The Race of the Candles

If you happened to be in Gubbio on May 15, you had the opportunity to witness one of the most exciting festivals in all of Italy. If you missed the festival this year, be sure to put it on your list as an essential stop next year. Gubbio’s Race of the Candles has ancient roots, but is still the kind of fun we can enjoy today.

Corsa dei Ceri, the official name of the occasion, is one of the most exhilarating races you’ll ever witness. There are no horses, and there isn’t even a track. This is a race of finesse and talent. Speed matters, but not as much as the skill shown by the candle bearers.

The Candles of Gubbio
The actual candles carried in the race aren’t tapers or even torches. They are huge octagonal shaped structures made of wood. The candles are fixed to a handbarrow and can top seven meters- that’s over 22 feet. At the top of each structure is a statue of a saint.

At the top of one is St. Ubaldo, the protector of masons. St. Giorgio, the protector of merchants, tops another. The third candle is crested by St. Anthony, the protector of farmers. The candles, or Ceri, are carried by a special group of Ceraioli. The Ceraioli are dressed in colorful costumes color-coordinated to match the saint’s candle each carries. St. Ulbaldo carriers wear yellow, blue is for St. Giorgio, and St. Anthony carriers wear black.

Race History
The rules and traditions of the race are the same today as they were centuries ago. The Corsa dei Ceri is celebrated on May 15, the eve of St. Ubaldo’s day. The festival is believed to have started midway through the 12th century after an important battle when locals held a festival to honor the then Bishop Ubaldo.

Race Traditions

The candles are taken down from the church on May 1 to be prepared for the race on the 15th. The morning of the 15th, drums call the Ceraioli together to choose the two Captains of the Candles. The Ceraioli then parade through town. At noon, the big bell of the Palazzo dei Consoli rings and the candles are raised. Each is doused with water, and the jug is thrown to the ground where the broken pieces are collected for good luck.

The candles process through town, but the race doesn’t officially begin until six in the evening. The candles are carried quickly to the Basilica of St.Ubaldo, but the first one to reach the church isn’t the winner. Indeed, the candle for St. Ubaldo always goes first. The winner is chosen based on how the race was run after great discussion among the townspeople.