By Liliana Adamo
“Yes, I have my phobias too, you know. One of them is crowd…”
This is what I wrote to an American friend telling him about “Gubbio’s Corsa dei Ceri” – “The Rave of the Candles” – because the peculiarity of this celebration, which is the popularchorales. On 15 May of every year, residents of Gubbio, visitors from other cities far and near, tourists of every nationality , to the sidewalks, balconies, piazzas, all of them running after the madmen as they climb the Monte from morning to night till they are worn–out with exhaustion. An uncontrollable crowd, but I had to overcome my fears and be there.
It attracted me that, presumably, the “Candles” represent the most passionate and dramatic festival, both pagan and religious, held in Italy, and Gubbio is still a small city which was concerned as an architectural masterpiece of the Medieval civilization and the society of the XIII th and XIV th centuries. An anthropic territory which finds its district expression in the ancient guilds on “ Universitates” of arts and occupations, protected by ancient walls, rocks, woods and mountains (principally three – Foce, Ingino and D’Asciano) .
As I leave Perugia, the city where I live, in the coach which winds its way through the hills, I became aware of how astonishing this area, lying between the boundaries of Umbria and Marche is – because of its altitude, variety of terrain and undulations. I remember having read somewhere a singular identification of the green colours and their gradations to describe their light. Banners with cryptic symbols, some of which are deemed precious, hang down over the roadside, from windows, balconies on ledges; I did not understand their significance at that moment.
And then, here is Gubbio!
“…A lot has been written about the read and presumed mysticism of the Umbrians, exaggeratedly and excessively. About their madness, almost nothing…” (1).
I get out of the coach, grab my cellular phone and call my friend, Visia, with whom I have an appointment. An authentic Gubbian, she will offer me a red scarf to tie round my neck, and a continuous sequence of emotions. I have some time so I take a small street, run into a group of “ceraioli” (as the bearers of the “ Candles” are called), and don’t allow them to escape me: “Is there a sure, etymological or philosophical answer about the origins of your insanity? I want to write an account of this day for an American magazine…” I display all my feminine charm.“Americans? We have always liked them…” The two wearingyellow shirts and red scarves round their necks, approach me and take me by the arm: “We shall write the article for them and then you can pay us…”I don’t think I am willing to do this. “Come along with us and we will show you where our madness comes from!” They are very persuasive but I decline their invitation and go round the little shops of white lace and crockery decorated with gaudy shades, the scent of toasted bread seasoned with garlic and sprinkled with oil in the air, relishing my first cigarette of the day and gripped by the desire for a coffee. Were lies the ancient area of the Lanaioli which extends up to the area of San Martino, and between two stone buildings flows a narrow little river called the Cavarello. I think of these places as they must have been hundreds of years ago – women on the banks of the stream washing clothes made in the original artisan factories…
The cakes of the madness of Gubbio
It is said that during the papal rule Gubbio had 19 hospitals and no mental asylum.
A delegations of Gubbians went to the Pope asking him for the construction of one.
His Holiness, who had just witnessed the riotous and still existent “Race of the Candles” replied that it was enough to shut the city-gates and it was a ready-made mental asylum in itself.
The Gubbians gave such a delicious cake to the Pope that he repeatedly asked for the cake of the madness of Gubbio in the following days.
( I found this written on the main door of a tavern at the city-gates as I was going up the street of the Lanaioli).
Up and down, down and up. That’s the morphology: the historical memory of the place is enclosed within these serpentine hills and mountains. You have to forget the plane and rectilinear dimensions of space in order to live here. You need to have a double vision to get accustomed to the pedantic perspectives – to look from down to up and vice versa. It’s the leitmotiv of Umbrians when they discuss matters; the conversation opens with: “Have you been up…have you been down?”. There is no logical meaning and no reference is drawn from where you find yourself: up or down can mean anywhere in a universal sense of these two terms, a circular perception of space without a beginning or an end, without a starting point or a point of arrival.
