THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 100 novel as set throughout the medieval world, recounted in Italian outside Florence during the plague of 1348; published in Italian in 1349-51, in English in 1620.
Seven young women and three young men meet in a church in Florence during the Black Death and decide to flee the city for the countryside, where they pass the late afternoon telling stories.
Giovanni Boccaccio was probably born in 1313 in Florence. The illegitimate son of a partner in one of the city’s most important banking companies, the Bardi, he began his life when Florence was well on its way to becoming the capital of international European finance. We know nothing of Boccaccio’s mother, though there has been speculation that she was French. Ignoring the boy’s illegitimacy, his father accepted him into the household and provided him with all the material and moral advantages due to a son of the thriving new middle class at the time. He received a first-rate grammatical education from the notable Giovanni Mazzuoli da Strada. The poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), a native of Florence as well, lived in exile during Boccaccio’s day. Already something of a legendary presence in the Florence of Boccaccio’s early childhood, he no doubt helped spark the young boy’s literary imagination. But Boccaccio senior had settled on a serious career in finance for his son. In the latter part of the 1320s, father and son relocated to Naples, site of the most brilliant Italian court of the day (under the reign of a French dynasty, the Anjou) and home to an important branch of the Bardi bank. It was at this branch that the young Boccaccio began his mercantile apprenticeship. He remained in Naples for some 15 years; the period was in many ways the most exciting, formative, and happy time of his life. Because of his father’s position, the young man had access to the full splendor of the Angevin court, including its regal libraries and prominent, learned guests. He appears to have abandoned his economic training early to make way for an emerging passion for literature and vocation as a writer. Although he also studied canon law at the university in the early 1330s, by the second half of that decade he was producing his own literary creations, mythological and classical romances of the type in vogue at court during his day. Many of these reflect a courtly love infatuation with Maria d’Aquino, the daughter of King Robert of Anjou, who became known as Fiammetta (“little flame”) in Boccaccio’s literary universe. The writer’s rose-tinted youth came to an abrupt end in the 1340s: the failure of the Bardi bank forced a return to Florence where his father’s subsequent death left him in charge of the family’s. Even more dramatically, bubonic plague struck Italy and Florence towards the end of the decade, decimating the population and wreaking havoc on what had been a burgeoning new commercial culture. This devastating event marks the middle of Boccaccio’s life and informs his most celebrated creation, the Decameron.
Italy in the age of the comuni
The Italian peninsula, especially its northern and central sections, underwent a process of urbanization after the year 1000. Serving as centers of production and economic exchange, the towns of northern and central Italy heralded the rise of a new urban class of workers, artisans, and merchants—a middle class situated between the nobility and the peasantry of the land-based feudal system that had characterized Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Members of this new middle class left behind the servitude of the countryside in search of economic self-sufficiency and personal independence in the towns. By the beginning of the fourteenth century a few of these towns had emerged as pre-eminent: on the Mediterranean highway, there were the seafaring republics of Genoa and Venice; to the north, there was Milan; and in the center, Florence, the hub of thriving textile and banking industries.
Politically the map of Italy at the time shows a complexity related to all this urban development. The northern and central towns formed miniature states, called comuni Developing their own governmental structures, some strove for autonomy from the pope or from the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor in political and economic affairs. Across the middle of the Italian peninsula, from Rome to the Adriatic Sea, stretched a patchwork of small feudal entities that began to cohere under the pope. The South, including the key areas of Naples and Sicily, was another story altogether; under foreign rule in the Middle Ages, the southern region remained largely agricultural and feudal.
Already by the thirteenth century, Florence had gained widespread prestige as a financial capital and site of innovative cultural production. A thriving textile industry and a host of other commercially viable crafts gave many Florentines a standard of material comfort unusual for the day, leading to broad schooling for its youth and an extraordinary degree of literacy. Merchants could hardly get by without some basic skills in reading and writing while government posts demanded more advanced rhetorical ability. In 1252 the Florentines first minted the gold florin, which would become an international form of currency and the cornerstone of the city’s dominance in European finance. From this material success and the high degree of literacy came stunning cultural achievements in art and literature that would make Florence famous throughout the Renaissance. A small group of high-minded poets elevated the courtly love tradition to a new scientific and philosophical plane, creating vernacular verse in the dolce stil nuovo or “sweet new style,” forming a group from which Dante emerged triumphant in the early fourteenth century to create The Divine Comedy . In this same century the humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) composed his Canzoniere (both also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Together Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch earned the moniker “the three Florentine crowns” for giving birth to an illustrious literary tradition. Also at this time, Florence made huge strides in the visual arts, thanks to painters such as Cimabue (c. 1240-c. 1322) and Giotto (c. 1267-1337).
