For those who may have missed it last year either in this column or on my weekend radio show, “Vatican Insider,” I’d like to share a Palm Sunday story with you – one I tell all my friends who visit Rome when we are in St. Peter’s Square. It’s the marvelous story of how a sailor from Liguria saved an obelisk from falling and extracted a papal promise for an honor for his native city.

In 1586, Pope Sixtus V, to complete the design of St. Peter’s Square, ordered architect Domenico Fontana to place in the center of the square a giant Egyptian obelisk which had been brought to Rome in 39 A.D. by Emperor Caligula. For centuries it has been in the emperor’s circus, in what today is Vatican City, and moving the obelisk from that point to the center of St. Peter’s Square would be a herculean task.

On September 10, the day the 85-foot high, 350-ton obelisk was transported by 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the Italian Riviera area of San Remo-Bordighera, was in the square.

The head engineer had told Pope Sixtus that total silence was needed to raise the obelisk, once it was in the square. Thus, the Pope announced to the huge crowd that had assembled to watch the maneuver that anyone who spoke during the delicate and risky operation would face the death penalty.

As work was underway, the ropes used to raise the obelisk gave signs of fraying and weakening and the obelisk itself began to sway. However, the now famous sailor Benedetto – whose name means Benedict – knew what the problem was and how to solve it and so, notwithstanding the pontiff’s ultimatum, he shouted, “aiga ae corde – “water on the ropes, water on the ropes.” The head engineer realized the sailor was right, the ropes were watered, they became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised, without further danger to anyone.

Instead of punishing the audacious sailor, Pope Sixtus rewarded him by giving Benedetto and his descendants the privilege of providing the Vatican with the famous Ligurian palms used for Holy Week ceremonies in the Vatican. And so it has been for over four centuries, with only a few brief interruptions. (photos from sanremofiorita)

Known as “parmureli”, the leaves from date palm trees in San Remo and Bordighera are woven and braided into intricate sculptures, some only inches high, others several meters high. Every Palm Sunday, the cities provide the Vatican with over 200 parmureli, including one parmurelo for the Pope that is customarily six feet high and about 80 five-foot high palms for cardinals and bishops.

Many years ago, when the parmureli arrived by sea, the ship that carried them placed one of the palm leaf sculptures on the mast that usually displayed a flag. The palm “flag” thus gave that vessel from San Remo-Bordighera precedence into the port over all other vessels.

By the way, the obelisk is also a sundial as its shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the white marble disks placed among the cobblestones of the square.