Tempers can flare on the steps of St. Peter’s when Vatican guards turn casually dressed tourists away from the giant basilica.
Two signs tell what can’t be worn inside the center of Roman Catholicism: No shorts or bare shoulders and no skirts above the knee.
“I think it’s stupid,” 31-year-old American Phillip Gilbert said after guards turned thumbs down on his shorts. “I don’t think I’m badly dressed. My shorts aren’t that short and I’m wearing a shirt.”
Not only St. Peter’s, but the diocese of Rome and its hundreds of churches require clothing to be “consistent with the sacredness of the church,” spokesman Luciano Montemauri said.
The dress code actually has been eased. Until a decade ago, women were required to wear long sleeves.
In the cool of October, enforcement of the dress code brings only an occasional skirmish. But in the heat of the Mediterranean summer, when nearly as much flesh is bared on the streets of Rome as on the beach, it seems like holy war outside St. Peter’s - where the thick ancient walls provide cool sanctuary.
Two plainclothes policemen dressed in well-tailored dark suits patrol the broad marble steps looking for infractions and turning away the unsuitably dressed.
“A verbal warning is not always sufficient,” said a harried guard who gave his name only as Maurizio. He has the visitors pegged by nationalities.
“Japanese tourists are the most reasonable. They walk away calmly when told they cannot enter. Even Americans are calm. They simply go back to their hotel rooms to change,” he said. “French tourists are the worst. They stand there arguing that it is hot and there is nothing wrong with wearing shorts.”
And if church authorities are barely coping now, things will only get worse in 2000 when 20 million tourists - three times the annual number - are expected to descend on Rome to celebrate the start of Christianity’s third millennium.
Several million visitors already are pouring into some of Rome’s lesser known churches each year. The diocese counts 1,048 churches that are open to the public - a lot of territory to patrol.
Unlike the Vatican, most cannot afford guards. For the new millennium, the diocese is considering enlisting squads of volunteers to monitor tourist attire.