Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated May 23 2018


Poet and prose writer; b. probably Florence or Certaldo, Italy, July 1313; d. Certaldo, December 21, 1375. Legend has falsely portrayed the earliest circumstances of his life. Using pseudoautobiographical confidences, vague and mysterious to the point of enigma, that were scattered throughout the youthful works, the 19th century set out to construct an entrancing vie romancée, in which Boccaccio was thought to have been born in Paris of the love of a merchant and a gentlewoman, or even a princess, and later to have been the chosen lover of the beautiful illegitimate daughter of King Robert of Anjou, Fiammetta. If his father, Boccaccio di Chellino, representative of the powerful trading company of the Bardi, was actually in Paris during 1313, then Giovanni was born of an illegitimate affair of his mother at Certaldo or, more likely, at Florence.

He passed his infancy in the San Pier Maggiore section of Florence, in his father's house, where Margherita

de' Martoli had come as wife; she was related to the Portinari (Beatrice's family), and perhaps directly from her or from his first teacher, Giovanni Mazzuoli da Strada, sprang the earliest indications of that Dantean cult that grew throughout his life. When hardly out of boyhood (perhaps about 1325), he was sent into business at Naples with the Bardi Bank, which controlled the finances of the Angevin court. This commercial experience was unhappy and was followed by an equally disappointing study of Canon Law. Boccaccio thereupon turned completely to literature, under the direction and with the advice of the most learned men of the Neapolitan court (e.g., Paolo ve neto, Paolo da Perugia, Andalò del Negro) and of such friends as Cino da Pistoia, Dionigi da San Sepolcro, Barbato da Sulmona, and Giovanni Barrili, who held up to him the example of Petrarch. The carefree and lordly life of the Angevin court and city, necessary meeting place of the Italo-French and the Arab-Byzantine cultures, also deeply influenced his formation.

Fiammetta Period. Against such a background, dominated by both avid cultural interests and easygoing pleasure, Boccaccio desired to weave his great romance of love, centering on the fickle and fascinating figure of Fiammetta and the various heady adventures that had brightened his youth. Though Fiammetta is missing from the elegant portrayal of the aristocratic Neapolitan society within the mythological setting in his first poem, Caccia di Diana (1334?), and from the flowing ottava rima of Filostrato (1335?), which deals with the Troilus-Cressida story, she dominates, directly or indirectly, Boccaccio's other works up to the eve of his masterpiece.

Filocolo, the romantic story of the adventures of Florio and Biancofioremade all the more valuable by the digressions in which the self-taught young man shows his scholarly enthusiasm, by the autobiographical allusions, and by the storytelling techniques that foreshadow the Decameron appears to have been produced about 1336 at the direct request of Fiammetta. Teseida (written about 134041, perhaps partly in Florence), which tells the story of the love of Arcita and Palemone for Emilia, inserts lyric motifs and love laments that seem to echo and develop the notes in the dedicatory letter to Fiammetta into his ambitious plan for a first Italian epic poem. The Commedia della Ninfe (entitled Ninfale d'Ameto by 14th-century scribes and editors) and the Amorosa visione (one form in 134142 alternating prose and verse, the other in 134243 in Dantean terza rima ) seem to wish to elevate, by the allegorical literary forms of the prevailing Tuscan tradition, the figure of the beloved to a superhuman level. The Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (composed between 1343 and 1344), the first modern psychological novel, inverts the roles of the two lovers and blends the subtlest motivations with the innermost impulses of an enamored feminine heart.

Thus, nearly all the youthful work of Boccaccio (and even more clearly the Rime of this period), though patently autobiographical, gives evidence of becoming dominated and almost paralyzed by the experiences of love and enthusiasm for culture. But the immediacy of the first writings gradually gives way to a psychological analysis more detached from the sorrowful matter of love, under an interpretative effort sometimes almost allegorical.

The failure of the Bardi Bank forced Boccaccio to return to Florence in 1340 to meet painful domestic difficulties that are reflected in the laments that crop up in the works and letters of those years. Far from alienating him from literary pursuits, however, these harsh realities put him into immediate contact with his city and the life of the mercantile society to which he belonged. After brief periods in Ravenna at the court of Ostasio da Polenta (134546) and at Forlì with Francesco Ordelaffi (1347), he was again at Florence in 1348, where he witnessed the terrible plague described in the introduction to his masterpiece.

