ROME (Reuters) - At Gammarelli, a discreet oak-panelled tailor’s shop in central Rome, they are expected to be already creating sumptuous vestments for the new pope - in small, medium and large sizes so whoever is chosen will get the right fit.
Few of the tourists strolling past on their way to the Pantheon, one of Rome’s grandest ancient temples, give the shop at 34 Via Santa Chiara a second glance. Locals who know it is the pope’s tailor are a bit more curious.
“Looks like they have it ready,” says one, peering at a golden cassock in the window of the 200-year-old ecclesiastical outfitters, speculating that it might be the costume the future pope will wear on day 1.
Tradition dictates that three versions of the same vestments will be made in advance for the new pope, whatever his size, be it, for example, Timothy Dolan, the portly Archbishop of New York, or the diminutive Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines.
Once the white smoke has appeared from the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a pope has been chosen, nuns at the Vatican make last-minute alterations to the robes that are the closest fit before the new pontiff walks out onto his balcony to face the world.
Inside the shop, with the framed portraits of former popes - former customers - looking down, staff have been instructed not to talk to reporters as the world’s media descends on Rome.
The reticence may have something to do with the attention - not all of it welcome - that Benedict’s wardrobe has received in his almost eight years as pope.
His fondness for reviving costumes unseen for generations and a range of flamboyant hats prompted the Wall Street Journal to ask “Does the Pope Wear Prada?” Esquire magazine named him “Accessorizer of the Year”, praising his red leather loafers.
The coverage eventually earned a rebuke from the Vatican newspaper which called such reports “frivolous”.
“The pope, in summary, does not wear Prada, but Christ,” wrote l‘Osservatore Romano.
Benedict’s red loafers were not Prada. At least one pair was handmade by Antonio Arellano in a tiny cobbler’s shop in a narrow back street off St. Peter’s Square where a steady flow of customers come to get their shoes re-soled.
Far from the designer stores on the other side of the Tiber, Arellano’s shop, with its smell of glue and racks of shoe polish, is unremarkable, except for the fact that, due to its location, he counts Benedict as a loyal customer.
“When he was cardinal, he came in like any normal person to have his shoes mended,” said Arellano, a Peruvian immigrant who has had the shop in Borgo Pio - the Rome quarter that neighbours the Vatican City - since 1998.
Satisfied with his work, the then Cardinal Ratzinger ordered hand-made shoes from Arellano.
With the pope’s measurements already on file - Benedict is a size 42 - Arellano, a skilled shoemaker, was able to make the distinctive red loafers that he wore when he put former Pope John Paul II on the road to sainthood at a grand beatification ceremony in 2011.
“When I saw the beatification - when you see your work - you feel great,” Arellano said, standing under a photograph of himself presenting Benedict with his shoes.
Even better, the cobbler - whose hand-made shoes, bearing his name stamped on the insole, line one side of his shop - gets return business.
“He wears out the toe when he prays, so I repair them,” he said. “I feel happy when I see my name that I have put there - wow, he really walks a lot - that’s my satisfaction.”
With Benedict set to retire to an apartment inside the Vatican City, Arellano hopes he will remain his customer, even if the pope no longer visits in person.
“In the future, the new pope, let’s hope he will be my customer, if he is, hallelujah, another one .. Working for him would be fantastic.”
Editing by Giles Elgood