“La Domenica delle Palme,” or Palm Sunday, is celebrated by Roman Catholics throughout the world on the Sunday before Easter. In Italy, Palm Sunday traditions vary from region to region, nearly every Italian city marks the day with an abundant display of palm fronds. The origins of this custom can be traced back 450 years to the small Ligurian town of Bordighera.
Known throughout Italy for its palm trees, Bordighera is the northern most place in Europe where palm trees grow, creating a lush canopy on the town’s hillside. It is from this town that the palms for the Vatican are selected for Palm Sunday. Rather than just palm leaves and branches, over 2,000 parmureli are distributed in Saint Peter’s Square. These are creations woven using the palms to fashion religious and commemorative pieces. In addition to those distributed to the faithful, over 100 elaborate, three-foot long parmureli are given to the Cardinals of the Church, with the largest one reserved for the Pope. This practice began during the 16th century.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V was putting the finishing touches on the nearly completed Saint Peter’s Square. He ordered architect Domenico Fontana to place a giant obelisk in the center of the square which had been brought to Rome in 39 A.D. by Emperor Caligula. For centuries it had been in the Circus of Nero, in what is today Vatican City. But moving the structure from that location to Saint Peter’s Square would be a Herculean task.
On September 10, 1586, the 85-foot high, 350-ton obelisk was transported by over 900 workers and 140 horses. Upon the thousands who assembled in the square to watch the incredible maneuver was Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the Italian Riviera area of Bordighera. Because it was a very delicate task that required full concentration, the chief engineer told Pope Sixtus that total silence was needed to raise the monument. Thus, the Pope announced to the huge crowd that anyone who spoke during the risky operation would be sentenced to death.
As work was underway, the ropes used to raise the massive structure gave signs of fraying and weakening and the obelisk itself began to sway. As a sailor, Bresca knew what the problem was and how to solve it. Despite the Pontiff’s warning, he shouted “L’aiga ae corde!” (Water on the ropes!) The head engineer realized the sailor was right and watered the ropes. They became taut and strong and the pillar was raised without further danger to anyone.
Instead of punishing the audacious sailor, Pope Sixtus rewarded him by giving him and his descendants the privilege of providing the Vatican with the famous Ligurian palms from his hometown of Bordighera.