This one-hour documentary film Ubaldo, a cultural festival more than 800 years old that can be found in only two places in the world, Gubbio, Italy, and Jessup, Pennsylvania. Known as “La Festa Dei Ceri” (pronounced Chedd-e), the historic importance and epic folklore preserved in this celebration have survived unchanged because it reflects the soul of each town and their Catholic devotion to three saints. Participating in the festival is a very important experience in the lives of the residents of these sister cities. Their stories create a uniquely intimate bridge between two countries, two cultures and two communities over which they share their past and present, and traditions of physical challenges and personal values.
The History Behind La Festa Dei Ceri
The story of Ubaldo is one of the oldest in Italian folklore. It begins with the birth in 1085 of Ubaldo Baldassini in Gubbio, a classicmedieval European village in Italy’s geographically central Province of Umbria, about 125 miles north of Rome. One of the most well-known saints throughout Europe, Ubaldo would become the beloved Bishop of Gubbio, andsave the town from a barbarian invasion led by the German king known as Barbarossa. Leaving the safe confines of Gubbio’s city walls, the Bishop attempted to meet the conqueror of Milan to persuade him not to attack the town. While he was gone, panic erupted in the streets with rumors that Ubaldo was murdered and the barbarian slaughter was imminent. Several days passed, and when Bishop Ubaldo finally returned to Gubbio, he found the town in chaos. The Bishop climbed on top of a wooden platform that men heaved onto their shoulders and robustly raced with through Gubbio’s narrow cobblestone streets to reassure citizens he was physically unharmed and the barbarians would not ravage the town. Upon Ubaldo’s death in 1160, Gubbio convened a solemn ceremony every May 15th to commemorate the Bishop’s ride through the streets, a “race” that has proceeded uninterrupted for 844 years and annually swells the community’s population from 30,000 to more than 100,000. To make their celebration more inclusive of the major classes of people who lived in Gubbio in the 12th century, the patron saints of farmers (St. Antonio) and merchants (St. Giorgio) were introduced into the ceremony.
Transplanting a Culture
More than eight centuries later, Italians began emigrating from Umbria to America to seek economic opportunity. Many settled in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining towns. Those who emigrated from Gubbio predominantly settled in a small town in the Lackawanna Valley called Jessup, because it reminded them of the terrain that surrounded their ancestral home nestled at the base of Mount Ingino.
In 1911, these émigrés began celebrating La Festa Dei Ceri in their new hometown in America. As in Gubbio, the Jessup festival also draws tens of thousands of visitors and takes over the entire community with decorative banners and flags that bear the colors and emblems of the three saints. The Memorial Day-weekend event also includes a large ethnically diverse picnic and carnival with fireworks, a children’s festival, and numerous backyard reunions of families and friends.
Production & Conclusion
Ubaldo is shot entirely on location in Gubbio and Jessup. The film’s narrative follows the experiences of a tourgroup from Jessup during its visit to Gubbio for the 2006 celebration, including a couple celebrating their 50 th wedding anniversary with their children. The tour arrives in Gubbio after the unveiling of the statues of St. Ubaldo, St. George and St. Anthony in solemn church ceremonies. When fully assembled, each statue is 15 feet high and weighs well over 400 pounds. The races occur over an approximately two-mile course run on the steeply inclined main streets of each town.
Footage shot during the race in both Gubbio and Jessup captures the intensity of the key moments, from the raising of the statues onto the platforms, to the sprints by the platform teams as they blaze by the street crowds, to the rest stops, during which team captains assess the physical demands of the next sprint and the physical condition of team members while the crowd repositions itself. The personality of the crowd that assembles to witness this ancient ceremony is a dramatic component of La Festa Dei Ceri. It is remarked on St. Ubaldo Day that everyone in Jessup is Italian. During the festival, however, there is no place for reckless bystanders. The statues move at the highest possible speed around each town, and anyone interfering with the race risks being trampled.
The race objective is the celebration of St. Ubaldo, so this statue is always in the lead. Platform bearers for the saints are forbidden to over-take each other. The only competition—and victory—is for teams to keep their statues as steady as possible and overcome complications that occur because of the crowd. Carrying the statues is a test of great strength and agility. If a team drops a statue, it is considered the ultimate disgrace. With great ability and years of experience, platform bearers manage to prevent dangerous accidents, though they slip and often fall, especially in rain.
Race sequences are intercut with transitional scenes that present a lively range of cultural and historical content. The audience follows the tour group as it explores historic Gubbio, one of Europe’s most scenic medieval towns. At Gubbio’s Municipal Museum , they will learn the true story of St. Ubaldo, a profoundly spiritual soul who was deeply tormented by his destiny as a cunning military tactician and beloved religious leader. Interviews with curators of the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, a meticulously restored medieval church that overlooks Gubbio from the top of Mount Ingino , complement striking original footage of magnificent Roman Catholic iconography on display at the National Gallery of Umbria. To illustrate the remarkable spiritual bond between residents of Gubbio and Jessup, WVIA will also visit St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a central site of important race events in Jessup, and recount the Italian migration to northeastern Pennsylvania through original footage shot at Ellis Island in New York City harbor.
The film also details the expressive language and precise protocols of La Festa Dei Ceri, including colorful church and community activities leading up to the race, and the traditional uniforms worn by the platform bearers. These consist of white pants, a red “fazzoletto” (kerchief) and a red sash. Those carrying St. Ubaldo wear a yellow shirt, while the St. George team dons a blue shirt and the St. Anthony team is clad in black.
The documentary’s soundtrack highlights traditional Italian music performed during the ceremony and by small groups along the course. Platform teams sing some verses to greet each other, and to tease each other. It is traditional for the St. Ubaldo team at the end of the race to playfully humble the St. Anthony and St. George teams. The conclusion brings a sense of exaltation tomany, and perhaps argument if something went wrong for a team during the race.
The production also explores the insights of the old and young who have carried the statues through Gubbio and Jessup. Personal photosand mementos presented in the film sentimentally illustrate this family tradition sustained on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean .
One of northeastern Pennsylvania’s most valuable qualities is its ethnic diversity and immigrant legacy, but too often we misunderstand or forget this deeply ingrained aspect of life here. Produced for broadcast in March 2007, Ubaldoreminds us of our cultural richness by cinematically capturing the elegant spiritual and artistic beauty and genuine emotion of a rare and timeless human bond. The documentary celebrates who we are, and in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world helps inspire and preserve the values necessary for us to sustain our essential identity.