The Decameron. Shortly before 1348, Boccaccio had sung in ottava rima in Ninfale fiesolano (134446?) the story of a fresh and gentle love in the enchanted environs of the Fiesolan countryside. In 1348 he began to prepare and lay out the Decameron (134851?), the work that splendidly crowns his youthful experiences and sums up his narrative and romantic preludes in a superb summa of medieval storytelling. The setting is this: to escape the horrors of the plague of 1348, seven young ladies and three young men retire to a Fiesolan hillside; to pass away the time, each one is to tell a story every day, except Friday and Saturday, on a theme and in the order decreed by the one in charge for that day. A hundred novelle, interspersed with depictions of the group's aristocratic way of life, are thus recounted in ten days. In this powerful and multiform narrative work, Boccaccio displayed the "human comedy" of a society captured in both daily and extraordinary battles against ill-fortune. It is, in other words, the extraordinary epic of Boccaccio's own mercantile class.

According to the most acceptable aesthetic canons of his time, moreover, Boccaccio attached to his varied and iridescent images a didactic value beyond the mere story. Through the ten days into which his 100 stories are arranged he wished to display the extent of man's capacity for good and evil. To this end he pictured man on an imaginary journey that begins with a bitter condemnation of vice (First Day) and concludes with an exaltation of virtue (Tenth Day), after being tested by the three great forces that, as instruments of Providence, are at work in the world (Fortune, Second and Third Days; Love, Fourth and Fifth; Genius, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth; the Ninth Day is a transitional episode).

External Trouble; Interior Growth. His father's death in 1349 plunged Boccaccio even more deeply into family difficulties, but his established literary fame impelled his fellow citizens to entrust him with various civic tasks. In 1350 they sent him as ambassador to the Lords of Romagna anda more pleasant dutyto present ten gold florins to Sister Beatrice, the nun daughter of Dante, as indemnity for damages sustained by her family. He was named chamberlain for the commune in 1351 and then representative of the republic (in the negotiations for the acquisition of Prato) and ambassador to Ludwig of Bavaria; in 1354 and 1365 he was ambassador to Innocent VI and Urban V at Avignon and in 1367 presented the homage of Florence to Urban V on his return to Rome. But these honorable missions failed to extricate him from the deplorable condition into which the Bardi bankruptcy had cast him. In the hope of bettering his affairs, and prompted by the pleasant memories of his youthful years and the friendship of Niccolò Acciaiuoli who had become the real arbiter of the Angevin court, he betook himself to Naples in 1355, 1362, and again in 137071. Nothing came of these ventures, and he returned disillusioned and embittered to Certaldo, where he had withdrawn probably as early as 136162.

The material and temporal circumstances of these years, however, are of far less importance than his humanistic development, his cultural interests, and the religious evolution of his thought. These attitudes were already present in the poems and letters of about 1350, but they emerge clearly after his encounter with pe trarch, the most fortunate and decisive encounter for Italian and European culture of the 14th century.

Petrarch's Influence. Boccaccio met Petrarch for the first time in 1350, having eagerly gone some miles out-side Florence to greet him and invite him to be his house guest. Boccaccio spent weeks of unforgettable, animated discourse at Petrarch's home in Padua in the spring of 1351; he was again his guest in 1359 at Milan, in 1363 at Venice, and in 1368 at Padua. They engaged in a voluminous correspondence, constantly exchanged books and literary information, and from 1350 on were generally seiuncti licet corporibus unum animo (though physically separated, one in spirit) as Petrarch wrote. After 1360 especially, Boccaccio's house became one of the chief centers of early Italian humanism, the retreat wherein Coluccio Salutati, Giovanni Villani, Luigi Marsili, and many other early humanists received inspiration, the scriptorium from which flowed marvelous literary discoveries (from Varro to Martial, from Tacitus to Apuleius) and the new interest in Greek that Boccaccio first, among the literary men of the time, had mastered through his dogged, industrious relationship with Leonzio Pilato (136062).

These early humanistic attitudes continued to characterize the works of his maturity, which he corrected and recorrected to his death, and established in various editions. The Genealogia Deorum gentilium (135075) is a great dictionary of mythology, a monument of prehumanistic culture; the Bucolicum carmen (135166?) is a collection of eclogues that are allegorical or allusive to contemporary political events, on the model of Dante and Petrarch. De montibus, silvis, fontibus (135574?) is an inventory of classical and contemporary geographical culture; De casibus virorum illustrium (135674?), is designed to show the transience of earthly goods and the ruin in store for those who climb too high, with examples drawn from all epochs. De mulieribus claris (136075?) sketches the lives of the most noted heroines of antiquity and the Middle Ages up to Queen Giovanna of Naples.

