May 14-15, 2005
I don't know quite how to begin to describe this festival that has been celebrated in the beautiful city of Gubbio for centuries. Indeed, its origins are pagan, a celebration of spring, fertility and virility, in honor of Ceres, the Roman goddess of plants and meadows. With Christianity it has been adapted to honor their patron Saints: Sant Ubaldo, who represents the stonemasons; Sant Georgio, the craftsmen and merchants; and Sant'Antonio, the farm workers. Three monumental "candlesticks" called "Ceri" are shaped liked prisms, tapered at both ends and crafted out of wood, with intricate inlaid patterns, each topped by a statue of one of the saints with long handles on either side. The entire festival is wrapped around the raising of the Ceri in the main square and a madcapped race carrying the Ceri through the town, on switchbacks, plunging down hills and up steep slopes to the top of Mount Ingino, 2700 feet in the air, to see who will be first to reach St. Ubaldo's Church at the summit. They weigh "a ton," so it takes many men to accomplish this feat. The strain is obvious on their faces as they run, carrying their Ceri through the streets, followed by neighbors and friends, all wearing the colors of their neighborhoods and breathlessly chasing behind them. The people (mostly men) who carry the Ceri, called Ceraioli, are strategically placed throughout the route, to relieve their exhausted teammates without pausing for the exchange, much like a relay race. Once they reach the summit, the excitement continues as they circle the final piazza in triumph and return the Ceri to their resting place in the church at the top of the mountain. Amid singing and flares, they then carry the three statues back down to the town and continue the partying that we believe lasts until very late into the night!
Not wanting to miss any of this festival, which begins early Sunday morning, the 15th of May, we took the bus to Gubbio on Saturday and checked into a little hotel room. Our friend Giovanna, (from the Internet café) told us it was easier to win the lottery than get a room at the last minute in Gubbio for the Festival of the Ceri, but nevertheless we lucked out when the travel office near the bus station found us what we believe must have been the last room available in the town! You could feel the anticipation in the air as the townspeople were excitedly preparing for the festival the next day. Each neighborhood has its colors: those representing St. Ubaldo are yellow and red, St. Antonio, black and red, and St. Georgio, blue and red and they hang flags out of their windows to show support for their neighborhood teams. The people all wear the same outfits, white pants with their individually colored shirts and the same red sash at their waists and red bandanas around their necks. The colors are primary and bold against the pale stone of the buildings and they cluster and run in large groups creating an incredibly graphic scene of motion and color that is breathtaking to witness.
This is not a festival put on to attract tourists, although they come here in droves. It is very much a celebration for and by the people who have lived in this town, whose roots go back as far as the origins of this land. Even the little children are dressed in their neighborhood colors to match the grownups and groups of little boys played at being Ceraioli, carrying around miniature versions and racing around the square on Saturday, dreaming of the day when they will be fully grown and can participate. Everyone just seems to know what to do, without having to be directed or following a script, it almost seemed innate, their participation so natural and unrehearsed and completely passionate and emotional.
Before 5 in the morning on Sunday, the sun not yet up, we were awakened by the sound of drums. Hurriedly we threw on our clothes, grabbed our cameras and ran out to see what was happening. Marching through the town, the tamburi (drummers) stopped at the houses of each team's captain to awaken them, standing below their windows until they came out and waved, and the drummers cheered and moved on. Marching and drumming continued throughout the morning with bands playing a repetitive melody and you begin to hum along after a while, it is so captivating. Walking through the streets alongside the drummers, the pounding of the drums reverberating off these ancient stonewalls, pounding in our chests and in our ears, it was thrilling to be sharing in their excitement as we fell in step to the music and the drums.
The entire morning was a build up of excitement. The Ceraioli clustered around the small stonemason's church for a dawn celebration of Mass, after which they carried the statues of the saints around the town presenting them to the townspeople. In the meantime, people were gathering in the main piazza, which is quite large and expansive. We waited for at about an hour and a half, as the crowd grew larger and larger and then suddenly the rolling of the drums and the ringing of the bells grew louder, trumpets blared in unison, enormous flags were unfurled and twirled and then, with everyone's hands fluttering in the air and what I believe must be the anthem for Gubbio, out of the doors of the palace came the Ceri, carried by their handles, in a reclining position, out into the square. The crowd went wild! The Ceri must be attached to carriers, a dramatic spectacle as each team races to pound the stake into the holder while the captain stands on one end, high above the crowd. When the Ceri is in place, we witnessed the exciting moment that everyone was waiting for - the raising of the Ceri, from their lying down position, to completely upright, all the while, drums pounding, bells ringing, music blaring and people cheering and clapping. The ceraioli then race around the piazza. It's hard to say how many are actually carrying each one, it must be at least a dozen or more at any moment, although the entire team, hundreds upon hundreds of team members it seems, surrounding their Ceri and running along side and behind, followed by the rest of the people who chased along with them for the entire day! I must admit, there were moments of extreme anxiety as the crowd pulsed and expanded and contracted and those of us in the piazza became very well acquainted and intimate with each other!
The rest of the day was filled with music, marching bands everywhere, people following along, crowds running in unison, the entire city a living, breathing organism, pulsing with one goal - the running of the Ceri, culminating with the great race up the mountain. The race began around 6pm in the great square. We positioned ourselves along the route and were thrilled to be able to see them pass by, at breakneck pace and continue on. We then moved to another place on the route, just at the point where they make their steep ascent and could almost reach out and touch them as they pounded by us. The young and energetic, the passionate and fervent keeping pace with them, a long line of followers visible from the square below. After a triumphant circling around the square of St. Ubaldo’s, the Ceri were returned to their resting place in this church where they will remain until the next year’s Festa begins again.
While the exhausted and exultant teams made their descent, the town became extremely quiet and peaceful and people gathered around the large screen in the square and watched the final moments of the race, stopped to have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, walking through the streets, now littered and emptying. We strolled off to our room and much later in the night heard the sound of drumming and distant singing and knew the celebrations would continue as we slept, completely worn out and very, very thrilled to have been able to witness the incredible demonstration of solidarity, strength and passion that is the Festa dei Ceri.