14 Mar Why the Pope Wears Red Shoes
by Massimo Gatto
Romans knew that the timetable for the papal conclave would be a quick one when the three sets of vestments prepared for the new pontiff—in small, medium, and large sizes—had already disappeared from the display window of Gammarelli, the ecclesiastical tailors, on Friday, March 8. The three white wool satin cassocks had appeared on March 4, along with one scarlet capelet, the mozzetta, trimmed in white ermine, versatile enough for one size to fit any aspiring pontiff, a single pair of red kangaroo-leather shoes in a medium size and a white moiré silk zucchetto, the pontifical skullcap. Though they are loaded with Christian significance, many of these articles of clothing actually have a far more ancient pedigree.
Those red shoes, for example—which the pontifex emeritus has now given up in favor of a more ordinary brown pair from Mexico—may symbolize the blood of Christian martyrs. But when red shoes were the height of fashion in Etruscan Rome, that is, five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, they designated the wearer as an aristocrat, someone who could afford leather that had been colored with the most expensive dye in the Mediterranean, Phoenician “purple”—which was actually scarlet red. (It was produced by scoring the bodies of molluscs and ranged in color from blue to red, with red the most prized shade.) The leather itself came not from kangaroos, of course, but from the Chianina cattle, who came to Italy together with the Etruscans and provided the ancestral form of Florentine beefsteak.