Boccaccio, Giovanni 1313–1375 Italian Author

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Boccaccio, Giovanni
Italian author

Scholars disagree about whether Boccaccio's writings belong to the Middle Ages or to the Renaissance. However, there is no question that he helped to define the Renaissance literary tradition. Boccaccio was a devout Christian, but the ancient world fascinated him. In his works, he revived classical* mythology and literature and used them to comment on his own era. He had a strong influence on later Renaissance authors. His most famous work is the Decameron, a collection of prose tales that continues to influence writers and filmmakers today.

The Early Years. Giovanni Boccaccio was born near Florence, Italy. His father, a successful banker, wanted him to have a practical education. Boccaccio studied banking and religious law, but he showed a stronger interest in literature and classical learning. When he and his father moved to Naples, Boccaccio found many teachers at the university and court. He learned Italian poetry, ancient mythology, astronomy, and Greek. He also began to write.

Boccaccio's writing reflected his interest in classical literature, but he did not try to copy the classics. Instead, he combined ancient works with elements of his own times to create something completely new. For example, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (1335), a long narrative* poem, uses classical settings and names. However, its style is similar to the love poetry of Boccaccio's time. Il Filostrato is an example of Boccaccio's strong influence on later writers. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used it as the basis for his poem Troilus and Criseyde (1385). Shakespeare, in turn, used Chaucer's poem to write Troilus and Cressida in the early 1600s.

Boccaccio also wrote Thesiad of the Marriage of Emilia (1340–1341) while he was in Naples. This work was the first epic* written in Italian verse. Boccaccio included comments to explain the ancient names, myths, and customs that he referred to in the text. He also made the epic form more modern by writing in his native language, or vernacular, instead of Latin. British poet Edmund Spenser followed this example in his own epic, The Faerie Queene (1590).

Boccaccio in Florence. In 1341, Boccaccio and his father left Naples because his father had to return to his position in Florence. Boccaccio did not want to leave Naples because he felt that Florence was dull by comparison. However, he spent the rest of his life in or near Florence. There he composed his most famous work and built a lasting friendship with fellow Italian poet Petrarch.

In Florence, Boccaccio continued to write works inspired by earlier literature. He based two pieces on The Divine Comedy, an epic by the medieval* poet Dante. In Nymphs of Fiesole (1344–1346), Boccaccio created his own mythology in the spirit of ancient mythology. Spenser later imitated this approach in The Faerie Queene. Even the Elegy of Madam Fiammetta (1343–1344), a novel set in the Naples of Boccaccio's time, described daily life in classical terms. Some scholars have called this work the first psychological novel because it traces its main character's thoughts and feelings. Boccaccio's use of a female main character was also a new idea. Women writers of the Renaissance later copied this approach.

Boccaccio's masterpiece is the Decameron (1348–1351). It features ten young men and women in Florence during the time of the Black Death*. The characters share 100 tales about topics such as love, trickery, and fortune. These tales fit together to form a larger story, although each can also stand alone. The Decameron was hugely popular. Readers enjoyed its lively speeches, witty wordplay, tight plots, and psychological insights. Several later writers discussed or imitated the Decameron in their own works. These include the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione, the Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, and Shakespeare. In addition, the Italian painter Botticelli and other artists based paintings on scenes from the book.

Latin Writings. While Boccaccio was writing Italian fictions, he was also producing Latin texts. In Buccolicum Carmen (ca. 1341–1372), Boccaccio revived a classical form called the eclogue. This form is a poem in which shepherds converse. Buccolicum Carmen is a series of such conversations on religious and political issues. Later Renaissance poets continued to use the form in Latin and in the vernacular.

In The Fates of Illustrious Men (1355–1373) and On Famous Women (1361), Boccaccio used the lives of famous people to illustrate moral principles. He drew most of these figures from ancient history. He used their stories to show how even powerful people can suffer because of their own immoral behavior. On Famous Women praises women who became learned, wrote, or even waged battle and ruled kingdoms. Boccaccio's moral approach to history suited both medieval and Renaissance readers. Later Renaissance writers used the books as sources for their own works.

Boccaccio and Classical Studies. Boccaccio was determined to share his knowledge and love of the ancient world with others. In Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (1350–1373), he created a complete catalog of pagan* mythology. This book became a major reference work for much of the Renaissance. Boccaccio also promoted the study of ancient Greek literature. He established a position for a professor of Greek at the University of Florence. He encouraged the new professor to translate the great Greek writers Homer and Euripides into Latin. Through his writings and his contributions to the study of the ancient world, Boccaccio had a lasting impact on the Renaissance and on the rest of western history.

(See alsoItalian Language and Literature. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* narrative


* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Black Death

epidemic of the plague, a highly contagious and often fatal disease which spread throughout Europe from 1348 to 1350

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion