May 25, 2018
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Italy
Party in “The Town of Madmen”

Gubbio’s frenzied May revelry each St. Ubaldo’s Day eve has earned it an undeserved reputation

By Marino Colmano

I arrived in Gubbio around sundown during a torrential rainstorm. Though it was long before the tourist season, no rooms were available in any of the eight tiny inns. The reason for this surprising circumstance was explained to me by a local. He told me the famed annual festival “Corsa dei Ceri” would begin the next morning.

This festival, each May 15th, marks the eve of the feast of St. Ubaldo. Though St. Ubaldo’s day is observed with a solemn mass and meditation, the day of the ceri is is filled with medieval pageantry and religious fervor.

My informant brought me to a taverna filled to capacity and throbbing with exuberant dancing and singing. Food and local wine was on the house. Even the wine cellar was cleared for the dancers, children among them.

After hours of merriment, my newfound friends escorted me to a hillside ranch whose owners supplemented their income by operating it as a private trattoria. Pachito, the young owner, prided himself on his “cowboy” lifestyle, and questioned me enthusiastically about the American Indians.

Pachito offered me the only remaining space in his house: a hayloft. With straw for a bed and his young wife’s fantastic open-fire cooking, I was delightfully accommodated for the rest of my stay. I took pictures of their son, Ubaldo, floating like an angelic figurine, and his younger brother, as he watched his mom cook foccacia over the fire.

My hosts offered only vague information about the origin of the festival, and of the ceri. They referred to a pagan goddess named Ceres, and of symbolic gestures toward their protector St. Ubaldo. It was suggested that the figures of the ceri were derived from the war chariot of a fabled Milanese leader. Cero translates into English as candle, but that was hardly a hint of what to expect. I retired with anticipation to my straw bed, as the rain beat down on the barn roof.
At dawn I was awakened by a loud drum reveille. I hurried down the path into town. As I turned through the town gates, I ran right into the first procession of the morning. I instinctively began taking pictures. Brief intermittent spells of rainfall left spectacular glints of moisture on the plastic rain caps of the marching musicians. A group of men were carrying three figurines. These represented St. Ubaldo, protector of the masons; St. Giorgio, patron of the merchants; and St. Antonio, protector of agriculture.

I joined the procession and we marched through every street in town, encouraging the people we met to join us. We passed a convent with its doors open, where the nuns stood throwing blessed flowers to the happy crowd. People surged forward to try to catch a flower, and receive a holy blessing.

By midday we were gathered in Piazza Grande, bounded on the north by the 14th century Palazzo dei Consuli, and in the south by the municipal building (where one can find the original Eugubine Tables describing this curious custom, written in an ancient Umbrian language and discovered here in 1444.)

An ecclesiastical procession was forming, headed by the “attendants of the dead,” who walked in pairs and were dressed in white robes with black capes. Next came members of the Society of Santa Croce in blue capes, then more men in black, followed by scholars of the seminary and several men in brown capes carrying the image of St. Ubaldo. Finally came the canons of the cathedral, with the bishop and his attendants. The procession paused and the bishop blessed the palazzo and its people.

Suddenly the great doors of the Palazzo dei Consoli swung open and the three prone Ceri were rushed into the center of the piazza. Mystery solved! I could clearly see the Ceri: three colossal wooden pedestals about 12 to 15 feet long, in the form of eight sided prisms, pointed at both ends.

Video from the Corsa dei Ceri 2007

They suggested the shape of two stacked lanterns. The bearers, the ceraioli, were 10 men clad in white trousers, blue shirts and bright sashes.

The foreman was called the capo dieci, or the leader of the ten. The three saintly figurines from the morning procession were fastened to the top of each cero. As water was spilled from jugs, which were then tossed into the air, the ceraioli raised the ceri, and then quickly and vigorously carried them south along the Via dei Consoli.

As a trumpeter on horseback separated the crowd up front, the tiny 2 1/2-foot figure of St. Ubaldo was mounted atop the strange obelisk, his garments fluttering, and raced through the streets.

At the public gardens, another figure on horseback, the first captain of the people, took command, leading the procession on several obstacle-defying, breathtakingly-paced circuits of the streets. They stopped just once, for rest and wine.

Once more the pedestals were hoisted high for the final phase of the journey through the town gates, then up to the destination, the Franciscan monastery at the top of Monte Ingino. The ceraioli were forced to slow to a walk as the slope became steeper. The townspeople helped, holding guide ropes attached to the swaying pedestals.

The procession reached the monastery in late afternoon, and the gates were closed. The ceri were carried one by one in three circular runs around the courtyard. For this year, their journey had ended.

The figurines were removed from their thrones and placed on benches inside the basilica, where the ceraioli and the townsfolk came to humbly pay their respects, bowing before the figures and kissing them. The figurines would later be returned to their churches, until the next festival, while the ceri were left at the monastery.

As night fell the crowds slowly descended to town. The narrow path glowed with flickering candles, as church bells chimed.

This celebration has earned Gubbio the reputation of being “a town of madmen.” I disagree. It is more obviously a celebration of sincere love and enthusiasm toward their religion, God, and the anniversary of the death of their beloved St. Ubaldo.

You can participate in the Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio, Umbria, each May 15th.

Bologna, Italy-born Marino Colmano is a producer, cinematographer and writer, and owner of the production company Lucid Media.

One comment about “Party in “The Town of Madmen””

  1. Gregory Hubbs says:

    Great article which brings to life a wonderful festival I have not yet experienced in one of my favorite towns in Umbria. The admixture of the local pagan “gods” and their Christian incarnations in Italy makes for some wonderful local festivals. And beautiful Gubbio is a great setting, where you can enjoy a great meal with their famous black and white truffles as is seasonal thereafter…

    The great role of Mary in Italy, and the role of the earth goddess Ceres in this festival, all reflect the matriarchal side of Italy that is never far away and reflects the deep connections many Italians feel to the earth as Mother (in my view). As in much of the Mediterranean, Matriarchy preceded Patriarchy historically, and the playful interplay is fascinating.

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