Zeal for the Vernacular. Boccaccio's early humanism, both for these works and in his activity in promoting classical culture, seems less concerned with stylistic and rhetorical principles than does Petrarch's. It is less refined and tends to eclecticism; but it is always supported by a zealous love for poetry, so much so that he feels himself "wholly intended for poetry from as far back as the maternal womb" (Genealogia, 15:10). Better than Petrarch, hethe first apostle of the Dantean cult synthesizes the wonderful and uninterrupted tradition of the intellectual life, of poetry and culture, from antiquity to his own days. Though he was a chief discoverer of the treasures of ancient Hellas, his vision was not confined within the boundaries of the classics; it encompassed Christian authors, certain medieval writers, and poets who wrote in the vernacular. It is not without significance that the Teseida, the most ambitious of his youthful works, was modeled both on the great Latin epics and on the typically medieval cantari; that in the Decameron classical and later sources were drawn upon; that in the description of the plague that opens this masterpiece he mixes Lucretian facts, gained at second hand, with a page from Paolo Diacono; that his prose rhythms favor Livy more than Cicero, and even more the currently accepted rhetorics and artes dictandi.

It is further significant that, as in his youthful years he had constantly juxtaposed experiments in the vernacular with the required employment of Latin, so precisely during the most characteristically early humanistic years, when he became more directly involved with Greek literature, Boccaccio did not abandon his fond relationship with the muses of the new language and new literature. In witness of this stand the Epistola consolatoria a Pino de' Rossi, (136162), addressed to a friend exiled for political reasons; that harsh invective against women that stands out in the Corbaccio (1366?); the Trattatello in laude di Dante (135863?); and many vernacular letters to friends. In the same period, too, he undertook to correct and rework the Amorosa visione (which occasioned the Trionfi of Petrarch) and the final version of the De-cameron (the Hamilton autograph). All of Boccaccio's activity, whether as writer or as forceful promoter of humanistic studies, is constantly marked by this notable bilingualism that is not merely verbal but mental and cultural, by this vigorous and vital mixture of ancient and contemporary methods and experiments, by this passion, not rhetorical but human, for poetry, for all poetry.

Precisely because of this profound passion, Boccaccio in those years gathered up and defined in the last two books of the Genealogia Deorum his aesthetic doctrine, a synthesis of the leading poetic ideas of the Middle Ages and of earlier discussions by the men of the generation before thatdiscussions that heralded the rapidly approaching debates during the chivalric years between 1300 and 1400. Against the doubts and uncertainties of many, Boccaccio shows the complete propriety and high mission of poetry ex sinu Die procedens, of poetry as the anima mundi.

Religious Maturity. Tactfully helped by the serene and profound Christianity of Petrarch, Boccaccio during these years also resolved into a firm religious sensibility the emotional instability of his youth. To consecrate this achievement he received minor orders and in 1360 permission to become a director of souls; he dedicated himself enthusiastically to the study of Dante, on whose "sacred poem" he began to lecture at the church of San Stefano di Badia (137374). Just as he was publicly exalting the genius of Dante, the death of Petrarch (July 19, 1374) left a void in his heart. All his writings from then on only repeat the lament for the loss of his great friend, for his own spiritual loneliness. In these final years Boccaccio repudiated the worldliness of his Decameron and even tried to destroy the work's manuscripts. Despite such attempts, he remained for his contemporaries almost hieratically fixed in the role of last survivor of the "three crowns," the last champion of Italian letters.

