The Vatican Museums have unveiled a new permanent exhibition dedicated to papal travel since 1825.
Housed in the Carriage Pavilion, the exhibition includes saddles, sedan chairs, carriages and cars. Among the exhibits is the white Fiat 1107 Nuova Campagnola 1980 Popemobile used by Pope John Paul II when he was shot during an assassination attempt in 1981.
Popes have always travelled in style and the most opulent exhibit is the Grand Gala Berlin that Pope Leo XII had built in Rome in 1826. Pope Gregory XVI enriched its decorations in 1841 and the magnificent wooden carriage has inlays painted in gold leaf.
With the turn of the century, cars arrived at the Vatican but they were not adopted as quickly as elsewhere. In 1909, the Archbishop of New York offered Pope Pius X an Itala 20/30, but the Pope preferred to continue his strolls in the Vatican Gardens in a comfortable and less noisy carriage. It took until 1922, shortly after the election of Pope Pius XI, for the first papal car to hit the streets: a Bianchi Type 15 donated by the association of Catholic Women of the Archdiocese of Milan. At that time the issue of Vatican sovereignty had yet to be resolved, so a Diplomatic Corps registration plate, CD 404, was used. Soon afterwards, Italian company Bianchi donated a Bianchi Type 20 to the Pope, becoming the first car manufacturer to obtain the title ‘Papal Supplier’.
After the Holy See and Italy signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929, manufacturers rushed to supply the pontiff with cars. A Fiat 525 M arrived, followed by an Isotta Fraschini 8, a Graham Paige 837, a specially designed Citroën Lictoria Sex and a long-wheelbase Mercedes 460 Nürburg limousine designed by Ferdinand Porsche.
In 1931, the Vatican phased out horse-drawn carriages. It introduced its own car-registration system using the license plate SCV to signify Stato della Città del Vaticano (Vatican City State). Registration plates have red letters on a white background for the Pope and other high dignitaries of the Roman Curia; others have black letters on a white background.
Mercedes-Benz makes today’s Popemobiles and delivered the first-ever hybrid Popemobile in June 2011. The Popemobile is tagged SCV 1. Renault gave Pope Benedict XVI his first electric car, a Kangoo Maxi ZE, in September 2012. Reports suggest he will use it to travel round the gardens of the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.