20140507-082040.jpgOn Sunday, while Perugia was wrapped up in soccer fever, we got out of town and headed into the hills to visit the medieval town of Gubbio. Gubbio is an old mountain town, an hour from Perugia, whose Umbrian culture dates back well into the first millennium BC. In fact, the longest and most detailed liturgical documents from the classical world were found in the 15th century near the theater at Gubbio: seven bronze tablets of the 3rd-1st c. BC (the Iguvine Tablets) inscribed in Umbrian using the Etruscan and Latin alphabets, and now displayed in the Museo Civico.

The tablets are concerned with religious rituals: purifying the town, purifying the mountain above the town, purifying the town’s army, procedures for sacrifices, and the operation of religious funds. As it was an auspicious day (Rebecca’s birthday), we took the opportunity for a visit.

We arrived just after an important medieval-modern religious ceremony had begun to occur — the beginning of the Festa dei Ceri (Festival of the Candles). Essentially, the Festival centers on a ‘race’, held on May 15, from the town up Mt. Ingino to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo. Groups of men, affiliated patrilineally to one of three saints: Sant’Ubaldo (patron saint of masons; his color is yellow); San Giorgio (patron saint of merchants; his color is blue); and Sant’Antonio Abate (patron saint of farmers and muleteers; his color is black), carry heavy wooden ‘candles’ topped by statues of their saints.

Models of the candles from the Basilica museum

Models of the candles from the Basilica museum

Previous statues of the three saints, from the Basilica museum

Previous statues of the three saints, with their colors, from the Basilica museum

Heavy and awkward candles: 263 to 287 kilos (580-633 lbs.) each and 4.9 to 5 meters (ca. 16 ft.) tall. Ubaldo is the shortest and lightest, giving his team a significant advantage as they traverse 4.3 kilometers (ca. 2.5 miles) and about 320 meters (>1000 ft.) of elevation. Every 70 meters (230 ft.) or so, the bearers switch out — at full speed — so that they don’t kill themselves with the effort (though sometimes this happens). At the top of the course, Ubaldo always has to enter the Basilica first, and his bearers then shut the doors on the other two saints. We were not there for the actual race (the town would have been packed with visitors), but for the slow transfer of the candles and statues from the Basilica down to the town. Still, the bearers were dressed in their outfits and colors, accompanied by bands, and celebrating the start of the festival period. The exit, and return, of divine images is one of the most ancient of religious traditions. Jill and Matt wonderfully described and photographed the May 15 race on their blog last year. Here’s a video to get a sense of the mass intensity and insanity of the race day:

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