The Apostle of Beauty: Filippo Sorcinelli

Rita Francia / Courtesy Filippo Sorcinelli

Italian artist Filippo Sorcinelli could easily have rested on his laurels as tailor to Popes Francis and Benedict XVI. But his desire to create has spilled over into painting, music, jewelry, and perfumes.

A mysterious mist shrouds the cobbled village streets. Out of the darkness looms a figure in a long, black-hooded coat, with a Rasputin-like beard and a pale face reminiscent of El Greco’s self-portrait as the apostle Saint Matthew.

These narrow, winding lanes of Santarcangelo di Romagna—a small medieval town near Rimini, on Italy’s Adriatic coast—are the perfect backdrop for Filippo Sorcinelli.

The beard, along with the asymmetrical haircut, sculpted body, and geometric tattoos, requires one to take a leap—of faith?—to imagine that this half-punk, half-monk is the pope’s tailor.

Indeed, not all Vaticanists, or even the Roman Curia for that matter, were enthusiastic about this curious character, with his esoteric airs, claiming such a prestigious title at the age of 30, in 2005.

Yet any doubts are dispelled when one enters his three-story workshop and glimpses the imposing, gem-encrusted liturgical vestments that adorn his second-floor “clothes laboratory” and top-floor showroom. Compared with Sorcinelli’s broodiness and all-black attire, the garments in both spaces offer a riot of color, from the Tyrian purple of sorrow and the crimson of martyrdom to the white and gold of birth and resurrection.

The lower floors are dedicated to his other creative interests. In the basement he concocts a range of heady perfumes, which he displays on the ground floor together with his nonreligious clothing designs. When not engrossed in clothes and perfume, Sorcinelli’s mind turns to painting, photography, and his latest organ compositions.

Gracing a wall on the top floor is a large photograph of Pope Benedict XVI (who reigned from 2005 to 2013) in one of Sorcinelli’s finely wrought raiments. Farther back, a mannequin wears the gold-and-white chasuble (the outermost vestment worn by clergy) Sorcinelli crafted for Pope Francis for his inaugural mass in 2013, attended by 132 government delegations, representatives of all the world’s major faiths, and a crowd of as many as 200,000.

The design was inspired by the Giotto fresco of Christ on the cross that hangs in Rimini’s cathedral. It looks fittingly somber for the South American pope of humble origins. But as Sorcinelli points out: “The Venetian fabric is extremely luxurious. Appearances can sometimes be deceptive.”

It may not sound very Catholic, but style matters in the Vatican. “It must reflect and underline the message of the pontiff,” Sorcinelli says. “Pope Benedict loved the arts, music, the history of art, and beauty. He was a scholarly man, and that was reflected in his clothing style. For him, expressing the beauty of God was the highest priority, more than expressing his own beauty.” Sorcinelli appears to have a penchant for Benedict’s marriage of ornament and rigor. “Pope Francis is quite different,” he adds. “He prefers less ornate gowns. They reflect his modesty, but they also put the focus more on himself.”

For each piece, his workshop produces three designs. They are examined by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff before being presented to the pope. Symbolism is everywhere, right down to the type and number of precious stones used. Christ and the 12 apostles are represented by topaz and a dozen crystals. Amethyst is for archbishops, and aquamarine is for the Madonna. While he is reticent to talk costs, he does let slip that a papal miter runs around $4,200.


Sorcinelli designed this white chasuble—made from silk and solemn wool—with eight different trimmings and metallic wire. The colored topaz gems and crystals are soaked in gold. Courtesy Filippo Sorcinelli

Sorcinelli was born in 1975 in Mondolfo, on Italy’s central coast. While nothing predisposed the pious little boy to becoming a postmodern artist—even if he demonstrated precocious skills in organ playing and painting, later attending music and art schools—there was an early link to tailoring.

“A cousin of my mother’s worked in a studio where they made clothes for the clergy. And my aunt and sister made wedding dresses. I was always fascinated by what they did,” he recalls.

He made his first chasuble for a friend who was a priest in 2001. That same year, he cofounded LAVS—an acronym for Laboratorio Atelier Vesti Sacre—his company for designing and making sacred vestments and liturgical accessories. It is a family affair, as his sister and aunt work by his side, and his brother, a cabinetmaker, recently crafted the wooden lids for one of his new perfume bottles.

“After I formed LAVS, things went pretty fast, spreading by word of mouth. Priests talk to each other. First it was for one, then three, five,” he says, adding he wasn’t seeking to turn it into his profession. “Then one day I received a call from the papal liturgy saying, ‘The pope needs some clothing. Please come to the Sistine Chapel tomorrow.’”

Climbing the steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica, he was ushered by guards into the dark chapel and pointed to the light switch. “I flicked it and found myself alone with Michelangelo!” he says.

He crossed the Room of Tears, so called because of the strong emotions new pontiffs go through when they enter it to put on choir robes after being elected, and walked into the pope’s sacristy. There, he was dazzled by the treasure trove of sacred clothes, chalices, and golden papal crowns. “Then I took his measurements,” he says.

After Pope Benedict wore a red chasuble with purple padding made of wool and silk with geometric motifs that Sorcinelli created, requests began flooding in from all over the globe—Berlin, Jerusalem, Madrid, Boston, New York. His success seemed assured, but at 38, an unexpected event turned his life upside down. A letter—he claims from a “jealous rival”—making accusations about his sexuality was sent to the Vatican.

