Gubbio is home to the Corsa dei Ceri, a run held every year always on the 15th day of May, in which three teams, devoted to St. Ubaldo (the patron saint of Gubbio), S. Giorgio, and S. Antonio, run through throngs of cheering supporters (clad in the distinctive colours of yellow, blue and black, with white trousers and red belts and neckbands), up much of the mountain from the main square in front of the Palazzo dei Consoli to the basilica of St. Ubaldo, each team carrying a statue of their saint mounted on a wooden octagonal prism, similar to an hour-glass shape 4 metres tall and weighing about 280 kg (617 lb).
The race has strong devotional, civic, and historical overtones and is one of the best-known folklore manifestations in Italy; the Ceri were chosen as the heraldic emblem on the coat of arms of Umbria as a modern administrative region.
Saint Ubaldo Day in Gubbio
The procession through the streets features small statues of Saint Ubaldo, Saint George, and Saint Anthony, in order. They are mounted upon immense wooden pedestals each hoisted by a team of “Ceraioli” (runners) clad respectively in yellow, blue, or black.
The Festival of the Ceri is one of the oldest, if not the oldest Italian folklore display. The festival has always played a fundamental role in the heart of the Eugubina community. An in-depth study of the festival’s origins and numerous meanings is something that we are happy to leave to scholars. Its origins are obscure, it is enough to know that there are two basic hypotheses: one religious and one pagan.
The first, which is well-documented and set, out sees the festival as a solemn act of devotion on the part of the Eugubini towards their Bishop Ubaldo Baldassini which started in 1160, the year of his death. Since then, every 15th May, the eve of the day of mourning, the devotional offering to the patron Saint is a fixed appointment for the people of Gubbio who are said to have taken part in a great mystical procession, carrying candles all around the town and up Mount Ingino (where since 11th September 1194 the body of Saint Ubaldo lies, in the church which bears his name). Certainly, the Eugubini dearly loved their important townsman, especially from 1154 onwards, when Gubbio conquered no less than 11 allied cities. The victory seemed miraculous, and was also thanks to the intervention of Bishop Baldassini.
The wax candles, offered by the Arts and Crafts corporations, probably became difficult to transport with the passing of time, and towards the end of the 16th century were substituted by three wooden structures, which were agile and modern. They have been replaced a number of times. They have kept their original form up until today and on the same date; they follow the same route to the same place. The second theory, which is more suspect and hypothetical, sees the festival as being a continuation of a pagan festival in honour of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, reaching us after having come through the glory of communes, renaissance power, papal domination and the battles of the Risorgimento.
Whoever wants to get fully involved in the festival of the Ceri needs to wear comfortable casual clothes, a pair of flat shoes, possibly trainers, leaving everything that is superfluous. The festival on 15 may, takes over the entire town which is decorated for the occasion with banners and flags bearing the colours and emblems of the three Ceri, and the emblems of the town itself.
The race is so involving that one is obliged to follow the river of ceraioli and the people who follow the Ceri. It is important to be careful. During the race, the Ceri move at the highest possible speed around the town, accompanied by a large enthusiastic crowds. Whoever gets in the way of the race risks being trampled on. The 15th May is the festival of the people of Gubbio, the “Eugubini”, who are able to transform the lovable hospitality that they are famous for into tough and not particularly diplomatic treatment of whoever intrudes in a way that they do not like.