Gubbio’s Glorious Mad May Race
Dramatically perched on a hill overlooking the ruins of its Roman theater, Gubbio seems suspended in the Middle Ages: time has stood still in this stunning medieval hilltown. But slumbering Gubbio erupts in frenetic euphoria on May 15th for the mad race, la Corsa dei Ceri… Ask an Eugubino (from the medieval name for Gubbio, “Eugubium”) what la Corsa dei Ceri is all about and he will tell you, “per onorare il nostro Santo Patrono Ubaldo, logicamente” (“to honor our patron saint, Ubaldo……”). St. Ubaldo, Bishop of Gubbio, died on May 16, 1160 at dawn (having asked for the Last Rites on May 15th) and yes, if you really stretch your imagination, the three huge ceri (wooden pyramidical structures weighing about 500 k) run through the streets at breakneck speed by teams of eighteen men on May 15th might vaguely bring to mind the ceri (“candles”) solemnly carried in the saintly bishop’s funeral procession.
But think again: this is Italy and this is May, since time immemorial, the month of fecundity and fertility replete with festivals celebrating regeneration and rebirth – and Cerfus was the god of fertility for the pre-Roman inhabitants of Gubbio, the Umbri. And why three? The Eugubini will tell you that three Ceri have been run since the 16th century, so as to best represent each social class. One huge Cero is surmounted with the statue of Sant’Ubaldo (patron saint of the stonemasons), another with San Giorgio (patron saint of the merchants) and one with Sant’Antonio (patron of students and farmers). But three is sacred in most ancient religions and the ancient Umbri worshipped three gods, their ancient city had three city gates, their high priests practiced three rites of divinization,etc…
The Alzata, the raising of the three Ceri – in unison – in the Piazza Grande has strong connotations of fecundity, fertility. Three Maypoles. Once up, the Ceraioli of the three teams, bear their Ceri in a frenzied dead run around the flagpole in this main square – three times, of course – and then tear off through the city. The men running the first Cero, la famiglia di Sant’Ubaldo, all wear bright yellow shirts. The Sangiorgiari in royal blue shirts are in a dead run right behind with their Cero, followed by the Sant’Antoniari. “I matti dell’Italia” (“the madmen of Italy, as the Eugubini are called) – and if you ever see the Corsa dei Ceri, you will know why! – will run throughout the day, always at top speed and then at sunset, right up Mount Ingino backdropping Gubbio. Each team has nearly one thousand men as the Ceri are run in relay, without ever stopping. Seeing the shifting of men in a Cero’s muta – ie, the eighteen men who carry the Cero at any one time – while at a dead run is an emotionally-charged moment. A sweaty, panting ceraiolo slips out, another moves in to heft the Cero. Never a pause in the race. Destination for the early evening assault up the mountain: the Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo at the top where the body of Sant’Ubaldo lies in state in a glass sarcophagus over the altar.
Which Cero arrives first at the Basilica? Always the Cero di Sant’Ubaldo as all three Ceri race to honor him. San Giorgio follows, then Sant’Antonio. This race is not about arriving “first”: the “winning” Cero is the one remaining the most erect in the frenzied races all day – and remaining erect in the final evening race up the mountain. The Cero as a sort of huge candlestick carried in a solemn funeral procession? I don’t think so!
Read about Gubbio
Read about Gubbio’s passione for the Ceri.
Click here to read about Assisi’s amazing May festival, Calendimaggio
Read about Gubbio “Ceri fever”
Read about the little ones’ Ceri passione
Read about Ceri emotions
For more on La Corsa dei Ceri story, click here
Not to be believed until you see it: see the YouTube video
See and feel the emotion of the Alzata on YouTube
Click here to read about La Corsa dei Ceri in Jessup, Pennsylvannia (!) run by descendants of Eugubini.
Read why rain never dampens Ceri passione