Florence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was also a laboratory for experiments in republican democracy as the comune strove to devise governmental structures that would meet the needs of dynamic new social and economic realities. In the later thirteenth century, most of the towns that grew into states moved along the path to rule by a few prominent noble families, and eventually to rule by a single lord, or signore. Florence, however, retained the forms of popular government longer—the city was ruled by representatives of the guilds, or arti, officials drawn from the city’s merchants and artisans. In 1293 the so-called Ordinances of Justice excluded from government office anyone—including noblemen—not enrolled in one of these guilds. During the fourteenth century, however, the government came under the control of an oligarchy of powerful families (which would be replaced in the fifteenth century by the dominance of the Medici family’s, completing the transition to one-man rule, or signoria). Actually through much of the fourteenth century, the streets of Florence witnessed civil strife as a few powerful clans vied for political dominance. All too common were eruptions of gang warfare of the sort familiar to readers of English literature from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (set in the streets of nearby Verona where similar scenes were being played out between the Montecchi and Capuletti families). These local alliances attached to larger European powers of the Roman Catholic pope versus the Germanic emperor in various, complex ways. By the time Boccaccio was born, Florence had become a Guelph (i.e., a papal) state increasingly controlled by a handful of powerful families. Still, the dream of a truly popular government never died. In July of 1378 (three years after Boccaccio’s demise), the Florentine wool workers (ciompi) stormed the city hall and took control of the city government. While shortlived, this proletarian revolt stands as dramatic testimony to the discontent of a people under siege for nearly a century by economic depression, medical disaster, and social chaos.
The crises of the fourteenth century
In this picture of civil strife, Florence and the other areas of Italy merely reflected Europe as a whole. In 1337, the territorial pretensions of England’s King Edward III in France spawned a series of battles known as the Hundred Years War, which in truth dragged on beyond the midpoint of the following century. At roughly the same time, the popes abandoned Rome to the city’s most powerful families and took up residence in Avignon in the south of France. Referred to as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (1305–77), this period of the papacy in France was followed by decades of schism, during which French and Italian pretenders to the papal throne battled for recognition. Economic greed and administrative disarray at all levels plagued the Church, an easy target for social satire, as so many of the Decameron’s novellas prove. France and England turned to Italy—and Florence in particular—to finance the enormous costs of virtually uninterrupted warfare. England then defaulted on the loans, which by the 1340s brought the comune’s major mercantile companies to bankruptcy.
At the same time, inefficient agricultural practices, famine, and overpopulation in the towns left fourteenth-century Italians particularly vulnerable to the onslaught of bubonic plague when it arrived in 1348. Known as the Black Death, variants of this pestilence, which was spread from rodents to humans by fleas, had already battered parts of China, India, and Syria when Genoese sailors carried it back to Italy from ports on the Black Sea. The effect was lethal, to say the least. According to most current estimates, the Italian peninsula lost half its population, while Florence itself lost at least that much. The limits of medical knowledge left people helpless to combat this unseen enemy, which people ascribed variously to misalignment of the planets, contaminated subterranean air released by earthquakes, and human immorality. Social structures collapsed as family’s and friends deserted one another in desperation. In the countryside, whole tracts of cultivated land were abandoned and reverted to swampland or forest. An immense human tragedy, the Black Death at least enabled surviving peasants and workers to demand better terms due to the depleted labor supply. The tragedy also catalyzed a cultural feat—the masterpiece of world literature known as the Decameron.
The rise of Italian literature and courtly love in the city
Creative literature in the Italian vernacular had only just begun to exist when Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio established the Tuscan form of Italian as the preeminent literary language by writing exceptional works in the fourteenth century. At the time, the Italian peninsula was as fragmented linguistically as it was politically. Every region and city enjoyed its own neo-Latin dialect. In his treatise on the Italian vernaculars De vulgari eloauentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), Dante marveled that these dialects numbered 1,000 or more. By the twelfth century, some of them were being used for literary expression. An explosion of popular spirituality struck central Italy (Tuscany and Umbria) after the year 1000, inspiring many creative works with religious themes. There were allegorical morality plays, dramatic reenactments of the Passion (the sufferings of Jesus after the Last Supper and up through his crucifixion), and hymns of praise to the Virgin, God, or creation, most famously St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” Founder of a monastic order that was to influence Italian religious life for centuries, St. Francis (1181–1226) spawned a vast vernacular literature aimed at recounting his life and transforming him into an early folk hero. This same period witnessed the writing of works by religious women, also in the vernacular dialects, who told of their mystical experiences of the divine in deeply personal, rhetorically innovative texts.
