We’ve been living in a new decade for almost two weeks, and so many things have already happened. Yet, the month of January is, more often than not,...
Is it possible to celebrate a solemn religious ritual that brings together faith, joy and a great workout? In Gubbio, a town in the province of the city of Perugia, it is. Every year, the city honors the death of its patron, Saint Ubaldo, with the Corsa dei Ceri.
Ubaldo Baldassini was the descendant of a noble family of Germanic origin. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by an uncle who oversaw his religious education and intellectual development.
Following his ordination as a priest in 1114, Ubaldo was appointed canon of the cathedral of Gubbio, where he worked to restore canonical discipline in priests who had fallen into the prevailing laxity of the times. Around 1125, after a fire caused severe destruction in Gubbio, Ubaldo oversaw its reconstruction in stonework so fine it is still admired today.
His work and virtue came to the attention of Perugia, who wanted Ubaldo for its bishop. Wanting no such honor, Ubaldo entreated Pope Honorius II to exempt him from this office. The pope granted the exemption. But upon the death of the bishop of Gubbio, Ubaldo could not refuse to succeed him.
Gubbio was a powerful district in the 12th century, torn by clashes between rival families, and the Bishop Ubaldo was given the difficult work of pacification. When in 1154 Gubbio won a battle against a coalition of Umbrian towns, the victory was attributed to the prayers of its bishop. The following year Ubaldo saved the city from a siege by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Ubaldo called the townspeople to prayer and risked his life in order to tame the opponent.
His charisma and popularity became such that by the time of his death, in 1160, the town began to attribute prophecies and miracles to him. Proclaimed the patron and saint of the city in 1192, his body rests in a church on the Mount Ingino. Even through the eyes of a layperson or an unbeliever, how could the ability to pacify and unite feuding factions be considered anything less than a miracle?
Each year, the memory of Ubaldo is celebrated through the Corsa dei Ceri. The Ceri are three wooden “machines” or platforms bearing the wax candle statues of Sant’Ubaldo, San Giorgio and Sant’Antonio, who represent medieval guilds. The celebration was probably born as an offering of canisters of wax, to be part of the old Guilds of Arts and Crafts, and replaced with the wooden structures toward the end of the 16th century.
Several times rebuilt in their original form, the three candles vary slightly in their height and weight, of around four meters and up to a maximum of 287 kilos. They are borne on a stretcher atop the shoulders of participants, a form of transport difficult not only for the weight and height, but for the speed and the narrowness of the path, not to mention the “mute” — the quick-change of the carriers exhausted from the race.
Everything follows a precise, immutable ritual, from the carriers divided into different colors of the ceraioli (yellow jacket for Sant’Ubaldo, French blue for San Giorgio, and black for Sant’Antonio) to timescale scanned by the hour, starting from 5.30, when a group of drummers runs through the city to give the alarm to the captains and the capodieci (the ceraioli which guide the candle).
The race takes place on the first Sunday in May, in two stages, the first starting at 11:30 in the morning, when the candles are raised. After three laps of the Piazza Grande, each group takes a different path through the town’s streets. The highlight of the race starts at 6:00 pm, when the candles are being returned to their point of origin in the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo, on Mount Ingino.
The feast is repeated for the joy of children on the penultimate Sunday in May (Festa dei Ceri Mezzani) with candles of a much smaller size, and again on June 2 (Festa dei Ceri Piccoli). It is among the most ancient and popular religious folkloric activities, drawing large, enthusiastic crowds.
It may be too simplistic to characterize as folklore a popular tradition supported by authentic mystical emotions, which go well beyond the promotional activities that surround it, such as, for example, the request to UNESCO for recognition of the Corsa dei Ceri as an “Intangible Asset”.
The Region of Umbria, which has jurisdiction over the candles and the celebration, has commissioned from Steve McCurry an extensive photo reportage that will become part of the Perugia exhibition The Sensational Umbria, to convey the emotions of a unique celebration.