Gubbio’s Archaeological Treasure: the World’s First
When you arrive in the grandiose Piazza Grande of Gubbio, the majestic 14th-century civic building Palazzo dei Consoli, rises like a solemn guardian presiding sternly over Gubbio.
Unequivocal symbol of medieval glory and power, the Palazzo dei Consoli also houses the Civic Museum, inaugurated in 1909.
The Civic Museum collection dates back to the mid-15th century when il Comune di Gubbio purchased the famed pre-Roman Iguvine Tables from a local woman, Presentina. The seven incised bronze tables – said to have been found near the area of the Roman theater in 1444 – are certainly, the principal draw to the Museum inside – but not the only one.
To enter the Palazzo for your visit, head up the majestic stairs…
…fanning out from the frescoed entry portal with inscription above the doorway indicating its placement there in 1348.
You’ll enter into the vast barrel-vaulted Sala dell’Arengo (literally, “ the Haranguing Room” — a room of gathering) where Gubbio’s Consiglio Generale – the civic council composed both of common people and nobility – met in the Middle Ages.
The most important of the magistratures, i Consoli, lived upstairs for their 2-month term of office and had no contact during that time with other citizens.
The Consoli could address il Consiglio Generale through a small window at the top of the stairs – thus avoiding direct contact if the Consuls governing norms were unappreciated:
Note too, the fresco of 1350 at the bottom of the stairs, for just beyond that fresco, you’ll find the entrance to the former chapel of the palace where the Iguvine Tablets are displayed. Mello da Gubbio – strongly influenced by the Sienese school – has depicted the co-patron saints of Gubbio, St. John the Baptist and St. Ubaldo flanking the Virgin and Child. The central place of the fresco in the Sala dell’Arengo seems to be a reminder to remind all governing of a just civic sense.
A similar reminder (probably 15th-century) is inscribed on the wall in the adjacent room – former Palatine chapel – directly above the treasured Iguvine Tablets. The inscription lauds the buon governo of those who had ruled – and commissioned the inscription! – and urges future governing bodies to follow their example, providing good government to Gubbio:
Just opposite the Eugubine Tablets, in the La Maestà dei Consoli (The Consuls’ Madonna in Majesty), the Madonna reigns, flanked by four saints, one presenting a kneeling figure to the Virgin and Child
The kneeling figure, hands folded reverently – indicated by the pointing Christ Child to all those viewing the fresco – is probably Giovanni di Cantuccio Gabrielli who usurped power in his Gubbio, ruling the city from 1350 – 1354. The shield on the side of the throne was probably the Gabrielli coat-of-arms, with attempted elimination later when Gubbio forbade coats-of-arms depicted unless of the the Comune, the Church…and the reigning Robert d’Anjou. This mid-14th-c fresco is generally attributed to Gubbio maestro, Guido di Palmerucci.
The treasure now of the former chapel are the 3rd- 1st B.C. B.C. Iguvine Tablets, an epigraphic document of absolutely fundamental importance for Italy’s ancient history:
The acquiring of these seven bronze tablets in 1456 by Gubbio is a cultural milestone: here in this mountain town of Umbria, archaeology is born, for this is the first time any where in the world that the preservation and study of ancient documents acquires an unequivocal value for western culture.
Gubbio was one of the major religious centers for the ancient Umbrians whose territory included the Marches and Romagna before Roman expansion. Due to its central position, the Umbrian territory was a hub for trade, and the exchange of techonology, communication, religious ideology and cultural models.
Fundamental for an understanding of the society, language and culture of this ancient people, the Iguvine Tablets (or Eugubian Tablets or Tables) – from the ancient name for Gubbio, Ikuvium (later, Iguvium for the Romans) – form the longest and most important ritual text existing in the ancient world.
No Greek or Latin ritual text of such detail exits.
The Tablets were inscribed in different periods between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. and are transcriptions of ancient texts – probably written on waterproofed linen sheets, bark and other perishable materials. By the 3rd-century B.C., Roman incursions were ever more frequent and the preservation of the cultural identity of Iguvium became of primary concern and the people of Iguvium, very well aware of the Roman use of bronze for the preservation of their religious texts, adapted a similar mode of preservation of their religious rites.
Five of the seven Tablets are inscribed on both sides and the two tavole in the Latin alphabet are the most recent, probably of the 1st-century.B.C.when Iguvium is under Roman domination:
The others (2nd-century B.C.) are transcribed in the Umbrian language using the Etruscan alphabet:
The Tablets describe the various purification rites and sacrifices to be offered if omens were inauspicious – and also at certain moments of the agrarian year. At times, the precise words to be uttered during the ceremonies are indicated as also the methods to be used for making sacred pies and breads, the necessity of providing crops as well as animals for ritual sacrifices.
Those officiating at the ceremonies and offering the sacrifices were the twelve members of the Atiedii brotherhood who were at one time, probably also political leaders. The daily life of the Umbrians – a people called “ombrikos ” by the Greeks – was threaded with infinite manifestations of the divine represented by numerous deities – but not anthropomorphic entities at all.
The divinities of the ancient Umbrians were the divine embodiments of man’s actions and salient aspects of social and ritualistic life.
What fascinates me is the ancient Eugubine Tablets’ link to Gubbio’s beloved Ceri.
On May 15th each year, there are three Ceri (tall wooden incised prisms) running three times around the flag in the main square…
…later running up the mountain…
with three stops enroute.
And tradition links the word “Cero” to candle, that is, those ceri (candles) carried in the funeral procession of St. Ubaldo, bishop of Gubbio, on May 16, 1160. But this is after all, the month of May and Cerfus was the Umbrian god of fertility. Rites of sacrifice to Cerfus and other gods sacred to the people of ancient Iguvium (later called “Iguvium” by the Romans) are described on the Tablets.
The prescribed rites of sacrifice always mandating the sacrifice of three animals: at times, white oxen, at other times, pregnant sows or rams or calves or boars but always three. And not only: the Tablets declared that before offering a bull calf as sacrifice to Jupiter, the priest sacrificing must declare it three times fit for sacrifice and then declare three times that the sacrifice was a votive offering.
And then the admonition frequently in the Tavole to oil the sacred Obelisk and dance around it. Could those Ceri not resemble the sacred Obelisk?
And what about that phallic shape of the Ceri – celebrated in the month of fecundity and fertility?
Three recurs again and again in the Eugubine Tablets which indicate three city gates of Iguvium, three rings of protection formed around the army, three admonitions of banishment from the Ikuvium army of any members not of Ikuvium and three rites of divinization interpreting the flight of birds.
Gubbio’s Assessore della Cultura, Augusto Ancillotti, has studied the Iguvine Tablets for over thirty years, basically dedicating his life to the study of their mysteries. He once said this about their importance: “Those Iguvine Tablets, after all, remind us of those values which we must treasure and protect, incised in bronze – not by chance, but precisely because they have stopped the passage of time, because they represent something immutable and fundamental.”
“In the Tablets, there is never the word ‘love’ but there is the word ‘peace’ that indicates tranquility that becomes then the sublimest form of listening. One can ask a divinity to be good, generous, conciliatory with me, indefensible, as I am nothing in front of you and would so wish to admire you. If we focus on this, we see this is a request for attention, respect, this is putting full faith in the other – and therefore after all, this is perhaps the most significant and authentic love.”
Gubbio’s Archaeological Treasure – and the world’s first – has lessons to teach us.
Read here about the Palazzo dei Consoli
Read here about la Corsa dei Ceri
Read more here about the glorious Corsa dei Ceri
Read about Gubbio’s Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo