Skip to main content
Select Source:

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio

The Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) is best known for the Decameron. For his Latin works and his role in reviving Hellenistic learning in Florence, he may be considered one of the early humanists.

The culture of Giovanni Boccaccio is rooted in the Middle Ages, but his conception of life points forward to the Renaissance. Like his fellow poet Petrarch, he straddled two ages, and yet he was unlike Petrarch—a fervent admirer of classical and Christian antiquity—in his acceptance of the medieval tradition. Boccaccio's work reflects both his bourgeois mercantile background and the chivalric ideals of the Neapolitan court, where he spent his youth. He strove to raise Italian prose to an art form nurtured in both medieval rhetoric and classical Latin prose; he had immense admiration for his great Italian contemporaries Dante and Petrarch, as well as for the classical authors. In this sense Boccaccio's vernacular humanism contrasts with Petrarch's classical humanism.

Boccaccio's father, Boccaccio di Chellino, was a merchant from the small Tuscan town of Certaldo. About 1312 he went to Florence and there worked successfully for the powerful banking company of the Bardi and Peruzzi. The exact date and place of Boccaccio's illegitimate birth are unknown. Despite tales of his birth in Paris of a Parisian noblewoman, a story derived partly from some of Boccaccio's early works whose autobiographical value is disputed, it seems that he was born in 1313 in Certaldo or more likely in Florence, where he spent his childhood. Of these years he wrote, "I remember that, before having completed my seventh year, a desire was born in me to compose verse, and I wrote certain poetic fancies."

Early Life

In 1321 Giovanni began to study Latin. But his father did not encourage his literary interests, and by 1328 Boccaccio was in Naples to learn commerce, probably with the Bardi. After 6 years of fruitless apprenticeship, Boccaccio abandoned commerce and reluctantly studied canon law for another 6 years. Later he regretted this lost time. "I do not doubt that if, at an age most suited for this, my father had tolerated it with a serene mind, I would have become one of the celebrated poets; but because he strove to bend my talent first to a lucrative trade and then to lucrative studies, it happened that I am not a merchant, I have not turned out to be a canonist, and have not become a distinguished poet."

However, the years were not wasted. Through his father's contacts (he was a financial adviser to King Robert of Anjou), Boccaccio was introduced to the cultivated society of the court at Naples. There he knew scientists and theologians, men of letters and the law. He learned astronomy and mythology and was introduced to Greek language and culture. He read the classical Latin authors, French adventure romances, and Italian poets. In the refined, and learned environment of Naples he matured and became a writer.

On Holy Saturday 1336, in the church of S. Lorenzo, Boccaccio saw and began to love ardently the young noblewoman whom he called Fiammetta in his works. She is said to have been Maria, the natural daughter of King Robert and the wife of the Count of Aquino, though there is no documentary evidence of her identity. Fiammetta returned Boccaccio's love for a time and was the inspiration for all his youthful works in Italian.

Italian Works

Boccaccio's earliest composition, probably preceding his love for Fiammetta, is the Caccia di Diana, 18 cantos in terza rima chronicling the events of the Neapolitan court under fictitious and allegorical names. The Filocolo, a prose romance inspired by Fiammetta about 1336, retells the tale of the noble lovers Florio and Biancofiore. Based on a French romance, it contains a vivid portrayal of Neapolitan society and two stories which later reappear in the Decameron.

The Filostrato (ca. 1338) is composed of nine cantos in octaves. For the first time the octave, a popular Italian verse form, is elevated to the dignity of literary art. The poem was composed at a time when Fiammetta's love was declining, and the poet expresses his sorrow through the young lover, Troilus, who is tormented by jealousy. Chaucer made an English version of the Filostrato, and Shakespeare derived his Troilus and Cressida from it. The Tesdida (ca. 1340), 12 books in octaves, was intended to fill the need for an epic poem in Italian.

In 1340 his father, who had been reduced to poverty by the bankruptcy of the Bardi, called Boccaccio back to Florence. On his return he wrote to a friend: "About my being in Florence against my will I will write nothing to you, for it could sooner be shown with tears than with ink." Little is known of this period of Boccaccio's life, but his works written between 1341 and 1346 show a gradual shift in orientation. L'Ameto (1341-1342) is a pastoral romance in prose and terza rima, dedicated to a Florentine friend. L'amorosa visione (ca. 1342), dedicated to Fiammetta, is in terza rima. Both are moving idealizations of love in the form of allegory.

L'elegia de madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344) and the Ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346) mark a departure from allegory. Fiammetta is a psychological romance in prose, in which the situation of Filostrato is reversed—the woman, overcome by love, suffers abandonment, jealousy, and despair. But the author, who in his earlier works reflected his own emotions, now achieves an artistically detached and serene approach which results in a more subtle psychological analysis and a high degree of stylistic perfection. The Ninfale fiesolano is a narrative poem in octaves. A tragic idyll of love between the shepherd Affrico and the nymph Mensola, it explains poetically the origin of two rivers which join and flow into the Arno. It is Boccaccio's best work in verse; in its narrative maturity it foreshadows the Decameron.

In 1346 Boccaccio was in Ravenna at the court of Ostasio da Polenta; in 1347 he was a guest of Francesco degli Ordelaffi in Forli and thereafter may have sojourned briefly in Naples. In 1348 he was probably in Florence to witness the devastating pestilence which he described in the proem of the Decameron. In 1349, the year of his father's death, he was definitely in Florence, where he was increasingly esteemed. By this time he was working on the Decameron, which he completed by 1353.

The Decameron

The great pestilence of 1348 may have afforded Boccaccio the occasion to write his masterpiece; it provides the framework for this collection of 100 stories in Italian. While the Black Death rages in Florence, seven young ladies and three young lovers meet by chance in S. Maria Novella and agree to flee from the city to their country villas during the epidemic. Against the somber background of death and desolation, portrayed in vivid detail, the group lives a carefree yet well-ordered life in the pleasant countryside for 15 days, avoiding all thoughts of death. They meet daily in the cool shade, where each one tells a story on a determined subject, and each day ends with a ballad. Each day a king or queen is named to govern the happy assembly and to prescribe occupations and determine a theme for the stories. The storytelling continues for 10 days, hence the title Decameron.

The tales have an abundance of subjects—comic, tragic, adventurous, ancient, and contemporary. The grouping around a particular daily theme organizes them into a unified structure. In his multitude of characters, from ridiculous fools to noble and resolute figures, from all times and social conditions, Boccaccio depicts human nature in its weakness and heroic virtue, particularly as revealed in comic or dramatic situations. There is an emphasis on human intelligence and a kind of worldly prudence with which characters overcome difficult situations, be they noble or ignoble. Boccaccio presents life from an earthly point of view, with a complete absence of moral intentions. If nothing is sacred, if a corrupt clergy is shown in all its greed and vanity, this offers stuff for amusement but never satire. And so, though the Decameron is not licentious, it is not moral either. Boccaccio in his old age repented having written it, but by then it was being read all over Europe. The prose of the Decameron, in its balanced, rhythmic cadences, became the model of Italian literary prose.

Latin Works

In the autumn of 1350 Boccaccio received as his guest in Florence Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), whose biography he had written shortly before (De vita et moribus, F. P.). It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, attested to by an abundant correspondence. Petrarch was to have considerable influence in orienting Boccaccio toward the moral austerity and philological discipline characteristic of humanism.

About 1350 Boccaccio began his De genealogiis deorum gentilium, an erudite work evidencing a vast and precise knowledge of classical sources. Its 15 books constitute the first encyclopedia of mythological science. Between 1350 and 1354 he was honored with a civic office and various diplomatic missions. Between 1354 and 1355, after a Florentine widow refused his advances, he wrote, in Italian, the prose Corbaccio, a satirical invective giving vent to the most ferocious misogynism.

From 1355 to 1360 Boccaccio composed several Latin works: De casibus virorum illustrium (in nine books, illustrious men from Adam to Petrarch tell of their fall from fortune to moral misery); De montibus, silvis, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominibus maris liber (a dictionary of all the geographical names found in the classical authors); and De claris mulieribus (biographies of 104 famous women from Eve to Queen Joan of Naples, with moralistic intent).

Between 1357 and 1362 Boccaccio wrote his biographical Trattello in laude di Dante and also had as his guest the Calabrian monk Leonzio Pilata, whom he induced to translate the Homeric epics and to teach Greek. Of this he wrote later: "Indeed I was the one who first, at my own expense, made the books of Homer and of various other Greek authors return to Tuscany." At this time his house became one of the most active centers of Florentine prehumanism.

In 1362 a Carthusian monk, Gioacchino Ciani, brought Boccaccio a prophecy of imminent death and exhorted him to abandon his worldly studies and devote himself to religion. Profoundly disturbed, Boccaccio thought of destroying his works but was dissuaded by Petrarch, who saw no contradiction between literary activities and the Christian life. Pressed by economic necessity, Boccaccio went to Naples that year to seek the help of an influential friend in finding a position. But he soon left, disillusioned, and spent 3 months with Petrarch in Venice (1363). He was twice Florentine ambassador to Pope Urban V (1365 and 1367) and made a final unsuccessful attempt to establish himself in Naples (1370). Thereafter he retired to Certaldo.

Though afflicted by illness, he enthusiastically accepted the task entrusted to him by Florence to give daily public readings of Dante's Divine Comedy at the church of S. Stefano in Badia. Beginning in October 1373, he read and wrote a commentary to the Inferno through Canto XVII. But weakened by illness and criticized for expounding the divine poem before an ignorant populace, he had to discontinue. His Commento all'Inferno is based on these lectures.

Boccaccio returned to Certaldo, where news of Petrarch's death reached him late in 1374. On Dec. 21, 1375, Boccaccio died in Certaldo. He was buried there in the church of SS. Michele e Jacopo.

Further Reading

Two well-known critical biographies of Boccaccio are Edward Hutton, Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study (1910), and John Addington Symonds, Giovanni Boccaccio as Man and Author (1895; repr. 1968). Recommended as general background reading is Hélène Nolthenius, Duecento: The Late Middle Ages in Italy (1959; trans. 1968). See also the chapter on Boccaccio in Joseph Wood Krutch, Five Masters: A Study in the Mutations of The Novel (1930); Francis MacManus, Boccaccio (1947); and Aldo D. Scaglione, Nature and Love in the Late Middle Ages: An Essay on the Cultural Context of the Decameron (1963).

Additional Sources

Branca, Vittore, Boccaccio: the man and his works, New York: New York University Press, 1976.

Carswell, Catherine MacFarlane, The tranquil heart: portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977; Philadelphia: R. West, 1978. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Giovanni Boccaccio." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Giovanni Boccaccio." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/giovanni-boccaccio

"Giovanni Boccaccio." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/giovanni-boccaccio

Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375)

Boccaccio, Giovanni (13131375)

Born in Florence as the illegitimate son of Boccaccio de Chellino, a merchant, Giovanni Boccaccio felt a strong ambition to become a poet from a young age. His father was employed by the Bardi banking house; he tutored his son in Latin and intended to make him a man of business. In about 1328 father and son traveled to Naples, where Giovanni trained as a banker while his father served the king as an adviser in financial matters. This apprenticeship lasted six years and left Boccaccio with an ever-stronger desire to study classical literature and write poetry. Through his father's position at the Neopolitan court he met philosophers, writers, and scientists, and also developed expertise in the subject of classical mythology.

Boccaccio found an early inspiration in his unrequited love for a young noblewoman, whom he first saw on Holy Saturday 1336 in the Church of San Lorenzo in Naples. Named Fiammetta in his works, she was the daughter of the king of Naples, whose high-born position and marriage drove Boccaccio to write Fiametta Amoroso, an account of his frustrated passion. He also wrote Filocolo, a medieval romance on unrequited love that describes in vivid detail the people and society of Naples.

Although he was schooled in the classics and in Latin and Greek, Boccaccio felt at home in his native tongue and with the popular poetic forms of Italy. His Filostrato is a long poem composed in octavo, an eight-line scheme from the island of Sicily that was popular with singers and common Italian poets. Describing the tormented jealousy of a young lover, Troilus, this poem represents the first time any author had attempted to make the Italian language, and the octavo form, an element of serious literature. Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare borrowed the characters and story of Filostrato to create important works.

In 1340, with his father in dire financial straits due to the bankruptcy of the Bardi company, Boccaccio returned unhappily to Florence. There he wrote Ameto, an allegorical romance in terza rima, the form of three-line stanzas that was employed by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy. With this epic poem, Boccaccio was maturing as a writer, creating more serious works with great psychological insight. In the Elegy of Lady Fiammetta he describes the plight of a woman abandoned by her lover and overcome by despair. The Ninfale Fiesolano is considered by many as his finest work of poetry.

Boccaccio traveled to Ravenna in 1346 and returned for a short time to Naples. By 1348 he was once again in Florence, where the Black Deaththe bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth centuryhad arrived to claim more than half the population. The plague inspired Boccaccio's Decameron, a book of one hundred short tales told by a company of young men and women who take refuge in the countryside to avoid the plague. In the Decamaron, the company decides on a new theme each day that is then expounded and explored in stories told by each person. The stories cover the entire range of human experience and emotion; some are lighthearted, bawdy comedies while others relate the tragic and serious consequences for all-too-human desires and weaknesses. The cast of characters includes fools, clowns, heroes, villains, artists, monks, nobles, and merchants, all subject to the strange whims of fate and all struggling to apply reason and prudence to the situations they face.

