Angelo Stagnaro discovers something even more hair-raising than the famous wolf that terrorised the citizens of this Umbrian town No one can understand the true meaning of terror until they’re suspended 1,200 feet over the Italian countryside held up merely by sheer force of will and the grace of God (mostly the latter).
Gubbio is an ancient city in central Umbria, close to Assisi and to Rome. I was there for a retreat at the 13thcentury Sant’Ubaldo Basilica, a Franciscan monastery located on Mount Ingino high above the city. I was recuperating from two weeks on the St James Way in northern Spain which I finished a few days before.
When they told me that the only way up to Sant’Ubaldo was by funicular, I glibly and foolishly made my way to the embarkation point.
As soon as I saw what laughingly passes in Gubbio for a funicular, I knew it was a bad idea.
I had imagined that Gubbio’s funicular was an enormous, bus-like contrivance that was sealed against the elements which comfortably fit several dozen people and their skis and lazily and securely flitted between mountaintops. Where sharply dressed waiters served a wide selection of perfectly aged cheeses coupled with exquisite local white wines. I was soon to learn differently.
What lay before me is best described as a seven-foot tall wireframed cold capsule completely exposed to the elements, first and foremost among them, gravity, and held together by nothing more than a hope and a prayer and tiny bit of frayed wire.
Like time and tide, Gubbio’s funicular stopped for no man. Instead, an attendant directed me to stand on a large red circle painted on the ground and wait until the cage-like contraption swung towards me. I was supposed to jump aboard it, God-willing, just before it lifted upwards over the cliff. The man’s colleague was in charge of running along the side of the cage apparently meant for me. He warned me to be careful as I made the leap for life on to it. I barely made it on to the cage before he snapped the cage shut, locking me into it. Or at least I hope it was locked...
The view from the funicular was spectacular – or, I should rather say, it probably was spectacular. I couldn’t risk turning around to see the valley stretch behind me for fear that I would start yelling and not be able to stop. Instead, I kept my eye on the quickly approaching mountainside; it was the only thing that stopped me from losing my mind completely.
I quickly reviewed every possible saint in the firmament of heaven to see whose prayers would most benefit me and settled upon the most appropriate one considering my predicament. The winner was St Joseph Cupertino, patron of those who fly. I wasn’t exactly flying per se but, like all others who pray to him, I was more interested in landing safely.
Fr Pietro Michelli, OFM, a smiling, diminutive Franciscan friar, met me as I leapt from the cage that otherwise had kept me from being hurled to my death. He welcomed me to Gubbio and to his monastery. Smiling, he asked me, “So... what do you think about our funicular?” I told him that the ride was the singularly most terrifying experience of my entire life including the time I used a loo in rural China.
He laughed and I asked the energetic friar if he had ever ridden the infernal contraption himself.
“Me? I was on it once a few years ago,” he admitted in that delightfully animated Italian way of speaking. “When I first was assigned to the basilica. But I’m not stupid enough to try it again.” Just before Fr Pietro showed me the path that went up the monastery he pointed out a superlative view of the valley beneath us and which I had fretted over high above the magnificent canopy of trees. Considering I wasn’t suspended over it fearing for my life, I had the opportunity to comfortably and silently enjoy it.
As I looked at the vista before me, I recalled that Dante described an arduous and harrowing ascent up Mount Purgatory in his Divine Comedy, after which he entered into paradise, cleansed and forgiven.
The friar and I made our way to the basilica and the attached monastery. As soon as I saw the venerable buildings, I realised it was going to be a good retreat.
Most Christians know about Gubbio from the legend of St Francis of Assisi’s encountered a wolf which was terrorising the city. According to The Little Flowers of St Francis, a collection of popular stories about St Francis, also known as the Fioretti, the wolf had killed livestock and even attacked the Eugubini themselves. The wolf was a cunning creature and apparently even the city’s top marksmen had no luck in downing it. Frustrated and frightened, the citizenry called St Francis to deal with the wolf directly.
St Francis left the safety of Gubbio’s walls to confront the terrible monster. He had gone no more than a mile when the wolf spied the holy man. Immediately, the wolf charged at Francis with jaws open and teeth bared. He made the Sign of the Cross and demanded the wolf cease its attacks. At that, the wolf stopped in its tracks and stared at the friar. St Francis addressed it: “Brother Wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God with out His permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O Brother Wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.” At that point, the wolf gently trotted up to Francis and lay at his feet, putting its head in his hands, submitting to the saint. The Fioretti specifically says that the wolf placed its paw in Francis’s outstretched hand, thereby giving his consent to the oath. Francis then returned to Gubbio with the wolf trot ting next to him.
The Eugubini, hear ing of Francis’s success, gathered in the city’s main piazza.
They were all stunned to see the erstwhile monster behaving like a tamed, adoring pet following Francis wherever he went. The friar, with the wolf sitting beside him, said to the gathering crowd: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear.” The wolf kept its promise and never harmed another living thing. The Eugubini came to love the wolf and fed him every time he came to their doors. The gentle wolf died two years after Francis tamed him and all of Gubbio mourned him. Even though he had had a turbulent past, he had come to represent Francis’s sanctity and the power of God the convert all to His love.