Bibliography: Opere, ed. v. branca (Milan 1964); Decameron, ed. v. branca (4th ed. Florence 1965); Eng. tr. j. m. rigg, 2v. (London 1947); The Filostrato, tr. n. e. griffin and a. b. myrick (Philadelphia 1929); Amorous Fiametta, tr. b. young, ed. k. h. josling (London 1929); The Nymph of Fiesole, tr. d. j. donno (New York 1960); The Life of Dante, tr. p. h. wicksteed (San Francisco 1922); Concerning Famous Women, tr. g. a. guarino (New Brunswick, NJ 1963). Three basic but old bibliographies are: a. bacchi della lega, Serie delle edizioni delle opere di Giovanni Boccaccio latine, volgari, tradotte e trasformate (Bologna 1875). g. traversari, Bibliografia Boccaccesca (Città di Castello 1907). v. branca, Storia della critica al "Decameron" con bibliografia boccaccesca.. (Rome 1939). On the MSS: see v. branca, Tradizione delle opere di Giovanni Boccaccio (Rome 1958); ed., Studi sul Boccaccio (Florence 1963). The biographies by g. billanovich, Restauri boccacceschi (Rome 1945) and v. branca, Schemi letterari e schemi autobiografici nell'opera del Boccaccio (Florence 1946) are in strong reaction to the romance built up, on presumed autobiographical confessions, especially by v. crescini, Contributo agli studi di Boccaccio (Turin 1887), a. della torre, La giovinezza di G. Boccaccio (13131341 ) proposta d'una nuova cronologia (Città di Castello 1905), and h. hauvette, Boccace (Paris 1914). t. c. chubb, The Life of Giovanni Boccaccio (New York 1930) c. carswell, The Tranquil Hearth: Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio (New York 1937). a. c. lee, The Decameron: Its Sources and Analogues (London 1909). e. g. parodi, Lingua e Letteratura, 2 v. (Venice 1957). u. bosco, Il Decameron: Saggio (Rieti 1929). b. croce, Poesia popolare e poesia d'arte (Bari 1933). v. branca, Boccaccio medievale (Florence 1956). h. g. wright, Boccaccio in England: From Chaucer to Tennyson (London 1957). g. getto, Vita di forme e forme di vita nel Decameron (Turin 1958). a. d. scaglione, Nature and Love in the Late Middle Ages: Chiefly an Essay in the Cultural Context of the Decameron (Berkeley 1963). r. witt, In the Footsteps of the Ancients (Leiden 2000). e. h. wilkins, Studies on Petrarch and Boccaccio (Padua 1978).

[v. branca]

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated Jun 11 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio

BORN: 1313, Italy

DIED: 1375, Italy


GENRE: Poetry, fiction

Filostrato (c. 1335)
The Decameron (1349–1351)
Life of Dante (1373)


The Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio is best known for The Decameron. For his Latin works and his role in reviving Hellenistic learning in Florence, he is often considered one of the early humanists. Though Boccaccio is rooted in the Middle Ages, his conception of life hints at the Renaissance; like his fellow poet Petrarch, he straddled two periods. He strove to raise Italian prose to an art form nurtured in both medieval rhetoric and classical Latin prose and had immense admiration for Petrarch as well as for another of his Italian contemporaries, Dante Alighieri.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Desire to Compose Giovanni Boccaccio was the son of a merchant from Certaldo, identified as Boccaccio di Chellino. The exact date and place of Boccaccio's illegitimate birth are unknown. Despite tales of his birth in Paris, 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.”

Banking, a Muse, and Education in the Royal Court His father claimed him as legitimate about 1320 and gave him a decent education, sending him to the school of a famous educator, Mazzuoli da Strada, whose son Zanobi remained a lifelong friend and correspondent of Boccaccio. In 1327, Boccaccio's father was sent to Naples to head the branch of the Bardi banking company there. He took his son with him, clearly planning for him a life in commerce. The king of Naples, Robert of Anjou, was eager to establish lines of credit with the major Florentine banking houses. Under the Angevins, a French dynasty also named the House of Plantagenet, Naples became a commercial hub and, since King Robert had a taste for culture, a major center of learning. Boccaccio's formative years were spent in this vibrant southern capital. While learning the business of banking (for which he had little inclination), he was drawn to the dynamic life of the port and the tales of merchants who arrived from all corners of the Mediterranean.

Through the royal court and library, he came into contact with some of the most distinguished intellectuals of his day. Naples was also a city of beautiful women, who both stimulated the young man's senses and inspired his first literary efforts: romances in prose and verse that resembled the tradition of French love poetry. Like Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura, Boccaccio's “Fiammetta” served as a muse, inspiring the works of the first half of his career. She has frequently been identified as Maria of Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert. Yet, like the notion of Boccaccio's Parisian birth, this idea must be classified as myth, in part encouraged by Boccaccio himself, who sought to romanticize his life into a story overshadowed by the cloud of illegitimacy.

Before leaving Naples, Boccaccio had composed Diana's Hunt (c. 1334) and the lengthy Filostrato (c. 1335), a version of the tale of Troilus and Cressida in octave form. His Filostrato and The Book of Theseus (1340–1341) that followed are of particular interest, since they are, respectively, the sources of Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and “The Knight's Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (1387–1400).

