May 23, 2013

The obelisk of Saint Peter's Square

There is a famous anecdote about the obelisk at the center of Saint Peter's Square and while the historical facts surrounding the story are themselves extraordinary, the legend as it has been passed down to us is more charming.

Saint Peter's Square viewed from the dome
Saint Peter's Square viewed from the dome
The grandiose obelisk (see photo) which adorns the center of the famous elliptical square is renown. It comes from Ancient Egypt and is 3200 years old. According to Pliny, a ship was constructed for the sole purpose of bringing the obelisk to Rome in 37 A.D.  Once the obelisk was delivered, the ship was made part of Caligula's Circus.

The famous relic sat exactly where Caligula placed it for 1500 even while its surroundings dramatically changed.  The reason is sat undisturbed for so long is because it is 25 meters high and weighs 350 tons. It was not easily moved and eventually it became half-buried and forgotten due to the carelessness of men over the course of centuries.

Yet, interest in the landmark was renewed around the time of Pope Nicholas V (approximately 1450).  Those put in charge sought to place the obelisk at the center of the square.  They attempted to move it 250 meters from its original location, but significant technical obstacles foiled their efforts. Moving the obelisk was a challenge for the ages and early plans were insufficient failures. The object sat another 150 years until the energetic Pope Sixtus V took up the challenge. The Pope selected the plans of architect Domenico Fontana from a number of candidates and hired Fontana to execute the relocation  of this colossus.

Technical drawings by Domenico Fontana
Technical drawings by Domenico Fontana
Fontana had designed a solution with great care.  He erected a large and robust scaffold around the monolith creating a sort of wooden road upon which to move the object and then built a "castello" or scaffolding around the final position (see the picture) to lift it onto its base. He designed a bold and daring system of winches and pulleys to move the obelisk along its path. The operation was quite complex and lasted from April until September 1586.  His operation employed the simultaneous use of 44 winches, 900 workers and 140 horses. To direct his large company, the famous architect constructed a personal scaffold from which he gave his orders to subordinates. These orders were transmitted using auditory and visual signals from trumpets, drums, and semaphores.

Anticipating the difficulties and dangers of his work at St. Peter's Square, Fontana sought to completely forbid the crowds of curious onlookers from creating any noise; from uttering a single word. The Pope threatened the death penalty for any offender of this noise ordinance. An ancient chronicler tells us that a gallows was constructed in the square with a hangman and his helpers nearby to make the strange papal edict more effective.

At this point in the story, legend and fact are truly blended.

On September 10, 1586 the final step was to be put completed. The obelisk would be hoisted onto its base.  This step was comprised of 52 stages and each stage was completed that day until the monument reached an almost vertical position, ready to be lifted onto its base.   Suddenly, the workers realized there was incredible friction and the ropes were about to break.  They halted and the obelisk stopped its ascent.  Realizing the grave threat to his task the architect panicked. He was completely at a loss for a response to would save his project and reputation. Seemingly from nowhere, a sudden cry was let out by a man standing in the crowd, heedless of the Pope's edict: “Water to the ropes!!!”.

It was the cry of a Genoese navy captain named Bresca who knew from long experience that under the action of water the ropes would shrink and become even stronger. Thanks to his advice, the obelisk was straightened and lifted and Fontana’s project was a success.

Bresca, rather than being executed, was called to appear before Sixtus V to request a papal favor. The man, a native of Sanremo, asked only to have the privilege, for himself, for his family and for his descendants, to supply the Vatican with the palms of Palm Sunday's ceremony. Pope Sixtus V granted the favor and the monopoly was awarded.

'Parmureli', during the Palm Sunday's ceremony
'Parmureli', during the Palm Sunday's ceremony
Although the story of Captain Bresca of Sanremo is just a legend, it is a well-founded fact that the Vatican remains loyal to the tradition of this ancient, legendary agreement.  Even today, the descendants of Captain Bresca officially provide the traditional plaited palms (called "Parmureli", see the photo) to the Vatican. We may reasonably speculate that it is thanks to the courage of their ancestor that Captain Bresca’s descendants enjoy a comfortable lifestyle to this day!

In Sanremo, a square in the center of the city’s seaside district is dedicated to Captain Bresca.

In Rome, in Saint Peter's Square, we have the obelisk here.

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