Far to the south on the island of Sicily, secretaries, notaries, and a host of other functionaries with literary pretensions at the Palermo court of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen began to invent a courtly love literature in Italian. Privileging the lyric, these poets picked up on the European vogue that had triumphed at the courts of France and Provençe in the previous century to pen longing laments and pleas for mercy to distant, sometimes cruel ladies. This Sicilian School mostly dissolved after the death of Frederick in 1250, by which time another region—Tuscany and its leading city, Florence—were well on their way to cultural supremacy. Tuscan poets extended the lyric tradition with renewed stylistic and philosophical force. Dante was a prized member of this elite group. His decision to write the monumental Divine Comedy in his native Tuscan secured prestige for the vernacular and showed it to be as viable a literary instrument as Latin. In the following generation, Petrarch and Boccaccio cemented the Florentine vernacular’s reputation as the Italian literary language par excellence. Throughout the Renaissance and beyond, Petrarch’s psychologically complex poems to Laura would endure as the model of Italian verse stylistics, just as the elegant sentences of the Decameron would set the standard for Italian prose composition. Boccaccio was also influenced by the chivalric romances of the courtly tradition. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, the courtly world of lords and ladies and their highly stylized codes of conduct in love and war (to some extent already the product of literary artifice) must have seemed ever more remote to Boccaccio’s middle-class readers in their new urban reality. Some stories in the Decameron seem to stem directly from that world, venturing back nostalgically into plagueless times. But trying to determine just how seriously to take the narrative voice at these nostalgic moments is a challenge posed by Boccaccio’s text. One often senses its author-creator smiling in the margins.
The Decameron consists of 100 novellas and a narrative frame. Each of the novellas has its own unique, often very elaborate plot. Presented in the narrative frame is the story that leads to and allows the recounting of the novellas: the gathering in Florence of ten young men and women—Boccaccio calls them a brigata (brigade or troop)—their flight from the plague-infested city to the countryside, their daily activities before and after the storytelling, and their return to Florence at the end. The 100 stories are thus contained within a story, which is itself framed by a proem (or preface) and a conclusion, in which the author explains his reasons and defends his motives for writing. In the preamble to Day 4, he also intervenes to defend himself and his work against charges of immorality.
“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess” (Boccaccio, The Decameron, p. 1). Like so many of the tales, Boccaccio’s proem begins with a broad statement of truth, a logical premise from which it proceeds gradually to particulars, echoing an intellectual craze in Boccaccio’s day for the use of Aristotelian logic. The author explains that in his impetuous youth he himself suffered from unregulated passion and was consoled by the pleasing discourses of those who took pity on him. He would now like to return the favor and come to the aid of those most in need: women in love. There follows some discussion, partly playful but grounded in historical reality, about the gender roles of upper-middle-class men and women in fourteenth-century Italian urban society. Women suffer more than men, says the proem, because they are physically, socially, and emotionally more restricted. So few outlets do they have for expression of any kind that their desires grow unbearably intense, pent up “within their delicate breasts” just as they are themselves locked into the domestic space, “the narrow confines of their bedrooms” (The Decameron, p. 2). Men have all sorts of possibilities for social engagement and distraction: they can walk around town, go hunting, play games, or transact business. By contrast, women must constantly do the bidding of others (fathers, brothers, husbands, mothers) while neglecting themselves.
To the enamored women, the narrator offers 100 novellas (“or fables, or parables, or histories, or whatever you wish to call them”) that explore cases of happy and unhappy love and other adventures from ancient and modern times as told “in ten days … by a worthy group [onesta brigata] of seven ladies and three young men who came together during the time of the plague (which just recently took so many lives)” (The Decameron, p. 3). (The use of “worthy” here aims to reassure readers of the brigata’s upstanding morals and the correctness of their behavior despite the often “dishonest” or lewd content of the tales they tell.) The proem ends with an invocation to both the Christian God and the pagan god of love, from whose bonds the writer has been liberated so that he can now attend to the pleasures of sensitive women with his writing.
The Introduction to Day 1 is by far the lengthiest as it contains the most crucial elements of the narrative frame: Boccaccio’s famous description of the plague and its effects on life in Florence; the meeting of the brigata on a Tuesday morning in spring in the church of Santa Maria Novella; their decision to move to the country the following morning; and, once there, the establishment of the rules for their cohabitation and the organization of daily activities (including the storytelling). The Black Death is described in sometimes gruesome medical detail as Boccaccio recounts its arrival from points east and its immediately devastating effect. In Florence, the main symptom was a bulbous swelling in the groin or under the arms that spread to the rest of the body, followed by black spots, followed by death within three days. Medicine was utterly powerless even to slow the lethal contagion, which—if we believe Boccaccio’s account—could be caught instantly just by touching a victim’s clothing.
According to the introduction, human reactions to the disaster fell into three broad categories that reflected prevailing schools of ancient thought: some attempted to isolate themselves from contact with the sick and to restrict their appetites and diets in the extreme (Stoics); others abandoned themselves to sensual pleasures with a devil-may-care defiance (Epicureans); still others struck a careful middle-of-the-road moderation (the Golden Mean). Whatever the strategy, nothing guaranteed survival and all were forced to fend for themselves as the laws of daily existence came undone. Many abandoned the city, their homes and property, and their loved ones (husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, even children) in a desperate attempt to survive. The result was a dissolution or an ironic reversal of social hierarchies: between humans and animals, upper class and lower class, servants and masters, men and women:
And since the sick were abandoned by their neighbors, their parents, and their friends and there was a scarcity of servants, a practice that was previously almost unheard of spread through the city: when a woman fell sick, no matter how attractive or beautiful or noble she might be, she did not mind having a manservant (whoever he might be, no matter how old or young he was), and she had no shame whatsoever in revealing any part of her body to him—the way she would have done to a woman—when necessity of her sickness required her to do so.
(The Decameron, p. 9)
Such a suspension of normative social rules prepares the reader for the brigata’s unorthodox decision to set up house together in the country.
The introduction goes on to detail the ways in which the customary human rituals for burial have collapsed under the weight of the enormous number of casualties, and to show how rural areas have fared little better than the urban environment. The narrator ends the introduction with a cry of lament for the pathetic state in which the beloved, once glorious city finds itself: “Oh, how many great palaces, beautiful homes, and noble dwellings, once filled with families, gentlemen, and ladies, were now emptied, down to the last servant!” (The Decameron, p. 12).
At this point, we cut to the inside of the church of Santa Maria Novella and zoom in on seven lovely young maidens, who are friends or relatives between the ages of 18 and 28, all noble, beautiful, and, of course, virtuous. Anticipating that some readers might object on moral grounds to their behavior, Boccaccio chooses not to reveal their true identities. He instead invents names for them suggestive of personal characteristics (drawing on his knowledge of Greek). The eldest and group leader is Pampinea (“fully developed, florid”), followed by Fiammetta (recalling Boccaccio’s youthful flame), Filomena (“the nightingale” or “the beloved”), Emilia (a seductress in one of Boccaccio’s earlier works), Lauretta (recalling, perhaps, Petrarch’s own beloved and the lyric tradition), Neifile (“the young lover,” “new to love”), and Elissa (another name for Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, an appellation that evokes the image of the abandoned, tragic lover).
Without question, Pampinea motivates the action and serves as moral authority for the rest. It is her idea to leave Florence, death, and gloom, for the solace of the countryside. She is careful to frame her proposal in strictly moral terms: there is no longer any reason for them to stay in the city, where there is nothing but death and destruction; all their relatives have died so they are abandoning no one; indeed, at this stage, acting to save their lives is the only moral choice. Some of her companions remark (not without a dose of self-deprecating irony) that a group of women without men can come to no good: “Men are truly the leaders of women, and without their guidance, our actions rarely end successfully” (The Decameron, p. 16). Just then three young men enter the church, all relatives or suitors of the women, none under the age of 25: Panfilo (“all love”), Filostrato (“conquered by love”), and the young, sometimes mischievous Dioneo (“lustful”). Pampinea does not hesitate to seize the opportunity of male protection that fortune has presented, but Neifile, who is being courted by one of the men, recoils at the idea of going off with them, afraid that people will talk. The voice of experience, Pampinea dismisses her concerns: so long as the ladies know that their motives are correct, they should not worry about the gossip of others. Pampinea approaches the men and makes the necessary arrangements in short order. The following morning they set out.
The brigata’s villa sits in an Eden-like garden some two miles outside Florence. In this utterly uncorrupt natural locale, the storytellers reconstruct a new society in a sort of fantastic dream space, replete with new laws and perfectly reconstituted social relationships. The contrast to the all-too-real chaos they have left behind could hardly be more emphatic. It is precisely this contrast that gives the Decameron its comic flavor and colors the generally jubilant air of what follows. First, the young people, who have brought along servants, plan their days. Pampinea proposes they select a leader, a king or queen to decide how the group will pass the time and who the next day’s leader will be. Pampinea is elected queen of Day 1. After frolicking in the gardens, eating, and taking an afternoon siesta, she makes another proposal: they should tell stories on the shaded lawn while waiting for the afternoon heat to dissipate. After her suggestion meets with unanimous approval, she orders Panfilo to begin the first tale, about anything he likes.
