Every May 15, the beautiful Umbrian town of Gubbio holds its Corsa dei Ceri –“race of the candles” — where three teams, representing the town’s favorite saints, race against each other carrying wooden stretchers on their shoulders, upon which have been attached enormous upright wooden “candles”. They call them candles, but in fact they look more like two stacked carved octagonal lanterns.
I have consulted numerous guide books and websites which discuss this race, and none agree on the size of the ceri. The height goes from 13 feet to 23 feet and the weight from 110 lbs. to 1000 lbs!! Now that’s quite a range for something that is readily accessible to anyone armed with our “modern” measuring devices, such as a tape measure and scale. But you get the picture: they’re big and bulky, and each group needs multiple teams of carriers, since no one team can go for more than about 100 yards.
All day there is an enormous amount of pageantry and parading, with crowds mysteriously gathering at exactly the right time and place to see the next event on the agenda……and believe me — there are many. My favorite part was in the morning when the team leaders tossed ceramic pitchers into the crowded piazza. I assume the first objective is to not kill anyone, but a close second is to have the pitcher crash to the ground and break so the onlookers can collect a piece, thereby insuring good luck for the year. The coup de gras is in the evening, when the teams stop running all over the town and instead, race up the steep mountainside to place the ceri inside the Basilica of Sant’ Ubaldo, where they stay until the following year.
Here’s the breakdown of the teams: San Giorgio is the protector of the merchants, and his team wears blue shirts, while his little Barbie-Doll-size statue that they affix to the top of the candle looks warriorish sitting on a horse and wearing a blue cape; Sant’ Antonio Abate is the saint of the farm-workers and students, and his team’s shirts are black, as is the monk’s robe on his statue; and then there is the yellow-shirted Sant’ Ubaldo team with its statue in a bishop’s vestments, complete with a yellow miter and long cape.
Ubaldo Baldassini was the bishop who, in 1155, “saved” the town by negotiating with its enemies. You don’t hear much of “negotiations” during that period of history, which makes one wonder if perhaps there weren’t some huge piles of gold passed under the table. The bottom line, though, is that the town was spared, and Ubaldo rose to the top of the Eugubini (as the people of Gubbio are called) Hero List – a position he still holds today.
I was with three other people and one of our group had a devil of a time getting into the spirit of the event, constantly pointing out that the whole thing made no sense, because in the end, Sant’ Ubaldo ALWAYS wins. He’s ALWAYS first up the hill and into the Basilica….and let’s remember — it is his Basilica. Our friend calmed down slightly when someone finally used the word “procession” instead of “race”, but then he couldn’t understand why everyone went so crazy if it was just a “procession”.
At dinner that night, the restaurant owner’s son, still in his blue San Giorgio shirt, cleared up several questions. First of all – unlike Siena, where you are born to one of the 17 contrade or groups who vie for the prize during their Palio horserace, in Gubbio you get to choose which of the three saints you want to join. You make your choice at about age 10, but have another 8 years to change your mind. After 18, though, you’re with that saint for life.
Why wouldn’t everyone go with Sant’ Ubaldo, since his team has won every race for the last eight hundred years? Ahhh – that’s where you must part with the American concept of “winning”. A young person chooses the team that best fits his standard of “style”. Which team did the best job while parading through the city? Which kept the cero upright the most? Did one team lose control and allow their cero to touch a wall?…or Heaven forbid, drop the whole thing?? The young man didn’t say this, but I’ll bet there are even “style points” given for how the team captain looks on his horse and how the horse prances through the streets. These are all intangibles and therefore open to at least a year’s worth of analysis, discussion and argument. And in Italy, that is the best of all worlds – an event that brings everyone in the town together, and then you get to dissect it for the ENTIRE year.