Back to Florence When Boccaccio returned to Florence at the end of 1340, he found a city in crisis. An upheaval in the banking world had brought many major Florentine companies close to bankruptcy. Boccaccio's father, having weathered severe financial setbacks, had returned to the city in 1338 and was married to a woman for whom the son expressed little sympathy. Naples must have seemed far away, and Florence a dreary alternative. During the next decade, however, Boccaccio established himself as the leading storyteller of his generation.

Around this time, Boccaccio began thinking about his masterpiece, The Decameron. This collection of one hundred stories established Boccaccio as one of the founders of European narrative and served as a sourcebook for future storytellers (including Chaucer and Shakespeare). The Decameron weaves the idealized loves of the medieval tradition into the lives of merchants and adventurers. Set against the backgrounds of cities such as Florence, Naples, and Milan, the stories emphasize intelligence and individual initiative. The great pestilence of 1348 may have afforded Boccaccio the occasion to write his masterpiece; it provides the framework for this collection of one hundred stories. The book grew out of a period of despair for Boccaccio, as the plague killed his father and stepmother and made him the head of the family. The Decameron reflects Boccaccio's desire for the restoration of order out of chaos.

Petrarch and Politics Crucial to Boccaccio's spiritual and artistic development in these years was his friendship with Petrarch, whom he had admired from a distance but

finally met in Florence in September of 1350. In the spring of 1351, Boccaccio led a delegation to Padua, where Petrarch was residing, bringing with him the official restoration of citizenship to the poet (Petrarch's father had been exiled, along with Dante, in the political crisis of 1300). Boccaccio also offered Petrarch a professorship at the newly established University of Florence—which he declined. In a garden in the shadow of the city cathedral, these two masters of Italian letters spent weeks in intimate conversation (faithfully transcribed by Boccaccio) on questions of poetry, politics, and morals. When Boccaccio experienced a religious crisis in 1362, Petrarch persuaded his dear friend not to abandon the vocation of literature and not to burn the manuscript of The Decameron.

During these years, Boccaccio was also at the service of the republic when needed and was actively engaged in diplomatic activities. He twice led delegations to the papal court at Avignon (in 1354 and 1365). The intention was to assure the pope that Florence was devoted to the papacy, as well as to encourage Pope Urban V to restore the pontificate to Rome. In spite of his age and the increasing dangers from bandits, both journeys were diplomatically successful.

By early 1361, Boccaccio had retired to Certaldo, which thereafter remained his home and refuge. In this final chapter of his life, three themes persisted: fidelity to relatives and friends (notably Petrarch), prompt service to the republic, and tireless devotion to literature. News of Petrarch's death reached him late in 1374. On December 21, 1375, Boccaccio himself died and was buried in Certaldo in the Church of Saints Michael and James.

Works in Literary Context

Italian Prose Boccaccio wrote in Italian at a time when Latin was considered the proper language of literature. He wrote prose when poetry was considered the domain of artists. He paved the way for generations of future novelists who sought to capture real speech in their works. The prose of The Decameron, in its balanced, rhythmic cadences, became the model of Italian literary prose.

Humanism The Decameron tales have an abundance of subjects. In his multitude of characters, from ridiculous fools to noble and resolute figures, from all times and social conditions, Boccaccio depicts a fair version of human nature. He emphasizes intelligence and a kind of worldly prudence with which characters overcome difficult situations, noble or ignoble. Boccaccio presents life from an earthly point of view, with a complete absence of moralizing intentions. While Petrarch's humanism is considered classic, Boccaccio's approach is considered vernacular, or common, yet Petrarch's traditional influence eventually changed Boccaccio's style.

Works in Critical Context

Women in The Decameron The essential feature of The Decameron is realism; the world of the tales is the world of here and now. The demographic range is wide: it includes not only lords and princes but merchants, bankers, doctors, scholars, peasants, priests, and monks—and a surprising number of women. A token of the feminist thrust of the work may be seen in the fact that seven of the ten narrators are women. Additionally, Boccaccio prefaces The Decameron with a dedication to women. Scholar Ray Fleming, in his study of “Day Five” of The Decameron, looks at what he sees as Boccaccio's “happy endings” through a feminist lens and shows that these endings are only perceived as happy due to “masculine priorities and values.” In contrast, Pamela Joseph Benson invites a reading of female agency: “A persuasive and sensitive profeminist voice emerges from the text, a voice that admires female political, moral and physical strength although it does not endorse a change in the contemporary political status of women.” Janet Levarie Smarr summarizes: “The issue of Boccaccio's attitudes towards women has evoked considerable debate, especially in the last decade [1990s]. Arguments are easily found for both cases: that Boccaccio was a feminist ahead of his time, and that he shared the traditional or even misogynistic views of his era.”