Now the 100 tales of the Decameron begin to unfold. The frame narrator returns briefly between tales and at the beginning and end of each day, usually just long enough to review the brigata’s other activities (eating, dancing, playing games, sleeping); each day closes with a song sung by someone in the group. As the title indicates, the brigata devotes ten days to storytelling. The action of the frame spans two full weeks (from Tuesday to Tuesday), since the group decides to abstain from storytelling on Fridays and Saturdays for religious and pragmatic reasons. On the first Sunday, they relocate to a second, equally idyllic villa. Nearby lies a stunning valley—called the “Valle delle Donne,” or “Valley of Women”—where they spend Day 7.
Boccaccio delights with typical medieval gusto in ordering his material, but the order is always open to variation and exception. For example, at the end of Day 1, the brigata decides that each day’s stories should adhere to a theme chosen by the king or queen. Dioneo convinces his companions to exempt him from the daily theme and let his tale always be the last of the day. Another exception involves Days 1 and 9, on which there are no themes:
|Day||King or Queen||Theme|
|1||Pampinea||Stories on any subject|
|2||Filomena||Stories with unexpected happy endings after misfortune|
|3||Neifile||Stories about people whouse their ingenuity to recover precious items they have lost|
|4||Filostrato||Love stories with unhappy endings|
|5||Fiammetta||Stories about lovers who attain happiness after misfortune|
|6||Elissa||Stories about people who escape danger or ridicule with a quick retort or witty remark|
|7||Dioneo||Stories about tricks wives play on their husbands|
|8||Lauretta||Stories about tricks people play on each other|
|9||Emilia||Stories on any subject|
|10||Panfilo||Stories about people who act with generosity or true magnificence|
Day 4 stands out as the only tragic day (ruled over, appropriately, by Filostrato, “conquered by love”) in this otherwise comic work.
The list of themes in itself begins to convey the richness and variety of the tales. For the reader’s convenience, every story begins with a brief synopsis. Although the tales occasionally touch on ancient matters, almost all reflect Boccaccio’s era and a few generations preceding—the age of courtly romance and the new middle-class urban reality. The stories span the entire European and Mediterranean world and embrace characters of every social class.
Many of the novellas engage in anticlerical parody of the Church and its corrupt representatives. The first tale of Day 1(1.1) concerns Tuscan ser Cepparello; a walking catalogue of sin, he deceives an overly pious friar in Burgundy with a false confession on his deathbed and is transformed into a popular saint. In the very next tale (1.2), Abraham, a Jew, is urged to convert by a Christian friend. The potential convert decides to spend some time in Rome among Church officials and sees nothing but debauchery there. In an ironic reversal, he converts anyway, reasoning that Catholicism must be privileged by divine power if it has managed to thrive despite such depravity among leaders.
Several of the stories take us inside the convents and monasteries of medieval Italy where Boccaccio uses sexual farce to lampoon the less-than-chaste brothers and sisters and their hypocritical superiors. In tale 3.1, the lustful Masetto da Lamporecchio poses as an incapacitated deafmute to get a job as a gardener in a convent of young nuns. He eventually succeeds in making love to them all and in being welcomed as a permanent—indeed, indispensable—member of their community. In 9.2 an abbess catches one of her novices in flagrante with a male lover. As it turns out, the abbess herself has just been in bed with a priest and in her haste in the dark has put his pants on her head instead of her veil. She scolds the novice in front of all the other nuns, but before finishing is made to recognize her error. In the end, they learn a lesson laced with irony. All the nuns agree they need to be more discrete when taking a lover.
Sexual farce is not reserved for the clergy. Other stories play on the tension between the sexes as the many proud women who parade through the pages of the Decameron strive for recognition in a profoundly misogynistic society. In tale 5.10 Pietro di Vinciolo’s wife is frustrated because he prefers men to women and cannot satisfy her sexually. When he discovers her with another man, she refuses to be cowed into submission and eventually the husband and wife reach an agreement that will keep them both satisfied.
Other tales affirm the value of religious faith. In tale 2.2 the merchant Rinaldo d’Asti professes his faith in San Giuliano, to whom he prays for safe lodging whenever he is on the road. This faith is sorely tested when highway bandits rob him of his money, horse, and clothing; ridicule his belief in prayer; and abandon him to the cold night. But he is rescued on the verge of doubt by a beautiful young widow who invites him inside her house, where she has prepared an evening of sensual delights for a marquis who fails to arrive. Thus, the swindled Rinaldo ends up with lodging fit for a king. The next day he recovers his stolen property and his assailants are brought to justice.
