Gubbio, one of the best preserved medieval hill towns in Umbria, is just 40 km northeast of Perugia. With its mix of medieval, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, it is a visual delight. Snugged up against Monte Ingino, Gubbio rises above summer fields of sunflowers.
It is literally a vertical town with stairs that crisscross its width to reach the grand Piazza della Signoria. Standing on its parapet, one can take in the big views of the countryside. The huge 14th C. Gothic Palazzo dei Consoli, constructed of limestone, anchors the piazza.
Sant’Ubaldo,(1080-1160), son of a wealthy family of Gubbio became patron saint of the town after an almost miraculous deliverance from the wrath of Federick I, Holy Roman Emperor. Known as Barbarossa, he marched on Gubbio after destroying most of Spoleto. When he met Bishop Ubaldo, it is said that Barbarossa was so touched by Ubaldo’s peaceful demeanor that he changed his mind and granted Gubbio the rights of a free comune.
After Ubaldo died, the people petitioned Pope Celestine to canonize him, which he did in 1192. Now comes the second miracle: when he was exhumed to be placed in the new Basilica built in his honor, they found his body perfectly preserved. Good old Sant’Ubaldo is now encased in a glass coffin high above the main altar and his body, albeit a little leathery after 855 years, is still perfectly preserved, on view to everyone.
Visitors to the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo, hop, two at a time, into a metal cage that whisks them up Monte Ingino, quite a thrill with huge views over the rooftops of Gubbio and the vast valley below.
Sant’Ubaldo’s Basilica is a sanctuary just outside the town with its peaceful courtyard and interior of a central nave and four aisles. Within these aisles, the famous three ceri, tall wooden “candlesticks”, twenty feet high and weighing 400 kg, topped with figures of Sant’Ubaldo, Sant’Antonio and Sant Giorgio, are used in the Race of the Ceri in May. Nine men abreast bear the ceri on their shoulders in a race from the Piazza della Signoria to the Basilica, where Sant’Ubaldo squeezes through the door before it slams shut on Sant’Antiono and Sant Giorgio.
Leave it to a medieval town in Umbria to infuse a holy day, the day of Ubaldo’s death on May 15, with an ancient fertility rite. The season of May, the shape of the ceri and the antics of the gathering in the Piazza della Signoria might make Sant’Ubaldo turn in his grave… if he had one.