Of the things people treasure the world over, two of the most venerated come mainly from Italy: religion, and fashion. The Roman Catholic church is one of, if not the, largest and most influential religious organizations in the history of man (and woman). It’s produced kings and advised the leaders of nations, lead billions of people in their spiritual affairs and, as a church whose leadership has been comprised for centuries of Italian men, it’s looked great doing it, in the way only Italian men can. But those Italian gentlemen haven’t done it all by themselves; they’ve had some help over the centuries, and not just from above.
The House of Gammarelli operates out of a small workshop in the shadows of the Pantheon, a landmark of ironically Pagan origin. Ironic, because for over 200 years the Gammarellis have been official tailors to the Vatican, dressing Popes, Cardinals, and other princes of the Church. Bonaventura Gammarelli, 61, runs the firm today, keeping up with the work his great-great-grandfather started in 1798 when he moved to Rome and began to dress the hundreds of local priests. The House of Gammarelli still dresses priests, and it’s good for business: “Over seventy percent of the Cardinals we now serve,” says Mr. Gammarelli, “started coming to us when they were only monsignori.”
The average priestly cassock runs about $40.00 American; the vestments of a Cardinal can cost as much as $2,000.00.
Years ago, when Pope Pius XII died, Mr. Gammarelli received a rush order from the Vatican: three Papal soutanes, one cut for a small man, one medium, and one large. The three cloaks were locked in with the Cardinals as they deliberated on a successor to Pius, each ready for whatever size of man might be next elected Pontiff. Mr. Gammarelli, a shrewd and practiced handicapper of Popes, predicted the next successor to Saint Peter would be Cardinal Roncalli of Venice. He cut one of the outfits accordingly, based on Cardinal Roncalli’s measurements (he had been a Gammarelli customer for years), and the bet paid off: Roncalli, newly christened Pope John XXII, emerged from the conclave resplendent in Mr. Gammarelli’s perfectly-fitting soutane to greet the faithful from the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square.
The challenge in Papal tailoring is in adhering to centuries of tradition; each garment produced in the cramped Gammarelli workshop (which comprises two small rooms above the main storefront) is made of the finest materials and based on a book of patterns hand-painted in watercolor by Maria Gammarelli, Bonaventura’s sister.
The earthly rewards of dressing the Catholic princedom are considerable, but Mr. Gammarelli says the greatest reward is the praise of his customers. Indicative of that praise is a letter he received years ago from an American Bishop stationed in Texas, which reads simply: “We Texans like to deal with people who know their business.” And who knows the business of clothing, or religion, better than Italians?