Still other tales concern the hardships dished out by fortune and life’s endless adventures. In tale 2.6 Madonna Beritola loses her noble status, husband, and sons; becomes the victim of piracy on the high seas; and ends up living as a savage with two goats on a deserted island. After many years and no small number of plot twists, the family’s is reunited, wealthier than they could have imagined, and restored to even greater nobility.
Not all the tales turn on complex intrigues. The relatively short stories of Day 6 rely on a witty remark or one-liner, anticipating the brief narratives and punch lines of the modern joke. In 6.8, Fresco da Celatico is disgusted with his niece’s haughty attitude and he lets her know it: “My girl, if you find disagreeable people as disagreeable as you say you do, I suggest for your own happiness that you never look at yourself in the mirror again” (The Decameron, p. 400). The tricks of Days 7 and 8 make liberal use of slap-stick; they also include the only recurring set of stock characters in the tales, the pranksters Bruno and Buffalmacco and their gullible stooge Calandrino, who probably hark back to oral tradition (see The Decameron 8.3, 8.6, 8.9, and 9.5).
A distinct minority of stories abandons humor altogether, particularly the tragic love stories of Day 4 and to some extent the magnanimous deeds of Day 10. In tale 4.1 the doting Tancredi, prince of Salerno, grows jealous of his own daughter, murders her lover, and serves his heart to her in a golden chalice. A paragon of female eloquence, she defends her love to her father in a moving, perfectly reasoned speech. She then sprinkles the heart with poison and drinks from the chalice to join her beloved in death. The final tale of the Decameron (10.10) lauds the Job-like patience of the young peasant girl Griselda, whom the marquis of Saluzzo (a confirmed bachelor wary of women) takes as his bride at the urging of his courtiers. He then pretends to turn against her in order to test her loyalty. He has their two children carried off and tells Griselda he has had them murdered. He cruelly taunts her for her alleged deficiencies as a wife and in the end turns her out in nothing but a shift. She remains steadfast through it all and offers no complaint. The joyous conclusion restores her in one dramatic revelation to her now-grown children, loving husband, and noble life. Of course, such a tale puts an ironic spin on age-old chivalric values such as loyalty and suffering, testing the patience of some members in the brigata and, no doubt, of many of Boccaccio’s readers.
Fortune, love, and human ingenuity
Critics disagree over the precise nature of the Decameron’s modernity. In the past some have characterized the work as a human comedy (in contrast to Dante’s Divine Comedy) reigned over by a new, more realistic trinity: fortune, love, and human ingenuity. But we have seen that much of the Decameron reflects medieval culture, and while Boccaccio surely celebrates the human spirit in ways that may feel very modern, most informed readers today tend to see the work as a medieval complement—not contrast—to Dante. Boccaccio’s penchant for architectural symmetry should already be apparent. The lofty theme of the final day, for instance, counterbalances the opening description of the plague and bestows a comedic movement on the whole, away from earthly concerns and towards the transcendent.
Each of the daily themes emphasizes one or another of the trio consisting of fortune, love, and human ingenuity, just as every tale plays a unique variation on these basic motifs. Shuffling human events and lives at random, the goddess Fortuna serves as an important warning that in this life things change without notice and nothing lasts forever. The much-bemoaned god of love conies to Boccaccio straight from the pantheon of medieval romance. But it is the third element of the trinity that gives the Decameron its unique comic flavor. Many of Boccaccio’s stories showcase individuals who stand up to love or to fortune with quick thinking and strength of spirit: individuals who use their wits to get out of tough situations. Some have seen this emphasis on individualism as distinctly modern.