Thunderstruck, he chose to take the “vile” attack as a chance for personal and artistic rebirth. “Ironically, my enemies unwittingly offered me the perfect gift, a chance to be true to myself,” he says.

The physical metamorphosis from tie-wearing, clean-shaven tailor to Gothic artist happened immediately. He had the Sacred Heart, a symbol of the Church, tattooed on his back and a straight line, the path for his future life, on his right arm. Black became his color of choice.

“For 38 years, I received a wonderful education in beauty, in discreet spirituality, but I had a huge weight on my shoulders: the world of the Church,” says the now 42-year-old. “I think at some point, the time comes when you have to choose whether you want to be a real artist, as art is free, or a technician of the Church.”

Of religion he will say little, even if one senses a passion for liturgy and a monk-like asceticism and a deeply meditative approach to his work. “Today my spirituality above all stems from freedom and the perfect coherence in what I believe and who I am,” he says.

His artistic and personal liberation has in no way slowed the stream of orders from ecclesiastics in Italy and elsewhere. But his pursuit of artistic expression of all forms has been abounding and, in a lot of cases, symbiotic.

His two lines of perfume grew out of a customary gesture of using fragrance to make his creations stand out. He conceived a scent that was woody and ambery, with cedar, incense, and tonka bean notes, and began spraying it on all the liturgical clothes destined for the Vatican. It became his “scent signature.”


Pope Francis in a Sorcinelli-designed chasuble at his 2013 inauguration mass. Courtesy Getty Images

“I see perfume as not just a sensorial but a spiritual experience,” he says, pointing out that the word perfume—meaning “per fume,” or “through smoke”—was originally used as a way of conversing with the gods. Named LAVS, after his atelier, it’s the perfume that launched his brand Unum (“unity” in Latin), and it was the talk of the 2016 Milan perfume fair. Visitors thronged to Sorcinelli’s booth for its spectacular grotto-like decor, an attraction in its own right.

He’s since put out four more scents under Unum: Opus 1144 (woody and oriental), Rosa Nigra (fruity and floral), Ennui Noir (woody and musky), and Symphonie Passion (woody and floral). Sorcinelli describes them as a tribute to the Gothic era. Composed with a Milanese perfumer, each one comes in a black, monolithic box that opens like a holy book. (They are sold in several countries, including Italy, and in Los Angeles, at Lucky Scent’s Scent Bar, and in New York, at Twisted Lily and MiN.)

A few days after we meet, he will present Io Non Ho Mani—Unum’s sixth fragrance—at the Milan perfume fair. It’s a perfume whose curious name is inspired by the photos of Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli and the first, enigmatic lines of a poem by David Maria Turoldo: “Io non ho mani che mi accarezzino il volto” (“I don’t have hands to caress my face”).

He’s also released a second collection called Sauf, an ode to pipe organs, specifically the great organ of Notre-Dame de Paris, built in the 13th century. The scents are named after specific stops: Voix Humaine 8, Contre Bombarde 32, Plein Jeu III. They smell, respectively, of oriental incense with warm vanilla, light cologne shot through with spicy ginger and black pepper, and deep incense—like an old church with a twist of chic mystique.

Music being his other great passion, Sorcinelli recently released Francophilie, an album where he revisits organ works by Bach and other Baroque composers with his own improvisations. His striking figure is often seen hunched over the keyboard of Rimini’s cathedral and the local San Fortunato church, whose organ was created by 18th-century Venetian master Gaetano Callido. After training at the conservatory G. Rossini in Pesaro, he fine-tuned his organ skills at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.

“At 13, while other boys were playing soccer, I was an organist in the Fano, Rimini, and San Benedetto del Tronto cathedrals,” he says.

Small wonder, then, that music has spilled over into his perfumes, with Symphonie Passion being a tribute to his hero, the French organist and composer Marcel Dupré. “Music, like perfume, is deliciously impalpable, evanescent, intangible, and yet unforgettable,” he says. “Its mysterious immateriality doesn’t stop it from going straight to the heart.”

In April, Le Bastion de France in Porto Vecchio, Corsica, will stage a ten-day retrospective of his work in all its forms, from the liturgical to his nonreligious garments, perfume, music, photos, and paintings.

When asked what drives all this bewildering, multidirectional artistic endeavor, he says simply: “I want to be an apostle of beauty.” 
 

All In the Details


Courtesy Henry Samuel

The Pope's Miter

  • The miter is 33cm high, corresponding to Christ's lifespan.
  • It has four lateral squares, symbolizing the four Evangelists.
  • There are ten square modules relating to the ten commandments.
  • Each is 3 square centimeters, symbolizing the Holy trinity.
  • Each bears intersecting Greek crosses, which represent the crucifixion of Christ and Saint Andrew.
     


Courtesy Henry Samuel

Saint Andrew's Cross

  • Saint Andrew's cross symbolizes light and illumination. The X, which stands for 10 in Latin, can also be seen as the junction of a V, relating to celestial descent and a Λ, relating to terrestrial elevation.
  • Each square is surrounded by 12 stones, subdivided into four white beads (the four Evangelists), and eight gold balls, which together with the four Evangelists make up the number 12 (the Apostles).
  • The ornaments are divided into seven groups symbolizing the Seven Sacraments.
  • In Sorcinelli's ornaments, Christ and the 12 apostles are symbolized by topaz surrounded by a dozen crystals. 
  • Amethyst is the archbishop's stone.
  • For Saint Francis he uses rock crystal.
  • Aquamarine is the Madonna's stone.
  • Blue agate is for ornaments for Notre Dame.

—Additional reporting by Lionel Pailles