo area, surrounding the Vatican city walls. And photographic evidence bestowed upon me would not prove otherwise.

So who is to know how many tailors are now dressing the Pope. But, then how long is a piece of string?

The Pope is the head of state of the smallest, and not to mention, richest, country in the world, and seriously can’t afford a fashion faux pas and need not worry with experts like La Scala waiting around the corner with a needle and thread.

For a man like La Scala, to be sewing ankle length silk robes for the Holy See is a mission accomplished, a lifelong dream for a Catholic, southern Italian traditional type.

What might they wear? Green vestments, white skullcaps and varying ensemble of ecclesiastical attire.

As we speak, silk threads are flying all over the place, as there will be many an outfitter in a flurry over the organization of the new robes for the soon to be announced new Pope.

Only the finest cloth will do. If the hat fits, wear it!