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Second Letter from Rome.


PHOTO CREDIT: Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, Via di Santa Chiara, Rome.

Rome is the city for pilgrims. By now, every visit to this city has its familiarities - there are places I must visit, gardens I must sit in, shops I must attend (though my days for frenzied shopping are past), and restaurants and bars where I can say I feel comfortable. But, Rome is surprising - and every time I visit, I learn something new, discover a new artisan area, stumble on a bakery that has been there for generations, thriving without me.

After a trip to Rome, every male relative already knows their Christmas present. Though I wrap it cunningly, they know what the soft parcel will contain. The only frisson of tension is.....the colour and the weight. Socks, of course, from the tailors to the Popes since 1798, Ditta Annibale Gammarelli.

My favourite building in all the world is the Pantheon and I visit it as often as I can, sometimes several times in any one trip - in the morning, at high noon, to catch the last rays of sun, or to witness the rain pelting down onto the smooth marble floor. Just to see it in its glory. Tucked in behind this beautiful church, in a back alley, is a little shop with as much charm as the Pantheon itself. Gammarelli, outfitters of clerics, in Via di Santa Chiara.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Pantheon, Rome. Entrance from 8.30am - 7.30pm

I had passed it many times, marvelling at the intricate embroidery in gold thread on the vestments, amazed that bishops' ornate rings are purchased in such a shop and not handed down with mysterious, ceremonial pomp.

PHOTO CREDIT: Gammarelli archive. Available for purchase.

One rainy morning I made an early visit to the Pantheon to see the spectacle of rain falling through a hole in the roof. (I don't get out much.) I was sheltering under the lintel of Gammarelli's doorway as an assistant was opening up for the day's trade. He invited me in. I had no idea I could enter such an establishment. I mumbled something about being a Catholic, Dominican if you please, to prove my worthy credentials. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

PHOTO CREDIT: Gammarelli archives. Skull caps for stylish bishops - matching socks in the next drawer up.

The interior is all dark wood panelling, with open shelves - holding bolts of shiny, damask silk for vestments, gold signet rings, mitre hats rising high on the counters. Then there is the photo wall - all the popes dressed by the house: from Pius 1X, famous in certain cynical circles for his First Vatican Council decree announcing papal infallibility; crowd favourites John XX111 and John Paul 11; and our bloke, Francis. It was all I could do not to genuflect.

Photo Credit: Gammarelli archives.

Of course, I was welcome, he told me and proceeded to show me the shelves. He suggested I might like to buy some socks for my husband. I thought quietly it was just the souvenir to take home to a long-lapsed Catholic. He'd love them, I lied. But he did and a tradition was born.

After Gammarelli first began supplying the pope, more and more

clergy from the Vatican became their customers. Subsequently, the word spread to other fashioniste, who then “pilgrimaged” to Rome to bring home a couple of pairs of these red or purple socks from the unassuming Gammarelli store.

Gammarelli had to come up with high quality, over the calf socks in colours that would accord with the different ranks of the church’s hierarchy. Cardinals wear a bright shade of red, whereas purple is designated for bishops and sombre black is reserved for priests. Above all, the pope wears white, over the calf socks which go nicely with his red shoes.

Out of deference, I have never bought the white socks. I have bought the black ones in exquisite silk (35 euros), which must make a parish priest squirm.

And so to the question of weight. Gammarelli socks are available in 100% fil d’ecosse cotton lisle for summer and 100% merino wool from Australia. And they are available in silk. Gammarelli socks are produced on machines, in a small factory just outside Rome, with 240 needles and feature hand sewn toe seams, which results in flat, comfortable edges. The workmanship is very good and I can attest that the socks last for many seasons, machine washed and dried on the line.

If I sound like a commercial break for Gammarelli it is because on this last trip, I met one of the cousins in the sixth generation of tailors who now run the shop with Lorenzo Gammarelli, the direct descendant of Giovanni Antonio Gammarelli, the first recorded papal tailor of the house of Gammarelli.

My elegant guide, with his faultless English, was clearly uncomfortable that Gammarelli had become a fashion icon. But I learned that each Pope makes his own fashion statement - it was John Paul 11 who preferred plain loafers; Paul V1 refused to wear the ornate head piece; Benedict caused a ruckus dressed in his ermine-trimmed red velvet shoulder cape to match his red leather shoes. In 2013, Pope Frances was named the best dressed man in the world by Esquire magazine which previously, in 2007, voted Benedict XV1 Accessorizer of the Year. (I am tempted to use an exclamation mark.)

PHOTO CREDIT: Gammarelli archives. Ready for a new Pope. This is the shop window a week from the announcement of the new Pope in 2013. Three white cassocks - small, medium, large - one will be despatched. Hand made shoes are ready in six sizes.

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina appeared on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica as Pope Francis, he wore an off-the-shelf white cassock, splendidly made by hand as are all the vestments at Gammarelli.

Stay tuned because this year the Costume Institute at the Met in New York will host: "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination". Vestments, clerical garb, accessories and other items, rarely seen outside the Vatican, will be displayed and discussed.

After years of sitting quietly at Mass, I learned to tell the seasons, the holy days and holidays of the Catholic year by the vestments of one sad Irish priest after another. Green was for everyday. Purple was only for Lent and Advent, dramatic red heralded Pentecost and white was for Christmas and Easter. There was also hot pink - but only for the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent. I don't know why. I'll find out.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bishop in red vestments saying Mass for Pentecost Sunday. Duomo di Lecce, 2018.

I sensed I had been there too long, touched too many silk fabrics, agonised over the colour and weight of my sock purchases. "Madam may like to purchase her gifts online", I was told. Gammarelli has a web site now. Each pair is just 20 euro plus postage, anywhere in the world.

It's not the same.

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