Conversely, some tales poke fun at an individual’s lack of wits and/or dramatize a character’s sometimes painful education in the ways of the world. This is the case in tale 2.5, the story of Andreuccio da Perugia, one of the most famous in Boccaccio’s collection. Andreuccio sets out from his provincial town for bustling Naples to buy horses with 500 florins, no street smarts, and a rather inflated sense of himself. He foolishly flashes his money at the market and is instantly noticed by a beautiful young woman, a hustler in every sense who now has Andreuccio’s cash in her designs. The young woman sends a messenger to invite Andreuccio to her home. Physically vain on top of all his other defects, Andreuccio is convinced that a romantic tryst is at hand and runs willingly to his fate in Malpertugio (“evil hole”), an infamously dark quarter of Naples. The enterprising young lady relieves him of his florins as Andreuccio takes a spectacular fall—physical and moral—from an upper-story latrine into a cistern below. The rest of the tale recounts his perilous misadventures on the streets of Naples at night and his redemption after some cronies force him into the tomb of a recently deceased archbishop, where at long last he begins to think for himself: “These guys are making me go into the tomb to cheat me: as soon as I give them everything that’s inside … they will take off with the goods and leave me with nothing!’ … so … he took the ring from the Archbishop’s finger and placed it on his own” (The Decameron, p. 95). Thereafter, Andreuccio returns home to Perugia, having invested his money in a ring when he had gone to Naples to buy horses. Concluding with this last detail, the story entails what we might call an “investment logic” (as do many of the novellas): at the beginning and end, the tale inventories the protagonist’s net worth—in economic and/or moral currency. The story about Andreuccio is careful to say that the archbishop’s ruby ring is worth more than 500 gold florins, the precise amount Andreuccio brought with him to buy horses. Thus, he has profited monetarily and experientially. It is especially appropriate that this bookkeeper’s logic apply to a tale that in some ways commemorates the Naples of Boccaccio’s youth, site of his banking apprenticeship and great love for Fiammetta (who, not coincidentally, tells the Andreuccio tale). In fact, many of the novellas reflect the new commercial culture of his day by applauding entrepreneurial spirit or, more broadly, individual effort and resourcefulness in the face of life’s unpredictable challenges.
Sources and literary context
Boccaccio’s Decameron draws on a variety of literary traditions. The Greek title itself could have been suggested to Boccaccio by a number of medieval works about the six days of creation often called Hexameron. While his description of the plague reflects firsthand experience, he seems in part to have relied on such descriptions by earlier writers (perhaps Lucretius and Thucydides; in the eighth century, Paulus Diaconus also supplied an account of the devastating effects of plague in his history of the Lombards). As for the tales, short, pithy narratives with a clear moral were a favorite genre of the ancient world and Latin Christian writers reworked them in a variety of forms.
While classical literature provided some inspiration, the Decameron is primarily indebted to the medieval world of courtly love and chivalric romance. Prose and verse romances on the difficult desires and amorous intrigues of knights and ladies had been all the rage in the courtly circles of twelfth-century France. Their popularity spread throughout Europe, becoming an important literary influence thereafter. Gracious, pleasing conversation of the sort that animates Boccaccio’s collection was much prized in literary works of his day. Some popular European romances even enjoyed early Italian vernacular translations, such as the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the roundtable. As for shorter forms (closer in length to Boccaccio’s own novellas), the twelfth-century French lais (mini courtly love narratives in verse) like those of Marie de France and the fabliaux (short verse narratives with a comic realism not unlike Boccaccio’s own) were important precedents.
A GREEK TITLE, A MULTICULTURAL SUBTITLE
Decameron means “ten days”, Its etymological origin is Greek, like the names Boccaccio invents for the members of the brigata. Boccaccio’s subtitle, “Prince Galeotto” has literary significance in the medieval world of letters. In the hugely popular British cycle of King Arthur tales, Gallehault was a knight at Arthur’s court who facilitated the illicit love between Lancelot and Guinevere. In Canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, among those condemned for lust is Francesca da Rimini, who blames romances and their writers for causing her to commit the sin of adultery and suffer the torments of hell, branding all writers “Galeotto.” Boccaccio rehabilitates the term by using it as his subtitle; giving it a positive connotation, he associates it with facilitating not adultery but the consolation of lovelorn ladies, whose suffering the work hopes to alleviate with story.
Boccaccio was not the first to compose a collection of narratives within a frame device. The Arabic Thousand and One Nights dates from the ninth century, with translations into Latin circulating in the twelfth century and becoming well known in the European Middle Ages. Other twelfth-century framed story collections include the Latin Disciplina clericalis (morally instructive tales contained within a dialogue between father and son) and Latin and vernacular versions of the Book of the Seven Sages (stories offered to instruct and console a young man condemned to die). While we cannot say that Boccaccio relied directly on any of these predecessors, he may very well have known versions of them all and thus none can be discounted as a possible source. Boccaccio was probably also inspired by a late-thirteenth-century Italian novella collection without a narrative frame most commonly called the Novellino.
