People who want to visit the church of Sant’Ubaldo high up the slope of Monte Ingino basically have three options. If they are lazy, they can go by car, which should take about 10 minutes from downtown Gubbio. A more challenging option is to go on foot. From the Palazzo dei Consoli in the historical city centre, it is a walk of about 2,5 kilometres. Expect to be zigzagging your way up the mountain for 45 minutes if you take this option. The most adventurous option is probably the third one: take the Funivia, the cable car that departs close to the church of Sant’Agostino. The Funivia resembles a ski lift. You buy a ticket and step into one of the baskets with high railings to prevent people from falling out. The view from the basket is truly amazing and I took some of my best photos during my two six-minute rides up and down the mountain (see the images below). All the while I had R. Kelly’s song ‘I believe I can fly’ in my head. Shame on me…
History of the church
Saint Ubaldus of Gubbio was born in about 1084 as Ubaldo Baldassini. In 1129, Pope Honorius II (1124-1130) appointed him bishop of Gubbio and his pontificate of 31 years was generally seen as a huge success. When he died in 1160 at the age of 76, his body was initially laid to rest in the original cathedral of Gubbio, which stood close to the church of San Giovanni Battista. The body was moved to the new Duomo after 1188, but it did not stay there for long. In 1192, Ubaldo Baldassini was canonised by Pope Celestinus III (1191-1198) and became the patron saint of Gubbio. A mere two years later his remains were exhumed again and translated to a small oratory on the slope of Monte Ingino. This oratory is the predecessor of the current church of Sant’Ubaldo, which was built between 1513 and 1527.
The new and larger basilica seems to have replaced both the oratory dedicated to Saint Ubaldus and another oratory which stood next to it and was dedicated to the Milanese martyrs Protasius and Gervasius. More about them here. The decision to build a new sanctuary was taken by Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1482-1508), who unfortunately died before his plans could be executed. The Duke had no children and was succeeded by Francesco Maria I della Rovere, his sister’s son. Guidobaldo had been married to Elisabetta Gonzaga from Mantova, while Francesco had married Eleonora Gonzaga, Elisabetta’s niece. The two Gonzagas were responsible for construction of the Sant’Ubaldo. The church has been administered by several different orders and was thoroughly restored between 1915 and 1923. It was given the status of a minor basilica in 1919 by Pope Benedictus XV (1914-1922).
Things to see
The Sant’Ubaldo is hardly the most spectacular church in Gubbio. The basilica is preceded by an atrium which has a simple stone façade from the Renaissance era. The atrium itself is charming and quiet, but features few decorations. Once we are over the threshold, the simplicity continues inside. We see a fairly small church with a short nave and four aisles. The colours white and yellow dominate the church interior. The best decorations are the stained glass windows, which were made in 1922. They are signed by the Florentine artist Francesco Mossmeyer and feature scenes from the life of Saint Ubaldus. The rest of the decorations are not really worth our attention.
Pilgrims will obviously come here for the relics of the saint himself. These can be found in the apse, behind the high altar. The saint’s body lies in state in a glass coffin which was made in 1860 and was placed on a large pedestal with neo-Gothic decorations. Devout Catholics will no doubt find this arrangement quite impressive, but I myself consider it rather lugubrious.
To the right of the high altar is a copy of the Madonna Greca or Greek Madonna. The original can be found in the church of Santa Maria in Porto in Ravenna. Ubaldus prayed to the Madonna when he was in Ravenna in 1119 and this is the reason why a copy was placed in his church here in Gubbio.
The Corsa dei Ceri
Important objects that are kept in the church are the ceri or candles. Each year on 15 May the so-called Corsa dei Ceri is held in Gubbio, which is a race between the members of three guilds, representing the masons (muratori), the haberdashers (merciai) and the peasants (asinari, although the word actually means ‘donkey-driver’). The ceri are not real candles, but huge and very heavy wooden standards on top of which statues of Saints Ubaldus, George and Antony the Abbot are placed. These statues are kept in the church of San Francesco della Pace, just east of the Piazza Grande. Ubaldus is not just the patron saint of Gubbio, but also the protector of the masons. Saint George protects the haberdashers and Saint Antony the Abbot watches over the peasants. One of my travel guides claims the candles are 10 metres high, which is either ridiculous or a serious translation error. The real heights and weights can be found here. It turns out that the cero of Saint Antony is both the highest and the heaviest, with a height of just over five metres (including the statue) and a weight of 287,3 kilograms. The cero of Saint Ubaldus is the lightest at just 263 kilograms. Apparently he is supposed to win and close the doors of the basilica before the others arrive!
The Corsa dei Ceri draws hordes of spectators to Gubbio and can be compared to the Palio di Siena, the famous horse-race of Siena in Tuscany (see Siena: Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico). On the first Sunday of the month of May, the ceri are taken from the church of Sant’Ubaldo to the Palazzo dei Consoli on the Piazza Grande, where they are placed in the large hall on the ground floor, the Sala del’Arengo. The feast of the ceri starts on the 15th at 5:30 in the morning, but the actual race is not held until 18:00 in the evening. The candles and statues are assembled just before noon and placed on stretchers. The men that carry them are dressed in white trousers and yellow (the masons), blue (the haberdashers) and black shirts (the peasants) respectively. These men are called the ceraioli. The Corsa dei Ceri is a relay race. The masons, haberdashers and peasants all have four teams of ten men and the ceri are passed on to a new group at designated spots along the route. There are several pauses during the race, and as one might expect, the toughest part is the steep route up the Monte Ingino.
I could rattle off pages about the candle race of Gubbio, but it is probably best to go and see for yourself. For those who cannot travel to Umbria in person, YouTube has many good movies about the event. See for instance this one and this one. ‘Spectacular’ is probably an understatement!
Important sources for this post were my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides, as well as the Key to Umbria website.