Vesture: An Early Visual of the Biretta from the 1500s and Rare Custom Hat Reliquary

I have often found the art of liturgical headgear an animated (and controversial) topic of conversation, especially in Rome.

Photo credit: OC-Travel

Above is a very rare photo I took of a sixteenth century biretta.  Namely, it is the cardinalatial biretta of St. Charles Borromeo, today kept in a fascinating little museum in the Swiss resort town of Ascona.  The museum, which I highly recommend you visit, is rarely open and usually only by appointment.  It is called the Museo Parrocchiale San Sebastiano and contains a wealth of liturgical arts (located in a little ex-oratory across the street from the College Papio).  Through the good graces of a priest friend of mine, we telephoned the curator and received a private tour.

The wool hat - one of the oldest intact birettas in the world - comes with a story.  Ascona was once part of the very large Duchy of Milan.  For 20 years St. Charles was the Archbishop of the See of Milan (today a Metropolitan Archdiocese, the largest in Europe).  Ascona, while in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland known as Ticino, was then an important part of the See of St. Ambrose.

On pastoral visits to help reform the Church, Cardinal Borromeo made his way to the little villages located high in the Alps.  This included a stop in Ascona, a fishing village on Lago Maggiore (the same lake the saint was born on, in nearby Arona).  The Cardinal always wore his biretta, rich with symbolism.  When he departed after his visit, he was not well and his cortege somehow forgot his biretta.  What do do?  The Catholics of Ascona held onto it, where it remains to this day.

An interesting side note, the reliquary itself is worthy of a closer look - designed to hold a hat - it is a rare work of art.  The red arms with golden "Humilitas" depict the arms of the Cardinal.  The blue enamel with golden tiara depict the former arms of the Pontificio Collegio di Santa Maria della Misericordia in Ascona, which the cardinal helped to found and build.  When in 1965 the school was given by the Vatican to the local Diocese, it lost the coveted title "Pontifical" and thus there was a revision of the arms, dropping the very symbolic tiara. 

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