The Decameron itself suggests how its tales should be received. A regular feature of the work is the narrator’s account of the brigata’s reaction to the various tales. Boccaccio uses the brigata as a model audience (or reader). Their comments on the novella just told give readers some idea of what Boccaccio himself considered an appropriate—or at least a possible—response to that story. “The young ladies and men all laughed heartily over Andreuccio’s adventures as recounted by Fiammetta” is typically brief (The Decameron, p. 97). Other responses are more involved: “At first, the story told by Dioneo pricked the hearts of the ladies who were listening with a bit of embarrassment … but then, as they looked at each other, they could hardly keep from laughing, and they smiled as they listened” (The Decameron, p. 42). Still other responses anticipate differences of opinion in reaction to a story: “Dioneo’s tale had ended, and the ladies, some taking one side and some taking the other … discussed the story at great length” (The Decameron, p. 682).
FROM PETRARCH TO BOCCACCIO
“Your book, written in our mother tongue and published, I presume during your early years, has fallen into my hands…. My hasty perusal afforded me much pleasure. If the humor is a little too free at times, this may be excused in view of the age at which you wrote, the style and language which you employ, and the frivolity of the subjects, and of the persons who are likely to read such tales…. Along with much that was light and amusing, I discovered some serious and edifying things as well.”
(Petrarch in Robinson, pp. 191–92)
In the Introduction to Day 4, Boccaccio attempts to defend his work from the charges of critics. The placement of this attempt part way through the work, when it was only a third complete, confirms that some tales were already in circulation before he had finished writing it. He responds to charges that the work is immoral or otherwise flawed, delivering his defenses with a strong dose of irony and (false) humility that mocks his critics. If we are to believe Boccaccio, his tales inspired a firestorm of criticism, including the charge that he gets some of the stories wrong. He lays down the gauntlet—if his critics have more accurate versions, they should bring them forth. There is an Author’s Conclusion at the end of Day 10 that anticipates more criticisms and responds with equal confidence. To those who object that he took too many liberties, Boccaccio responds that the nature of some of the tales requires a certain license, but that his manner of telling them is always proper. He asks his critics to consider the setting: a garden of earthly delights, not a university or church.
Boccaccio’s vigorous defenses in anticipation of various criticisms might suggest that his creation met with widespread disdain. On the contrary, the Decameron enjoyed broad circulation and popular success almost immediately upon completion. This is not to say that the book was always embraced with enthusiasm. Particularly significant are the attitudes of the early fifteenth-century Italian humanists, initiators of the Renaissance proper, who regarded classical Latin literature as a paragon of human achievement. Paying little mind to writing in the vernacular, particularly writing so steeped in the medieval romance tradition and popular culture, the early humanists mostly looked down on the Decameron or refused to consider it at all. Petrarch in many ways anticipated this attitude in a famous letter he sent Boccaccio after receiving a copy of the book. In the letter, Petrarch says he has not had time to read the whole thing, occupied as he is with more serious matters. Still, he has skimmed it here and there and found much that is pleasing, if perhaps a bit frivolous. He singles out the final tale of Griselda as worthy of serious attention, then translates the story from the vernacular into Latin and sends it back to Boccaccio.
Later humanists became less rigid in their attitude to the vernacular and to the Decameron; in the sixteenth century Pietro Bembo in his influential Prose della volgar lingua (1525; Writings on the Vernacular) enshrined Petrarch as the model for Italian vernacular poetry and Boccaccio as the model for vernacular prose. Notable too is a 1573 censored edition of the Decameron—product of the morally prudish Counter-Reformation—that aimed to preserve Boccaccio’s style while doing away with some of the bawdier content.
The Decameron’s impact on other writers through the centuries is extensive. Perhaps most controversial is the question of its influence on English storyteller Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), who wrote a work that is also a compilation of narratives in a frame device, The Canterbury Tales. Critics still debate whether Chaucer read the Decameron. He probably had the opportunity to do so and some of his tales are close analogues to Boccaccio’s. Certainly the many early printed editions and translations of Boccaccio’s work into the major European languages inaugurated a rich novella tradition both within Italy and beyond. In our own day the Decameron has inspired writers, dancers, musicians, painters, and filmmakers. Perhaps most noteworthy is Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 version of the Decameron, part of a trilogy that includes The Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales.
Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Ed. Vittore Branca. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1985.
——The Decameron. Trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans. Richard Monges and Dennis J. McAuliffe. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
Decameron Web: A Growing Hypermedia Archive of Materials Dedicated to Boccaccio’s Masterpiece. http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian/Studies/dweb/dweb.shtml.
McGregor, James H., ed. Approaches to Teaching Boccaccio’s Decameron. New York: The Modern Languages Association of America, 2000.
Procacci, Giuliano. Storia degli Italiani. 2 vols. Rome: Editori Laterza, 1980.
Robinson, James Harvey. Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1898.