The images quickly went viral around the world. They showed an audience of Pope Francis in the Vatican this week, with an unusual participant in the crowd: Spider-Man.
But it was not Peter Parker behind the mask, it was Mattia Villardita, a 28-year-old worker in the port of Savona who volunteers entertaining children in hospitals in the superhero costume during his spare time.
The idea was born from personal experience. Villardita was a patient of the Gaslini paediatric hospital of Genoa until the age of 19, due to a birth condition that required multiple surgeries.
“I know very well first-hand what it feels like to be inside a hospital ward, and the pain that the families feel,” Villardita told The Irish Times. He chose Spider-Man as a character he liked from cartoons as a child and who he finds appeals to both adults and children.
“Peter Parker is a boy with a good heart, he is humble, friends and family are important to him, and he remains that way even after getting his superpowers,” he said.
Villardita was in Rome to do an event at the Agostino Gemelli hospital, Rome’s largest, at the invitation of the police, who had arranged the audience with Pope Francis to express their thanks.
This led to surreal scenes as the convincingly-costumed Spider-Man sat quietly, listening as Pope Francis delivered his homily, flanked by solemn parishioners and priests.
Still in full costume, Villardita then met Pope Francis, who asked him if he would take some photographs with some children who were present in the Vatican courtyard.
“I gave him a mask that I no longer use, symbolically. I said these words to him: through those eyes, the eyes of the mask, I see a lot of suffering daily in these children. I asked him if he could please really pray for the children who are suffering a lot in cancer hospitals during these times,” Villardita said.
“I think he knew in advance who I was, I think they must have told him. Because anyway, there is a question of security with a person inside the walls of the Vatican in a costume that makes him unrecognisable.”
It was not the first time that Villardita has found himself in elevated company. In December, he received a call from the Italian presidency to inform him that he would be made a Knight of the Republic, a civil honour.
This was due to his voluntary work during the pandemic. At a time when Italy was experiencing a crushingly-high daily death toll and people were confined to their homes, Villardita moved his voluntary work online. He organised video calls with paediatric patients as Spider-Man, delivered "Spidey-pizzas" to those in treatment and created a play area for children in the hospital of his home town.
The costume does not allow him to carry many personal items, and Villardita went directly to the hospital event after the papal audience, so he was unaware for some time that his image had ricochetted around the globe.
“To tell you the truth, I expected that this meeting could spark curiosity, but not that it would go all over the world,” Villardita said.
“I didn’t have my phone on me all day, but afterwards when I saw the photos it actually looked almost like a movie. A basis for a Marvel film, in which the Holy Father was also the protagonist.”