ROME – Dozens of ecclesiastical shops surround Rome’s upscale Plaza Minerva, but only one has a Vatican limousine parked out front and a long line of Roman Catholic priests, bishops and the occasional cardinal waiting for service.

There’s only one reason, said a customer from Australia who would identify himself only as an aide to a cardinal.

“It’s the best. There’s no better tailor for quality,” he explained. Then he admitted, “Part of it is for the prestige.”

The shop is Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, but many Italians refer to it simply as “the pope’s tailor.”

Gammarelli’s prestige comes from supplying garments to the late Pope John Paul II, to many of his predecessors over the past 207 years, and now to the next pope before he is even named.

These days are unusually busy at Gammarelli because so many of the Catholic Church’s senior leaders have been in town for John Paul’s funeral and the start of the conclave Monday, in which 115 cardinals will begin the selection of the next pontiff.

Before the new pope is announced to the world, he will enter the Vatican’s Room of Tears to don his new pontifical garments, which Gammarelli will have waiting.

“We have to guess his size. We hope to get lucky,” said Filippo Gammarelli, who runs the shop with his brother and nephew.

“We have to make some considerations for size, so everything will be there in small, medium and large.”

On rare occasions, the pope’s off-the-rack garments do the job.

“If we are lucky enough to have the cassock fitting perfectly, there is some rest for us. But if it is not perfect, we must go to him and make measurements and prepare the garments in the shortest time possible,” he said.

If the man chosen is already a customer, “then we will already have his measurements on file,” which makes everyone’s job easier, Gammarelli explained.

“But we do not have all the cardinals as customers.”

He declined to say how many cardinals are customers. Photos of several past papal customers adorn one wall, with papal certificates of blessing occupying the opposite wall of the small shop. The first pope to be served here: Pius IX in 1846.

The Australian customer asks to see a sampling of red skullcaps, the kind only worn by cardinals.

Gammarelli’s brother, Annibale, pulled out two and said, “This one is 16 euros, and this one is 20,” or about $22 and $27.

The Australian fumbled while trying one on his own head, as if unsure whether he was violating protocol. Removing it, he replied, “I’ll take one in small and one in medium – just in case.”

Filippo Gammarelli drew a sharp rebuke from his brother for continuing to talk to a reporter when there was so much work to be done. The reporter tried to ask one more question but Annibale Gammarelli made clear that the interview was over.

“You go. Now!” he said.

It was hard to argue. Twelve clergymen were now waiting to be served.


Gammarelli, which opened its doors in 1798, is tucked off the Via de Cestari in central Rome, next to a housewares store. The tailor’s entrance is just to the left of a window displaying toilet-bowl brushes and bathroom garbage cans.

Immediately after the pope’s death, the tailor’s storefront was almost empty.

On display: only a white skullcap placed atop a gold-embroidered square of cloth. The skullcap, known as a zucchetto, was made for Pope John Paul II, but he died before being able to wear it. Now, vestments that await the new pope fill the window display.

All around Gammarelli, in the area known as Plaza Minerva, flashy and expensive-looking tailor shops offer the finest in clerical garb. Other shops specialize in gold-encrusted decorative items for chapels and churches.

Across the street, Marcello DeRitis has been in business for 80 years, catering to priests and nuns. His store – three times the size of Gammarelli – was empty of customers.

“They choose him because of tradition,” DeRitis said with a sigh. “Certainly, it is a question of prestige. Maybe quality, too.”

(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News.

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