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The Berlina di Gran Gala was built in 1826 for Pope Leo XII. It is essentially a mobile throne-room made of wood with inlays painted in gold leaf. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
The Berlina di Gran Gala was built in 1826 for Pope Leo XII. It is essentially a mobile throne-room made of wood with inlays painted in gold leaf. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

Popemobiles

Popes have always travelled in style Add to ...

Whether they rode in litters carried by men in livery, in ornate horse-drawn carriages, or later in cars, popes have always travelled in style.

Papal vehicles from 1825 to the present day are now on display at a new, updated exhibition at the Vatican Museums that spans nearly two centuries of papal travel.

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The most extravagant on display is the Berlina di Gran Gala, built in 1826 for Pope Leo XII. It is essentially a mobile throne-room made of wood with inlays painted in gold leaf.

As ornate was it was, apparently it was not ornate enough for Pope Gregory XVI, who in 1841 added gold-coloured angels and statues of two children holding up a tiara and keys – symbols of papal power.

It was pulled through the streets of 19th century Rome by six horses, each bearing riders dressed in fine livery with papal stems stitched on by golden thread.

“These vehicles from the first ones still in the times of horses to the last ones, the modern cars, show that the pope is a man who lives in the midst of his people, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the governor of Vatican City, said at the opening on Tuesday.

The first car entered the Vatican in 1909 but the pope at the time, Pius X, refused to use it.

It was an Itala 20/30 given to him as a gift by the archbishop of New York. But Pius, who was later made a saint, thought it was too noisy for the Vatican gardens so he kept using the papal horse and buggy to take some air.

During the 1920s, cars such as the Bianchi Tipo 15, Bianchi Tipo 20, the Fiat 525, the Graham Paige 837, the Citroen C6 Lictoria Sex and the Mercedes 460 Nurburg limousine entered the Vatican for use by popes.

Horse-drawn carriages officially became past history in 1931 when the tiny city-state started its own registry of motor vehicles with the license plate SCV.

The papal car is tagged SCV 1.

Automotive history buffs will learn that on July 19, 1943, after the Americans bombed Rome, Pope Pius XII left the Vatican in a Mercedes 230 and went to the devasted Rome neighbourhood of San Lorenzo to comfort the population.

But the Mercedes broke down after he arrived and he had to return to the Vatican in the Graham Paige 837, which was made in Detroit in 1929.

It was on the running board of the Graham Piage 837 that Pius stood, arms outstretched and his eyes looking skyward in what became one of the most famous photos of World War II.

The first “popemobile,” effectively a white Jeep-style vehicle, burst on the scene when Pope Paul VI used one in 1975 so that he could be easily seen by crowds of people who came to Rome for the jubilee year.

The “popemobile” became a household word during the papacy of John Paul II, who used them to move through oceanic crowds on his world travels.

One of the new additions to the exhibition is the white Fiat 1107 Nuova Campagnola 1980, which is the open off-road vehicle John Paul was riding in on May 13, 1981 when he was shot and nearly killed by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Sandro Barbagallo, the curator of the exhibition, said exhibiting the car was not intended to be macabre sensationalism.

“Looking at this car brings about a moment of reflection,” he said, adding that film footage and photographs of the assassination attempt had made it a part of history that many people can identify with.

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