I have already written about Gubbio as a masterpiece of a city. The culture of Umbria is at its peak here. Its ancient origins have been attested by “ Eugubine Tablets” which are preserved in the Palazzo dei Consoli. Outside the ancient past of the city there is a “Roman Theatre” while on Monte Igino rest the relics of the patron, Ubaldo Baldassini. One of the Montefeltros – Federico, leader and benefactor of every art, was born here. The creators of this masterpiece were Oderisi, Nelli, Mastro Giorgio, Gattapone and Francesco di Giorgio Martini. It was a Medieval city-state and as such, it deserved the realization of the magnificent complex of the “Palazzo dei Consoli”, the “Piazza Pensile” and the “Palazzo Pretorio” – a perfect example of refined town planning. Unblemished towers stand out amidst austere facades of edifices, symbols of the power interlaced with human events which, probably, still now conceal other mysteries. Between art and history, there is also the theory of a certain Prof. Alvarez according to which the secret concerning the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago is engraved upon the rocks at the throat of the Bottaccione.
From the street of the Lanaioli as I look upwards, I see the belt-tower, a piazza packed with people and the “Candles” lifted by the sole means of arms which seem like monoliths raised to the sky. Amidst shouts and incitements people begin to push me from the steps of Via Baldassini in a confused euphoria dragging me along like a high tide. It is almost midday and I have an appointment. I find myself descending the usual steep little street again, and owing to its precipitous inclination I seem to be hurtling at a breakneck speed. You have to get used to walking here: you cannot use public transport, bicycles or worse, cars. You only have to use yours legs and your eyes. These are the two elements necessary for living here.
At the first light of dawn a group of troupers has signalled the start by beating drums and moving in every area of the city. It is the sign that today is 15 May.
The sacred, the profane, the folklore and the distant traditions remind one of the earth, sweat, toil or the physicality bound to spiritual abstraction, between the archaic and the modern, the two modus vivendi which are not contradictory for the people of this region.
Gubbio is twinned with Jessup, Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania was where I arrived on my first trip to the United States. What a curious coincidence!
The city’s religious origin has been elaborately documented by Gubbians out of devotion towards the bishop, Ubaldo Baldassini, since his demise in May, 1160. A mystic procession accompanied by huge, heavy wax candles passed through the city streets to Monte Igino where the saint’s body is buried in the Basilica of the same name. These big wax candles offered by the Corporation of Arts and Occupations became so worn-out that around the end of 1500 they were substituted by three wooden structures which are exactly the same today in spite of being reconstructed several times. The second hypothesis, which is also more fascinating, prefers the memory of the pagan festival in honour of the goddess of harvest and earth, Ceres, that has reached us through the communal splendour and the seigniories of the Renaissance, the papal rule and the struggles of the Risorgimento.
The “Ceri” or the “Candles” are three wooden structures; they are octagonal prisms reinforced by on internal frame with an axis which passes through them and comes out externally with two “timicchioni” (poles), and which fits into a support called the “barella” (stretcher). These structures which are borne on the shoulders bear three small statues on their top representing the three patron saints of the Corporation: Sant’Ubaldo, patron of the town and protector of masons, San Giorgio, protector of merchants and Sant’Antonio, protector of farm workers. Here lies the origin of the banners of the houses of Gubbio and of the contrasting colours worn by the “ceraioli”: yellow for Sant’Ubaldo, blue for San Giorgio and black for Sant’Antonio. Every Gubbian family belongs to one of these stocks, and on the day of the “Festival of the Candles” an explicit and understandable rivalry does seep in, but is put aside the next day. People get merged in the fervour of the race right from the first moment as Captains, Standard bearers and Trumpeters on horseback precede the “Candles”. The Captains of the previous year give the sign to start. The electrified crowd erupts in a single choral, cohesive shout. Then, something that seemed impossible to my eyes happens in that human throng: as if by magic, the exultant sea of humans opens up unanimously to allow the “Candles” planted on the sturdy shoulders of the racing “ceraioli”, to pass the “Candles” oscillate frighteningly along the medieval roads brushing against walls and windows far they have to run as fast as possible, but the “ceraioli” are very competent and have years of practice. During the race, the beavers in order to avoid serious accidents, but at times they fall disastrously if it rains. It is a trial of strength and mastery to succeed in evading falls and overbalancing and this represents the challenge, the final victory. Overtaking does not exist as there is a tacit understanding that the “Candles” should arrive on the Monte in the same order as they left: St. Ubaldo, St. Giorgio and St. Antonio. The race lasts from midday to late night with a few pauses and change over. A pure madness for one who, like me, is not used to the Gubbians disorderliness. But wait, it is far from finished.
