The 15th of May every year is held sacred to the heart of every citizen of our town, Gubbio. This is the day that diaries are cleared to allow everyone to be in town to celebrate the “Festa dei Ceri” or “race of the candles”. It marks the culmination of several weeks of partying as the Ceri are erected and paraded around the town before being raced up the hill to the basilica of S Ubaldo the patron saint of Gubbio. It is indeed the very finest of pageantry and hospitality at the Festa dei Ceri, Gubbio, Italy.
Throughout early May the town awakens, and the excitement rises tangibly. People gather and parties are held. A lot of food and wine is consumed. On the evening of 14th May the ‘Taverne‘ are in full swing. Townsfolk open their doors and invite friends and neighbours to share copious quantities of food and wine. I and all the Bellaugello guests received an invitation from my dear friends Laura and Roberto to join them at their friend Roberto Rossi’s Taverna. We walked through busy streets and arrived at the house, but no host! After about half an hour Roberto appeared, more than merry, he had been at a good and clearly bucolic lunch. As the sky lit red we were warmly greeted, lots of kisses on both cheeks, and rapidly supplied with wine and delicious food laid out on tables in the street.
There are three Ceri, S Ubaldo, (yellow) the patron saint, S Giorgio, (blue) the saint of the townsfolk and merchants, and S Antonio (black) the saint of the farmers and countryfolk. As a peasant farmer my saint is Antonio, and dressed appropriately I headed into town for the day.
I met up with my Ben, my best friend and together after the obligatory coffee we headed into the historic centre of Gubbio. Guys in white pants and coloured shirts filling the streets of the city of stone.
Why am I always the shortest in every photo?
We climbed to the Piazza Grande where as the huge bell high in the bell tower is tolled by hand the pageantry and splendour of the Alzata or ‘raising’ started at 11am.
A bit about the history of the event as told by the city itself:
The tourist arriving in Gubbio for the ancient folk tradition known as the “Ceri festival”, is left in awe by the morning ceremonies; The Holy Mass, the procession with the saints’ statues, the parade of the “Ceraioli”. They cannot help but breathe the extraordinarily festive, excited, and passionate atmosphere that engulfs the town. After the medieval ceremony of investiture, they find themselves buzzing with excitement in the Piazza Grande. Then, like a colourful cascade the “ceraioli” rush down the staircase of the Palazzo dei Consoli into the square. As the Ceri are raised skywards accompanied by the tolling of the big bell, emotions in the piazza also rise higher.
Here is a video clip of the actual moment the Ceri are washed with wine by the ‘Capodieci’, the jugs then thrown high into the crowd as the Ceri are erected and then run around the flagpole three times before exiting the piazza to go and salute the townsfolk.
During the afternoon race the thrill of the event continues to enrapture the tourist. This is when the three Ceri, topped by the statues of St Ubaldo, St George and St Anthony, run along Corso Garibaldi, the main street of the town. The spectator is caught by sudden excitement as shouts of joy and applause merge into a deafening roar that rises up to the sky. It is as if everyone has become an actor on a huge open air stage.
But before the run up the hill I had an appointment to keep.
I had received an invitation from the Comune to the VIP lunch held for the ‘great and the good’ in the Palazzo dei Consoli, the building that dominates the piazza in the cente of town. This “Tavola Bona” is a lengthy banquet of fish dishes (the day is the eve of Saint Ubaldo, so only fish is consumed).
Five hundred guests are seated and the party got underway… I ran unsteadily up the stairs and got a bird’s eye view 😉
Wow! do the Eugubini know how to party. Wine flowed and flowed and the band played more and more frequently, second and third helpings were offered. Napkins were twirling, people dancing, everyone, laughing, chatting, merrily having an amazing time. For me as a foreigner it was very special to be invited to the lunch, the ‘inner sanctum’ of the event. Now I totally understand the soul of Gubbio and what makes the townsfolk tick. Their passion and enthusiasm is infectious and real.
Several hours later as I headed out I stopped to chat and say ‘thank you’ with a couple of the people working in the kitchen. They told me they were a team of only twenty, and as well as feeding the VIP lunch they also fed 1000 ‘ceraioili’ – the team members who ate in the huge arcone below the piazza grande. What a feat! Bravi! This passion to me sums up the spirit of the town which has welcomed me and my guests and which I have come to love and call home.
For those interested in the origins and history of this amazing event please do read on;
In the 1950s, journalist Franco Cremonese wrote: ” The people who cram the streets on May 15th are not a public of spectators, but a delirious crowd, floating, shouting, crying, sharing the Ceraiolis’ passion. When the Ceri run, nobody can be just a spectator: for a few moments, even perhaps for a few minutes, no-one can avoid feeling a collective anxiety, an excitement that leaves one wondering whether to either smile widely or cry”. These few words express the unique charm of the festival. Of course words alone cannot describe in full the atmosphere pervading the spectacle. That can only be experienced by running after the Ceri.
To have a close at the Ceri and even touch them, it is necessary to follow one “Cero”, the one that attracts you the most at first sight. During the so called “show” you have a chance to get close. At certain points as the Cero is carried along the streets it stops and the Cero circles three times to honour old “ceraioli”, who then reach out and touch the saint from their window.
At 6.00 p.m. the great race begins. After the three dizzy ”birate” (turns) in the Piazza Grande, the ceraioli rush towards Mount St Ubaldo, and in 8-9 minutes, the Ceri fly along the winding uphill road to reach the Basilica. This is where the incorrupt body of St Ubaldo lies. To renew the promise of everlasting devotion by the citizens of Gubbio made on May 16th 1160, the day when St Ubaldo ascended into the sky, the Ceri, the ancient symbols of medieval craft guilds, are placed at his feet.
What can we say about the origins of the Ceri? There have always been two theories: Some scholars, claim their origins go back to the ancient propitiatory rites that the “Ikuvini” celebrated to obtain the favour of the numerous gods mentioned in the seven Eugubine Tablets. Christianity did not eradicate such ancient rites, but preferred to “Christianise” them. As quoted in the 11th Canto of Dante’s Purgatory, this policy was also implemented in relation to the worship of the “Blessed Ubaldo”. The other theory suggests that the origins lie in the candles and lights that illuminated the whole town on the death of St Ubaldo. It was then that the citizens of Gubbio said prayers and held a wake for their bishop.
It is not appropriate at this point to delve more deeply into this discussion. However, we cannot but, agree with Don Angelo Fanucci: “Even if the Ceri had had pre-Christian origins, since Gubbio has St Ubaldo, and the Ceri belong to him, the history of their origin is of no importance”. The Ceri, in their deepest significance, are sacred vessels which have always cemented the very strong sense of community of the people of Gubbio. It is this community who, on May 15th, share love, joy, pain and passion with almost a purifying fervour.