A most extraordinary example of pre-Christian, European text is preserved in Gubbio: this consists of seven bronze tablets (“le Tavole Eugubine”), dug up in 1444 and dating back to the first and third centuries BC, written in the ancient Osco-Umbrian language (parent of Latin) using the Etruscan and later the Roman alphabets. The text was only deciphered in the 19th century and was revealed as a set of prescriptions for the worship of the Osco-Umbrian Gods, describing the process of observing the bird auguries, the prayers and sacrifical procedures that took place during the year in the ancient city.
The Basilica of Sant Ubaldo is at the top of Monte Ingino, and contains the wooden candles which are the focus of the big festival on May 15th and the actual preserved body of Sant Ubaldo, patron saint of Gubbio, in his glass coffin.
The main sights of Gubbio are the huge, thirteenth century Palazzo dei Consoli and the 12th century Cathedral at the top of the town, the Church and Convent of Sant Agostino with frescoes by Ottaviano Nelli, the Church and Convent of San Francesco, the Churches of San Pietro and San Giovanni, but the town as a whole is an amazingly well preserved medieval complex and it is fascinating to wander around and catch glimpses of the inner courtyards and gardens hidden behind the stone walls. The walls themselves are like a visible history, built and rebuilt so that one can see the old arch windows and doorways that were brought up to date when rectangular windows came into fashion! A local scholar once said to us, “Fortunately we only were too poor until recently to change things – otherwise of course we’d have pulled all these beautiful buildings down and built skyscrapers!”
On May 15th the Festa dei Ceri is held, a famous and extraordinary festival in which the men carry three heavy wooden candles at a fast run, in relays, up to the top of the mountain, with the kids running behind them and the crowd pressing dangerously around the running men. Some say this celebrates an event in the 12th century when the bishop of Gubbio, Ubaldo, pacified many cities who had marched against the town.
It's is more likely that the origins of this festival are pagan and reach back many millennia. It looks like a celebration of the rebirth of the vegetation in an area where the mountains were thickly wooded and spring came late.
The name of the festival appears connected to the name of the majestic Oak which is the most common tree in this area and was indeed seen as a God here in times gone by – a provider of life for the whole food chain – and here called “Cerro” or in dialect “Cerqua”. By the end of the spring, all the other trees have put forth foliage and in mid-May, the Oak leaves finally appear, as if to bring a symphony to its splendid climax. To see the sacred in trees was a European constant in pre-Christian times: we once lived in a huge forest and that is still the habitat of our inner life! Many European tree/maypole celebrations centre on May, a celebration of our life support system and a rite of gratitude to Nature. Also, it’s a celebration and demonstration of male strength,fertility and friendship! Those wooden candles are very heavy and the teamwork is difficult and dangerous. There are other, less codified tree festivals of a similar type in this area, like the ones in Isola Fossara and San Pellegrino.
Everyone dresses up for the Ceri in white trousers and red sashes and wears a yellow shirt if they support Sant Ubaldo (merchant class), a blue one if they support San Giorgio (craftsmen) or a black one if, like us, they support Sant Antonio for the peasants! (And Sant Antonio’s candle weighs a lot more than the others).
Pratale celebrates the Ceri with a traditional group picnic after the midday Erection Ceremony (!!!) at one o’clock in the park at Roman Amphitheatre. The actual race up the mountain starts at 6pm and that is the evening when we put the donkeys and sheep back on their Home Pasture to enjoy the new grass.