Festa dei Ceri 2024 – Gubbio

A Unique Event in Umbria

Of all the regions in Italy, Umbria is the one I visit over and over again. From Orvieto to Montefalco, Todi to Norcia, this central Italian region has so much to offer. I am still discovering its sights, sounds and tastes. 

On a whim, we managed to book a flight to Perugia and timed our stay for the 15th May and the famous Festa dei Ceri di Gubbio. This event has been on my bucket list for a while and a visit was overdue. 

A festival started back in the Middle Ages, it always takes place on the 15th of May and is one of Italy’s oldest and most unique celebrations. It is dedicated to Sant’Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, who was the town’s bishop in the 12th century.

The central feature of the festival are the “Ceri”, which are large, heavy wooden structures resembling candles. Each Cero consists of a wooden base and a statue of a saint on top. The three Ceri are dedicated to the Sant’ Ubaldo (protector of bricklayers), San Giorgio (protector of merchants) and Sant Antonio abate (protector of farmers). Essentially, the festival is a race between these three saints. 

Not exactly knowing the kind of storm we were heading into, I decided on an early start. By 9am we were in Gubbio, a good parking spot secured. Although with an air of anticipation, matters were still calm so we meandered through the narrow streets and slopes, slowly making our way to Piazza Grande.

Each saint has his own Ceraioli (Ceri bearers), who are decked in the saint’s colours; Santubaldari in yellow, Sangiorgiari in blue and Santantoniari in black. By extension, the saints’ supporters wear these colour which makes for a very colourful day. 

We found a good spot in Piazza Grande which was slowing filling up. In my mind, I knew the kind of shots I wanted to make – with Gubbio’s Palazzo di Consoli serving as a dramatic background.

By 11am the square was packed with people spilling from the surrounding balconies and windows. As noon approached, the Ceraioli started spilling out from the Palazzo di Consoli, each team carrying their respective Cero to take their place in the square. Moments later the three saints’ statues are carried down the palace steps in a sea of yellow, blue and black. These are secured firmly to the Ceri which at this stage are still in a horizontal position. Down the stairs also descend the three brocce, ceramic vases made and handpainted by master craftspeople in Gubbio. These are handed to the three race leaders (Capidieci) who are now positioned atop the base of the cero.

Everything is finally is place for the alzata, the lifting of the ceri. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd is heaving, a few around us faint due to the heat and some end up on the ground. These are swiftly dealt with by first responders, who are numerous and well-spread around the square.

Trumpets and bells signal the alzata and start of the race. The capidieci throw the brocce into the crowd, pieces of which end up as souvenirs and lucky charms. In turn, each capodieci throws himself off the cero base while holding on to the bars, lifting the cero vertically as a result. And they’re off!

The crowd pressure is intense, some inevitably fall to the floor. The ceri are being carried on the ceraioli’s shoulders going round the square. As tradition dictates, the first out of the square is Sant’ Ubaldo, with San Giorgio just behind. Sant’ Antonio makes one final circle around the banner in the centre of the square and he’s out of there too. This is only the start of the ‘race’.

The race itself is not a conventional competition where the first to finish wins. Instead, it’s a test of strength, endurance, and community spirit. It takes place in the afternoon where the Ceri are carried through the narrow streets and steps of Gubbio, making their way up to the Basilica of Sant’ Ubaldo. This being his feast, the ‘winner’ is Sant’ Ubaldo, with San Giorgio coming in second, always.

But as soon as the ceri leave Gubbio’s Piazza Grande, the crowd breaks for lunch and so do the ceraioli themselves. They meet in restaurants and homes. Walking below windows you will hear the chants and celebrations. Later in the afternoon the crowds will congregate again and the race proper commences.

For us, it’s been quite an experience. The festival fosters a strong sense of solidarity and continuity, linking the present-day citizens with their medieval ancestors. In any time of the year a visit to Gubbio is a must, but if you time your stay with I Festa dei Ceri, you’re in for a colourful treat. 

All photos are the intellectual property of Tonio Schembri. Any use of these photos without permission is breach of copyright.