The 13th-century Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo rests at the very top of Mount Ingino high above the city. So strong is the Eugubini’s faith in Christ and their devotion to St Ubaldo that they will frequently walk the three miles up Mount Ingino to get to the basilica for Mass. Some, not many, will even brave the funicular.
The Romanesque basilica’s interior was light and airy and gave the impression of being a modern space but was actually built in the 13th century replacing an eighthcentury edifice.
The church was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with Eugubini (as the town’s residents are known) and tourists who had come together on May 16, St Ubaldo Baldassini’s feast day. Some 1,200 people crowded into a church meant to accommodate only 400 worshippers. St Ubaldo has such a strong devotion among the Eugubini that it’s rare to find a family that doesn’t have at least one person named after the saint.
Most of the sanctuary is dominated by a 10-ft high, pure white marble tomb with the remarkably wellpreserved body of St Ubaldo, one of the three patrons of Gubbio, in a glass casket perched on top of it. The altar is covered with delicate mosaic work and fine-line drawings of saints. St Francis of Assisi is one of the 20 such saints; he is depicted along with a very attentive and adoring wolf – a theme one can’t escape when in Gubbio. Happily, I rather enjoy the Francis and the wolf story.
Nothing can emotionally prepare you for the Gubbio palio, known locally as the Corsa dei Ceri. It’s a spectacular run dedicated to Gubbio’s three patron saints, St Ubaldo, St George and St Anthony the Abbot (also known as St Anthony of Egypt). The entire city is festooned and everyone in the surrounding region turns out for the festivities replete with food vendors, street entertainers and crossbow competitions. This year was particularly exciting because it was the 850th anniversary of St Ubaldo’s dies natalis, his “birth into heaven”.
Every year on St Ubaldo’s feast day three teams of 16 men, each dressed in distinct colours, run through the streets of Gubbio. The three teams start at Palazzo dei Consoli halfway up Mount Ingino where the three ceri (12 foot tall wooden octagonal prisms representing candles) are stored. Each one weighs 600 lbs. Exhausted team members are quickly shed and there is never a dearth of eager young men ready, will ing and able to take their place. Replacements run alongside hoping their teammates will need to be tagged out.
Perched on top of each of the ceri is a tiny three foot tall statue of St Ubaldo, George or Anthony the Abbot. The three teams race through the cobbled streets of Gubbio up Mount Ingino, a total of seven miles, to the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo. The first team to get there wins bragging rights. It’s always a close call as each team is hot on their opponents’ heels and they assist each other for most of the run until the last few hundred yards and then it’s every Catholic for himself.
Banners festoon every window in the city. Each family and every neighbourhood shows their allegiance by flying the colours representing their favourite saint. Those Eugubini who don’t wish to ruffle any feathers will fly one of each banner. The teams and their supporters wear shirts in either yellow (St Ubaldo), blue (St George) or black (St Anthony the Abbot) and matching neckerchiefs with white trousers with red sashes around their waists.
It was their sheer brawn and their Catholic faith which propelled these men through Gubbio’s streets at breakneck speeds. Only the foolish got in their way to take photos. Sixteen men carrying 600lbs wouldn’t stop for the Pope if he suddenly jumped out at them; a dizzy tourist who got in the way of the oncoming ceri stood no chance whatsoever.
The festival starts when the three teams come pouring out of the Palazzo dei Consoli, Gubbio’s monumental building. Each team runs in a different direction trying first to get to its home base in the neighbourhood which bears its name. As soon as this is accomplished, the teams run the arduous, additional three very steep miles up Mount Ingino to the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo. By the time the teams get there, most of Gubbio is already assembled at the basilica to greet them. Those who start off the race are rarely, if ever, those who finish at the basilica as very few people, even professional athletes, have that kind of stamina.
The runners and their supporters all barrelled into the church for 20 minutes of hymns and a final blessing. No one seemed eager to leave. Despite the raucous atmosphere, everyone took the time to pay homage to St Ubaldo’s tomb and the Blessed Sacrament. And then, that was it. The crowd patted the ceri as they were led away as if to say ciao, knowing they won’t be seen again until the next year.
With a graciousness, civility and love that is unfortunately all too rare today, the good friars of Sant’Ubaldo Basilica welcomed me into their home and treated me as a brother. When one is in the presence of truly holy people, one immediately feels one’s own unworthiness. Even now, as I write this piece, I recall those gentle men and am humbled.
The monastery has fallen on hard times as of late. People still come to pray in overwhelming numbers but too many of them are suffering from the recent economic collapse. The friars give as much as they can but it’s impossible to keep up with the need; a common problem these days.
Gubbio exudes an incredible Christian sensibility and spirituality. A seeker can’t but encounter God while there. He hides in plain sight, waiting for us at every crossroad, pursuing us down the many stone-lined paths in this ancient city. He’s in the heart of every Eugubini and in the smile of each of its tiniest citizens.