May 15th marks the annual ceri races in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (just an hour away from Perugia). This is one of Italy’s longest standing celebrations. Since 1160, this festival has taken place year after year uninterrupted. The frenzy, the intensity, the color, the history, the dedication, the passion (as well as the insanity) of the Gubbian citizens are legendary. We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in July. Some have said it is the most spectacular event in all of Italy. So, last Wednesday we joined the party.
Although the details of the origin are in doubt, the holiday is clearly recognized as a tribute to St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, who died in 1159. Since the one-year anniversary of his death, the citizens have raced through the town carrying three mammoth pillars (representing ceri or candles) with statues of saints on top. The rules of the race are strict. The two-mile trek begins in the center of town. Groups of men run through the course carry the saints in formation. St. Ubaldo must always be in the lead followed by St. Giorgio and then St. Antonio. The whole point of the race is to get the three 600-pound ceri through the town and to St. Ubaldo’s church on the top of Mt. Ingino. Speed and complete physical exertion are expected by the honored men who carry these statues.
The town divides itself into teams. Citizens can choose the saint for whom they will cheer. Nearly every man, woman and child in Gubbio was dressed in the traditional color of their saint. Yellow stands for St Ubaldo, the patron of masons (in addition to the patron of the whole town); blue is for St. George, the saint of craftsmen and merchants; and black is for St. Antonio, protector of farm workers. Everyone is united in color by tying a red scarf around the waist and neck.
While the actual race doesn’t begin until 6pm, the day is filled with pageantry and ritual. We missed a couple of the highlights, but made it in time for one of the special events of the day, “the exhibition” which is the procession through town to visit all the people who are too old or tired or sick to attend the race. The exhibition also passes by the homes of former ceri-carriers. Up and down the narrow streets, men display the ornate wooden pillars to the windows of the townspeople. Crowds follow.
After a communal lunch, the athletes of each team meet in Piazza Grande. At 6pm, the captains of the celebration ride horseback down the road signaling that the race will begin. By now the race course is packed with spectators. Thousands of people line the streets. It feels exciting and dangerous. The boys said that the pull of the crowds reminded them of an undertow at the beach. It got the blood pulsing. There’s a fine line between curiosity and panic, and when you hit it just right, you feel completely alive. That’s what this day did to me.
After the saints passed us on the hill running towards the finish line, we made our way back to the town square then headed home. However, the Gubbians told us that some of the most lively hours of the day begin after the races when the bars and restaurants and piazzas fill up all night with festivity. We couldn’t stay; it was getting late, and we had to drive back to Perugia.
Before leaving, we did make a stop at the Fontana dei Matti which, legend has it, will give one the propensity for insanity (like the local townspeople) if circled counterclockwise three times while being simultaneously splashed by a Gubbian.
Ray decided to give it a try.