The Decameron soon gained a wide readership throughout Europe, although the author himself later stated his regrets for having written it. In 1350 he hosted Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, in his home in Florence. Petrarch, a scholar and Latin author, had a strong influence on Boccacio, who had begun an encyclopedic work on classical mythology. In the following years, at the urging of Petrarch, he wrote a biography of Dante and helped to introduce Homer, the ancient Greek author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the readers of Florence. He also wrote a long series of biographies, On Famous Women and On Famous Men. In 1362, a monk related a prophecy of imminent doom to the author, who resolved to give up studying and writing in favor of the consolations of religion. In his later years he served Florence as a public lecturer on the works of Dante and as an ambassador to Prussia, Milan, and the papal court at Avignon. After failing to secure a position at the court of Naples, he returned to his native Tuscany to live out his years in the town of Certaldo.

In the Decameron and his poetry Boccaccio's ambition was to make Italian a literary languageequal to Latin in descriptive and expressive power. Although he was grounded in the ideas of the medieval period, he abandoned allegory for realism, and the very human outlook of his works, particularly the Decameron, portends the humanistic outlook of the Renaissance, when the traditional forms of epic poetry and chivalric romance were gradually left behind for the more personal expression of plays, lyric poetry, and novels.

See Also: Dante Alighieri; Florence; humanism; Petrarch

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/boccaccio-giovanni-1313-1375

"Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375)." The Renaissance. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/boccaccio-giovanni-1313-1375

Boccaccio, Giovanni

Giovanni Boccaccio (jōvän´nē), 1313–75, Italian poet and storyteller, author of the Decameron. Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a Tuscan merchant and a French woman, he was educated at Certaldo and Naples by his father, who wanted him to take up commerce and law. In Naples he met (1336) the woman (dubiously identified as Maria d'Aquino, illegitimate daughter of King Robert) whom he was to immortalize in prose and verse as Fiammetta. She is reputed to have introduced him at court and to have urged him to write (c.1340) his early Filocolo, a long vernacular prose romance. Other early works include the poem Filostrato, which infused the legendary story of Troilus and Cressida with the atmosphere of Neapolitan court life; the Teseide, a poem in the style of the Aeneid; the psychological romance La Fiammetta (written c.1344); the pastoral Ninfale d'Ameto; and the allegorical Amorosa visione, imitative of Dante.

Boccaccio was recalled to Florence in 1341, and there he met (1350) the great poet Petrarch, who became a lifelong friend. Emulating Petrarch, he became a Latin and Greek scholar and worked vigorously to reintroduce Greek works. In his middle years Boccaccio wrote (1348–53) his great secular classic, the Decameron, a collection of 100 witty and occasionally licentious tales set against the somber background of the Black Death. The tales treat a wide variety of characters and events and brilliantly reveal humanity as sensual, tender, cruel, weak, self-seeking, and ludicrous. With the Decameron the courtly themes of medieval literature, while still much in evidence, began to give way to the voice and mores of early modern society. Writing in Italian rather than Latin and in prose rather than poetry, Boccaccio achieved stylistic mastery in the Decameron, which became a model for later efforts toward a distinctively Italian literary style. After completing the tales, Boccaccio experienced a severe emotional crisis, during which he wrote the satire Corbaccio, a savage attack on women.

In the next years there followed several works in Latin, the language of high culture. These included Bucolicum carmen [pastoral songs], the huge De casibus virorem illustrium and De mulieribus claris (the first biographies of famous men, the second of famous women), the mythological treatise De genealogiis, and the geographical dictionary De montibus. Boccaccio's old age was troubled by poverty and ill health, but his activity continued. He was commissioned (1371) by the commune of Certaldo to read daily from his beloved Dante, and in 1373 in Florence he began the lectures which became his famous Commento on the Inferno. There are several translations of the Decameron and also many anthologies and collections of particular stories in translation.

See biography by T. C. Chubb (1969); studies by V. Branca (1976), T. G. Bergin (1981), and J. Sauli (1982).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/boccaccio-giovanni

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/boccaccio-giovanni

Boccaccio, Giovanni

Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–75) Italian poet, prose writer, and scholar, considered to be one of the founders of the Italian Renaissance. His early work, the Filocolo (c.1336), is considered by many to be the first European novel, but he is best known for his masterpiece the Decameron (1348–58), a series of prose stories of contemporary mores, which exercised a tremendous influence on the development of Renaissance literature. His poetry includes Il Filostrato (c.1338) and Il Ninfale Fiesolano (c.1344–45). Boccaccio was a friend of Petrarch and biographer of Dante. See also Italian literature

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/boccaccio-giovanni

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/boccaccio-giovanni

Boccaccio, Giovanni

Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–75), Italian writer, poet, and humanist. He is most famous for the Decameron (1348–58), a collection of a hundred tales told by ten young people who have moved to the country to escape the Black Death.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/boccaccio-giovanni

"Boccaccio, Giovanni." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/boccaccio-giovanni