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The ancient craft of the pope’s shoemaker

RED SHOES

Shutterstock-Eugenio Marongiu

V. M. Traverso - published on 10/21/23

Adriano Stefanelli has been making shoes for popes including John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis.

For centuries, popes wore red shoes, a symbol of worldly power and of the Passion of Christ. Popes usually wore red leather shoes in their outdoor activities and red slippers for their indoor life. 

Adriano Stefanelli, a shoemaker from Novara, northern Italy, has been making shoes for popes since the time of John Paul II. Stefanelli’s loafer design earned him a mention in Esquire’s most elegant men in the world list in 2007 when the red loafers designed for Pope Benedict XVI were named as accessory of the year. 

That famous pair of shoes was designed and crafted by hand by Stefanelli in his Novara workshop. For that pair, he opted for a classic loafer design, a flaming red color and the Pope’s initials marked in gold on the tip of the shoes. According to Italian TV, George W. Bush saw Pope Benedict’s red shoes during a papal visit in Washington D.C. and was so impressed that he ordered the exact replica, in black rather than red.

Red Papal loafers worn by Pope Benedict XVI
Stefanelli’s shoes were mentioned by Esquire’s list of most elegant menswear in the world in 2007 when he designed red loafers for Pope Benedict XVI.

The Italian shoemaker is also working on shoes for the current pope. Pope Francis has some orthopedic issues so Stefanelli designed a special pair of shoes that can fit him. In this video by local TV station Videonovara, featured below, Stefanelli proudly shows the loafer he designed for the current Pope. 

It was stitched by hand by Stefanelli and is incredibly flexible yet sturdy. The exterior of the shoe is made of violet velvet fabric with a golden embroidery of the Vatican coat of arms. A year ago, Stefanelli started producing loafers for American bishops following the same design structure.

Stefanelli shoes designed for American Bishops
A year ago, Stefanelli started producing loafers for American bishops.

As explained in an interview, Stefanelli learned his trade from his father, a shoemaker who specialized in shoe repairs and shoemaking. As a teenager, Stefanelli did not want to follow his father’s footsteps, but his parents advised him to “learn the trade” first and decide if he wanted to continue the family tradition at a later date.

Pope St. John Paul II with Stefanelli
Stefanelli made shoes for Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Young Stefanelli followed the advice and after a few months he realized he actually found meaning in his father’s craft. Unlike today’s shoes, which are mostly made by machines for large mass markets, ancient shoemakers would spend hours crafting shoes designed specifically for individual customers using glue, nails, and ropes. 

Traditional shoemaking is a fading art in Italy, and it is only thanks to the dedication of descendants of traditional shoemakers like Stefanelli that the tradition is still holding on. In recent years, young shoemakers that hold on to their traditional craft have attracted thousands of viewers on social media, suggesting a revived appreciation for the value of handmade shoes. 

Pope Benedict XVI with Stefanelli
Stefanelli with Pope Benedict XVI.

Stefanelli started training at 14 years old and by the time he was 20 he was a fully trained shoemaker. At 25 he stopped being a shoemaker and opened a shoe shop. But he missed the actual craft of working leather and wood and designing shapes fit for each person’s individual needs.

When Stefanelli heard that Pope John Paul II was not feeling well during a Via Crucis he decided to go back to his shoemaking workshop. “I asked myself what can I do to alleviate his suffering?” he says. “So I thought I could make him a pair of shoes.” 

Stefanelli shoes designed for American bishops
A pair of shoes designed for an American Bishop.

Stefanelli did not know Pope John Paul II’s shoe size, but as an experienced shoemaker he opted for a size 13.5 based on the pope’s height and weight. When Wojtyła received the handmade shoes, they fit perfectly and Stefanelli was asked to come meet the pope in Rome. 

“He was a truly charismatic person,” the shoemaker says. “By being in his presence one could understand things that before were not clear.” Pope John Paul II loved the gift from Stefanelli and ordered other pairs of shoes. “The pope would spend time touching the shoes to really appreciate the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship of the design,” Stefanelli says. When Pope John Paul II died, he was dressed with Stefanelli’s shoes. 

Since then, Stefanelli has designed shoes for cardinals, popes, and heads of state, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Three years ago he opened an atelier next to his historic workshop in Novara to showcase the shoes he has made during his 50-year career. “I opened this atelier as a sign of respect and gratitude towards the people of Novara and all the people who supported me,” he says

Visitors can look through Stefanelli’s impressive collection as well as photographs and letters documenting his high profile clients, including George W. Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama, the Admor of Malta and, of course, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XV and Pope Francis. 

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