Ciao, Alitalia

Alitalia may have had its faults, but how many airlines can claim to have been the “pope’s airline” for over five centuries?

According to Flying Pontiff Quarterly, the trade journal that has covered papal air travel for some centuries now, recent scholarship has unearthed a long-buried document in the “Overdue” section of the Vatican library purporting to trace Alitalia’s role as the official carrier of supreme pontiffs to the papacy of Julius II (1503-1513).

The document, titled in Latin, “Numquam Ad Tempus” (“Never on Time”), asserts that Alitalia had its beginning in the early 1500s, a time of great turbulence (grande turbolenza) and papal fastening of seatbelts as the Holy See engaged in fierce power struggles with the Holy Roman Empire, France, Venice, Naples, Florence and Reykjavik.

Julius tasked Leonardo da Vinci, inventor, painter and all-around Renaissance man, with devising a “conveyance for timely and efficacious removal of the person of the supreme pontiff, in the event of unpleasantness (spiacevolezza).”

Leonardo, whose inventions included the helicopter, parachute, golf cart and cordless electric shaver, presented Julius with what he called Flying Thing (cosa volante), resembling an Airbus A321 and featuring a distinctive green and red tail fin (pinna caudale).

Alas, in keeping with his tendency to alienate absolutely everyone, Julius asked Leonardo how his Flying Thing was supposed to fly, being made of marble. Adding insult to injury, he also expressed dissatisfaction with Leonardo’s tail fin color scheme. The final blow was his suggestion to bring in Michelangelo to “spruce up” (“rinfrescare) the plane’s first-class section with frescoes of winged putti and an enormous white dove, symbolizing the Holy Ghost.

Predictably, Leonardo flew into a rage and soon departed for France on a mule, taking with him the Mona Lisa and the prototype of his cordless shaver. Michelangelo, pouting over a dispute with Julius about the doorknobs in the Sistine Chapel, refused his entreaties.

Successive attempts by Vatican engineers to make Leonardo’s cosa become volante failed, yet the Vatican never completely lost faith. When Rome was overrun and sacked in 1527 by Spanish and German soldiers, one of Julius’s successors, Clement VII, was discovered, according to the document, “sitting obliviously yet serenely in First Class, calmly pressing the flight attendant call button.”

Thus ended the Renaissance era of papal air travel. There followed what the document terms “the Long Cancellation” (“la lunga cancellazione”). Pope after pope found himself — and his considerable entourage — stranded, their flights scrubbed as Alitalia persisted in trying to get Leonardo’s 100,000-ton “pope-mover” (“papamobile”) off the ground. The final attempt was made by pushing it off the Tarpeian Rock, the promontory from which, for purposes of entertainment, Roman emperors had criminals and totally innocent people hurled to their deaths.

“Alitalia” now became a term of derision, meaning “late,” “undependable” or “worthless.” Viz.: “Alitalia! I’ve been waiting here for three hours!”

“We need a miracle,” a discouraged Pope Innocent X announced, ordering Alitalia’s top management to be thrown off the Tarpeian Rock.

Innocent got his miracle, but not for almost 300 years, when Alitalia engineers hit on the ingenious idea of making cose volante out of metal instead of Carrara marble. Despite the immediate success of the new design, conservative elements in the church chafed, maintaining that popes had been flying in planes made of marble for almost 400 years and that aluminum was a “strumento del diavolo” (“tool of the Devil”).

Seeking to end the controversy so that he could make his 4 o’clock flight to Castel Gandolfo, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical, “Deus est gubernator auxiliaris meus” (“God Is My Co-Pilot”), effectively ending Alitalia’s four-century-long reliance on stone aircraft.

One unforeseen and undesirable consequence of Pius’s widely praised encyclical was that it enabled Mussolini’s dictatorship. Il Duce was quick to claim credit for the innovation. Insidious and false as this was, it must be admitted that papal air travel during Mussolini’s rule was an era of unprecedented on-time departures and arrivals. Alitalia executives responsible for the rare cancellation or two were reacquainted with the Tarpeian Rock.

The postwar period ushered in a golden age (età d’oro) of papal air travel, as pontiffs took to the skies in seats that fully reclined. And if His Holiness needed another pillow or more biscotti, he pressed the flight attendant call button. And the Alitalia attendant said: Let there be biscotti!

Some popes seemed to spend more time aloft than on terra firma. “Dov’è il papa?” (“Where is the pope?”) asked a typical headline during the reign of frequent-flier Pope John Paul II. The answer, typically, was, “Who the hell knows?” (“Chi diavolo lo sa?”) Moscow? Buenos Aires? Havana? Ibiza? Newark?

Like most golden ages, it didn’t last. Rising fuel costs, labor strikes, lost luggage and popes who preferred pastorship via Zoom all took their toll, and the decision by Alitalia’s board of directors to go back to making planes out of marble, while bold, turned out to be a misstep.

But for a while there, the going was good. Some might even say, divine.

Christopher Buckley’s books include “Make Russia Great Again” and “Thank You for Smoking.” His forthcoming novel is “Has Anyone Seen My Toes?”

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