The battle of splashes at the fountain of the “madness of Gubbio”
In an apartment in an ancient building overlooking the area of San Martino all the people receive me as if they have known me since eternity.
I’m a migrant spirit; I do not get attached to memories, not even of my “home”, and for a Neapolitan who took root in the deep North to subsequently settle in the centre, this type of cordiality is profoundly touching.
The key moment comes unexpectedly as the “ceraioli” appear in dribs and drabs in the early afternoon immediately after lunch. The first to arrive is a small group of boisterous youth who “filch” bottles of red wine and grappa (spirit made from distillation of the residue of a wine press) from the table which is laid in the best festival tradition. They will be the first ones to give in, all of a sudden falling over each other on the rung ladder leading to the next floor. Then come the Giorgieri (Georgians), the veterans, dressed in blue and wearing red scarves. There is a thin one amongst them with blue eyes and long curly hair who embraces my friend, slumps into the sofa and falls asleep after a coffee, regardless of the deafening din around him. I wonder why nobody tastes a bit of the pasta, meat on the spit or a slice of walnut cake after so much exertion: I cannot believe them to be such shy guests for it is the adrenalin which makes their muscles move with tons of weight on their shoulders. Visia assures me that the physical and emotional surrender or the real collapse will occur only a few days later. Since I am not from Gubbio and am equipped with a certain imperturbability, I can barely understand this.
Around 3 o’ clock in the afternoon there come the “Candle Racers” as they pass trough the area of San Martino again. We rush down headlong with a bottle of wine. As they arrive, I curse myself for not having a camera. My friend had amply recommended me not to carry one: “They will break it” she had said…What? They will break it?Preceded by the band, trumpeters and horse backed cavalrymen reach us disappear at the end of the road like a wave of madness.
In front of us, between the Palazzo Beni and the Palazzo del Bargello and in a small L-shaped piazza, there is the glorious fountain – to be more precise, the Fountain of the Mad. You have to run around it three times, let you friends douse you with water and subsequently you can obtain your “license” of madness plus two Euros from the small shop behind the corner.
The atypical battle begins: representatives of San Giorgio spray water on those from the other groups. The passers-by the tourists, all find themselves unwittingly caught up in the event. A charming British lady with blond hair, dressed impeccably, ends up getting thoroughly drenched and secluding shelter under the main door of a historical building. We try to escape but in vain. The beautiful relative of my friend is grasped by two adversaries (who quarrel: ”It’s my turn. No, it’s mine. I’m take her. No, I will!”), and is immersed in the fountain till the hips by both of them. Screams, clamour and endless bursts of laughter. The “ceraioli” remove their shirts and spread them out on the road in the sun – the natural way of drying. Reinforcements arrive: a member of the group of Sant’Ubaldino takes undue possession of one of the capacious decorated vases, which are these artisans masterpieces, fills it to the brim, and climbs onto the top of a balcony. Downpours on a scorching afternoon for everybody including visitors with cameras and video cameras for filming the scene. The Fountain of the Mad remains half-full, but in reality it is emptied. In Gubbio on a day like this one no public force intervenes to placate the chaos… Was I looking for an explanation for the highly praised “madness” of Gubbians? It’s all here.
(1) Extracted from “ La Festa dei Ceri e la grande guerra – 1911-1920” by Adolfo Barbi.
(“The Festival of the Candles and the great war –1911-1920”).