Running with Fire in Grello
Rural youth living near the tiny walled hilltown of Grello (pop. 45) run whenever they can these days. In serious training. But not for a a track meet.
They’ll be running with fire on the night of June 23rd, vigil of the feast of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of this mountainside castle-village. Rituals in the Baptist’s honor intertweave water rites with fire (his feast is at the time of the summer solstice); in fact, fire and water, propitious elements of purification, combine and merge in many late June Umbrian festivities, all rooted in Roman rituals.
Throughout Italy, local festiivites celebrating a village patron saint are imbued with archaic rural propitious rites – tied to fecundity and fertility – once so cherished for the resolving of man’s physical and psychological needs. The Church tried to supplant pagan customs as they were in contrast with Christian teachings but the Italians – with their innate creativity – simply worked around attempted ecclesiastical constraints, again and again.
In ancient Rome, the fecundity and fertility festivities in honor of the goddess Fortuna ended on June 24th, around the period of the summer solstice. The bonfire was an inherent element of these festivities: an earthly representation of the sun, life-giver and purifier of the earth which in turn gives life to vegetation and the waters. The solstice was seen as a symbol of passage or of the border between the world of space/defined time and the world which is timeless and spaceless.
St. John the Baptist’s feast is a “Christianizing” of ancient solstice celebrations. In Grello, the proverb in dialect “San Giovanni nun vole n’ganni” (“No one wants deceptions on St. John’s Day”) ties the feast to sincerity and trust, that is the loving liason between Christ and His cousin, John, at the time of the Baptism in the River Jordan.
Grello’s Festa del Fuoco e Guazza di San Giovanni on June 23rd, centers on rituals of fuoco (fire) and guazza (dew) – as did the Roman solstice festivities. At dark, three groups of six young men in toga-like tunics – one for each of the three rioni - run around the crumbled fortified castle walls holding aloft fiery torches and then race through the town dragging fire-bearing tregge. La treggia, a sort of wooden sled, was once harnessed by farmers to oxen and used to drag crops in from the fields. Farm carts were a luxury: a wheelwright had to be paid. The farmer himself could make the tregge.
Each treggia bears a flaming rudimentary cero (“candle”) – called “incije” in the dialect of Grello – made of straw, wood and other inflammable materials. The Grello night is illuminated by the fiery sled-born “candles” as the villagers cheer all to the finish. The embers of the fiery torches are all that remain on the tregge, as the proud winning team climbs the stage in the center of the piazza to accept the palio (banner), which stands in a place of honor in the winning rione all year.
After the race, euphoria reigns in the nearby food tents where jubilant groups gather for an Umbrian rural feast cooked and served by village volunteers of all ages – at prezzi popolari (ie, prices “for the people”). The homemade tagliatelle with goose meat sauce at 4.5 Euro and the local pork roasted on the grill (3. 5 Euro) are worth the jaunt to Grello. During ballroom dancing in the village square, fireworks illuminate the night sky and the panetto (or “little bread”) of San Giovanni is offered to all. Before going to bed that night, all the women of Grello will put basins of water filled with wildflowers and plants outside of their doors. The flower-filled water must absorb the guazza, the heaven-sent dew: only then will it ready for the ritual purification washing of all family members the next morning, la Festa di San Giovanni Battista.
If the race of the firing torches and the gran finale firework explosions the night before were insufficient catharsis and purification, the blessed water should do it.
A curiosity: The first patron saint of Gubbio was St. John the Baptist, later supplanted by St. Ubaldo, whose feast, May 15th is celebrated with the running of the Ceri (though not fiery ones as in Grello). Gubbio and Grello festivities mirror each other.
Perhaps the Gubbio ceri were once run up Gubbio’s mountainside in late June, the time of the summer solstice and of the feast of their first patron saint, St. John the Baptist..? When Ubaldo became patron, it would have then been logical to move the Ceri race to May 15th, the vigil of the date of his death, May 16, 1160……
Read about June rites in Umbria
Read about Gubbio’ Corsa dei Ceri
See and feel the excitement in Grello on YouTube.