The Pope’s New Shoes

Good Friday with the Vatican’s Favorite Cobbler Adriano Stefanelli

Black is the new red—at least that’s the word on the street in Novara, northern Italy, where speculation about the details of Pope Francis’ footwear is reaching fever pitch. “The atmosphere of speculation and rumor was heavy,” says photographer Toby Glanville, who followed papal shoemaker Adriano Stefanelli around the town where he keeps his shop. “Pope Francis is quite a long way from Benedict in terms of style. The new papacy is all about humility, so Stefanelli said they are most likely to be black.” Pope John Paul II wore brown slippers and Pope Benedict XVI wore red, which were famously mistaken for Prada before being correctly attributed to Stefanelli, who has also cobbled for Barack and Michelle Obama. Photographs of the 64-year-old craftsman’s meetings with past popes line the walls of his modest store, revealing a celebrity within the confines of Novara. “People would come up to him because he is super well known,” Glanville says. “The question on everybody’s lips is, ‘Have you made the shoes for the new pope, and what color are they?’ And he would say the order hasn’t come in yet as the pontiff has a lot of heads of state to see first!” We caught up with Stefanelli before the biggest holiday on the Catholic calendar. 

Pope Francis is a new type of pope, with a more modest approach. Has he contacted you? 
Adriano Stefanelli: Not yet. As the news says, the pope has decided to wear resoled old shoes for the moment. A gesture of humility to be welcomed.

Will you still send him a pair of shoes?
AS: Yes. I do not want to reveal details now, but I’m already working on a new pair, with which I would like to pay homage. I have great respect for him and it would be an honor for me to give him a gift.

You have made shoes for Pope John Paul II and many for Pope Benedict XVI. Do you always get to meet the pope first, or do you deal with Vatican staff?
AS: Very often it involves dealing with staff members, but for many of them I do everything under my own initiative. When I made the first model for John Paul II, I did not even know the right size, but guessed it at the first try. After that, everything went on through the ordinary channels.

What can you tell about the different popes from their shoe requests?
AS: Not much, because the shoes were identical apart from the color, but that was not chosen at random. The ruby-red of Pope Benedict XVI stands as a symbol for the blood of Christ and of the martyrs of the Church paid at the foot of mankind. Considering this detail, we can say that Pope Benedict was more focused on the form, the ritual.

Are there any other global leaders you would like to make a pair of shoes for?
AS: I wanted to make a pair for Mother Teresa. In fact, the shoes were almost ready when she died.

What struck you when you eventually did meet the last two pontiffs?
AS: It certainly left a mark on me. I remember both as deeply charismatic, but at the same time as very different. Benedict XVI was very sweet; John Paul II was already sick when I met him but he still managed to convey great strength and I am convinced that he still watches on me from up there.

Were you surprised to receive feedback from Michelle Obama, and will you be making any more shoes for the First Lady?
AS: I was not at all surprised because I’m used to these gestures of gratitude. I have no plans to make her anything more at the moment but I am not ruling it out for the future.

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