Gubbio’s Glorious Mad May Race

May 13, 2011 / Events
Gubbio, Umbria
Dramatically perched on a hill, suspended in the Middle Ages… yet slumbering Gubbio erupts in frenetic euphoria on May 15th for the mad race, la Corsa dei Ceri.

The event is held to commemorate and to vaguely bring to mind the ceri (candles) that were solemnly carried in the 12th century Bishop of Gubbio, St. Ubaldo’s funeral procession. What you will see today however consists of three enormous wooden structures weighing about 500 kg. each, that are run through Gubbio’s streets at breakneck speed by teams of eighteen men.

Funeral procession? Really?

Think again! This is Italy and it is May, since time immemorial the month of fecundity and fertility, all about regeneration and rebirth. And why three? The Eugubini (folks from Gubbio) will tell you that three ceri have been run since the 16th century to best represent each social class (the stonemasons, the merchants, and the students and farmers, of course!). But three is sacred in most ancient religions. The ancient Umbri worshiped three gods, their ancient city had three city gates, their high priests practiced three rites of divination… you get the picture.

The alzata (the raising) happens in unison in the Piazza Grande. Three Maypoles! Once up, the 18 ceraioli from each team bear their cero in a frenzied dead run around the square – three times, of course – and then tear off through the city. The cero of the Famiglia di Sant’Ubaldo (yellow shirts) takes off first, followed by the San Giorgiari (royal blue shirts), followed by the Sant’Antoniari. I matti d’Italia (the Eugubini are referred to as the madmen of Italy) will run the entire day, always at top speed, and then at sunset they will run right up Mount Ingino, Gubbio’s natural backdrop, to the Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo.

Each team has nearly one thousand men running in relay, never stopping. Seeing the rotation of men in a Cero‘s muta (i.e. the eighteen men who carry the cero at any one time) while at a dead run is an emotionally-charged moment. A sweaty, panting ceraiolo slips out, another moves in to heft the cero. Never a pause in the race.

Yet the result of the race is always the same! The cero of Sant’Ubaldo always arrives first (this is the patron saint’s day, after all), followed by San Giorgio, and then Sant’Antonio. While this race is not about arriving first per se, the “winning” cero is the one remaining the most erect throughout the day-long frenzied racing and which remains most erect in the final evening race up the mountain.

So the ceri are just huge candlesticks carried in a solemn funeral procession, right? Hmmm… I don’t think so!

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

19 Responses to “Gubbio’s Glorious Mad May Race”

  1. Anne, you have once again captured the spirit of the event! This was one wild ride from start to finish! And our take on it was the same as yours. I am thrilled that we got to experience this event, from the first early morning drum beat to awaken the captains in the early dawn to the final exhilarating race up the mountain, I would have to say there was very little (if any) solemn religious funeral aspect perceived, but oh what an experience!!

    Reply
  2. minnie

    Enjoy reading your wonderful daily informative comments on the many beautiful spots in our beautiful Italia, would love to see some info on a beautiful small tomn Casanova in genova , if possible. thanks again…

    Reply
  3. just wanted to say how much i enjoy
    all the fine items you put in the italian notebook.

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  4. Jack Litewka

    Naughty, naughty!!! Thanks for the eye-witness account and for eading between the lines.

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  5. Pietro

    Io voglio andare a Gubbio presto! C’è anche una corsa in San Francisco California sulla stessa data che si chiama “Bay to Breakers” dove i corridori in vestono in costumi creativi e strani! È una festa molto divertente.

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  6. Sandra spector

    I of course would love to join Anne & her group to see the running of the Ceri. My husband, on the other hand, sees the pix of all the people and says “wow”, now there’s a place I do not want to be with all those crazy peiple. Sadly, he will win…since I “win” almost everything else!
    Sandi S.

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  7. Bobbie Donnelly

    Hopefully my sweet niece will be there to view this historical happening…love you Anna,
    Auntie Bobbie

    Reply
  8. Carina Cesari

    Anne darling,
    How fondly I remember going to the Gubbio Festival in 2006 with you, Jack and your tour group!!! I remember every exciting moment of this “uniquely energized” celebration and its risque symbolism!!!!!
    I have been to many festivals in Italy and Gubbio is my all time favorite!!!! Thanks in large part to you and your font of information about Gubbio and that divine place you took us for lunch – WOW it was divino!!!
    Lastly, climbing the hill with you and Pino at sunset was a spectacular grand finale!!!!!
    Carina Cesari

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  9. Mary Cappiello

    Another wonderful nugget of fascinating Umbrian tradition from Anne. Love the pictures that illustrate your little histories!

    Mary C.

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  10. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to all for your notes…and check out the
    YouTUBE videos to feel the excitement:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0Qw196XWbQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWzi-7iAFoc&feature=related
    If you can’t join in La Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio, join in the race at the end of May in Jessup, Pennsylvannia (!) run by descendants of Eugubini. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Ubaldo_Day
    (Many Eugubini immigrated to PA..worked coal mines in Scranton, PA area)
    Always great to hear their stories at Ceri time.
    off tomorrow for Gubbio _ can’t wait! Jerry S, come: i will have you in a safe spot!

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  11. Janet M

    Hi,
    I was with Anne Robichaud’s Gubbio group last year and was there for the amazing event of “I Ceri”. What an experience!! I am just wondering if there is the possibility for an article being written in Italian from time to time for those of us who are students of the language???? Then the articles could be used for teaching purposes in the classroom.
    Janet M.

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  12. John Rose

    Readers might enjoy the light-hearted Italian television show “Don Matteo” set in Gubbio. Here’s the description from the Netflix website:

    Country priest Don Matteo (Terence Hill) uses his unique gifts for understanding the human heart to help criminals rediscover their souls before police Capt. Anceschi (Flavio Insinna) closes in with a lawman’s form of justice. This engaging family series from Italian TV also features Nino Frassica, Francesco Scali, Natalie Guetta and Milena Mico

    Grazie!
    John Rose

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  13. Angela Melczer

    This looks amazing! “Glorious” and “mad” seem to be the perfect adjectives for this event. Hope to get there someday for it myself. Thanks, Annie!

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  14. Michelle

    Thanks for the great article. My Grandmother is from Scheggia. I hope to return to Gubbio someday during this event to see this event. I read about it with much interest because it was a tradition when I was growing up to attend this event in Jessup, Pennsylvania – the only other place that I know of where it is run exactly as it is in Gubbio. My cousins carred the statues there but I could never find much information about it.

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  15. Anne Robichaud

    Another amazing CERI day!
    The Cero di San Giorgio fell as did that of Sant’Antonio..so the race in the afternoon up to the Basilica was very dramatic.
    Sant’Ubaldo stayed erect all day..and thus ran the best race.
    Thanks, Michelle, for your note and hope you saw this line above from me: if you can’t join in La Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio, join in the race at the end of May in Jessup, Pennsylvannia (!) run by descendants of Eugubini. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Ubaldo_Day

    Angela, yes, come one year in May and join in!

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  16. CeciliaBelenardo

    I saw those candles stored in the back of a church when I was in Italy. Now I know what they are used for.I wish I could go back to Gubbio in may for this wonderful Holiday!

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  17. Thank you for this excellent article! I saw an episode of “Don Matteo” (which another reader touched on in another post here) and one scene featured a bunch of energetic people in bright colors flipping over on these giant wooden structures… It all makes sense now! It took me a while to find this, and I’m glad I finally understand.

    Reply

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