Boccaccio's famous contemporaries include:

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321): Boccaccio wrote the first biography of this famous Italian poet known for The Divine Comedy.

Petrarch (1304–1374): This close friend of Boccaccio was known for his poetry and gave his name to a sonnet form.

Pope Urban V (1310–1370): Pope from 1362 to 1370, Urban was a supporter of education and of the restoration of the papacy to Italy.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–c.1400): This English writer's Canterbury Tales is very similar to The Decameron.

Poetic Force in The Decameron Barbara Zaczek suggests that “by imbuing a word with the power to change, even invert, a given situation, Boccaccio draws the readers' attention to the role of language in society, demonstrating how verbal interaction assumes social significance.” Gregory Stone also notes Boccaccio's intersection between language, meaning, and importance: “Boccaccio conceives poetry as the force that originates, determines, or triggers physis. Poetry, in other words, is regarded not as the imitation of nature but rather as natura herself, as the birth, blossoming, or arising of a previously concealed human ethos. Poetry, for Boccaccio, is the event of historical alteration of human nature.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Read Boccaccio's Book of Theseus and Chaucer's “The Knight's Tale”. Make a chart comparing and contrasting them. Consider plot points, characterization, settings, language, and tone.
  2. With a classmate, research humanism on the Internet or at your library, then find examples of it in today's pop culture. Create an audiovisual presentation for the class based on your findings.
  3. Read a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets. With a classmate, brainstorm ways in which the sonnets are similar to selections from Boccaccio that you have read in class.
  4. Love, fortune, and pity are recurring themes in The Decameron. With a classmate, find two passages in the selections of The Decameron that you have read that deal with love, fortune, and/or pity. Together with your classmate, write an informal paper describing Boccaccio's concept of love, fortune, and/or pity. Use examples from the text to support your opinions.


Boccaccio is said to be one of the Western world's first important humanists. Humanists during Renaissance times were concerned not with the supernatural but with morality and decency for all human beings, despite class, religion, or education. Here are some other works that affirm humanity's basic rational qualities.

History of the Peloponnesian War (c. 411 BCE), a history by Thucydides. This account of the famous war is special because it is relatively neutral, based on hard evidence, and does not focus on gods.

Canzoniere (1327–1368), poetry by Petrarch. Though these descriptions of the poet's love for Laura are often lofty, they express very honest human emotions.

Utopia (1516), a book by Thomas More. In More's idealized world, almost everything is tolerated, particularly most religions.



Bergin, Thomas. G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking, 1981.

Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans. Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1976.

Carswell, Catherine MacFarlane. The Tranquil Heart: Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.

Chubb, Thomas Caldecot. The Life of Giovanni Boccaccio. London: Cassell, 1930.

Cottino-Jones, Marga. Order from Chaos. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

Hutton, Edward. Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study. London: Lane, 1910.

MacManus, Francis. Boccaccio. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1947.

Serafini-Sauli, Judith Powers. Giovanni Boccaccio. London: Twayne, 1982.

Smarr, Janet Levarie. “Speaking Women: Three Decades of Authoritative Females.” In Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism. Ed. Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki. Vol. 8. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Annali d'Italianistica, 2006.

Stone, Gregory B. The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Williams, Caitlin E. The Voice of Dioneo: Women in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Honors thesis, University of Connecticut, 2007.

Zaczek, Barbara. “Creating and Recreating Reality with Words: The Decameron and The Women's Decameron.” In Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism. Ed. Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki. Vol. 8. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Annali d'Italianistica, 2006.


Fleming, Ray. “Happy Endings? Resisting Women and the Economy of Love in Day Five of Boccaccio's ‘Decameron.”’ Italica 70, no. 1 (Spring 1993).

Web Sites

Bergin, Thomas G. “Boccaccio, Giovanni.” Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 1: Authors. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James, 2003. 134–136. Literature eBooks. Gale. Trial Site Database. June 10, 2008.

“Giovanni Boccaccio.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Updated: December 12, 1998. Retrieved June 10, 2008.

Lawton, Harry. “Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375).” DISCovering World History. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. Gale. K12 Trial Site. June 10, 2008,

Licastro, Emanuele. “The Ninth Tale of the Fifth Day of the Decameron. Story by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1470

(Written 1349–1351).” Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 2: Works. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James, 2003. 1410–1411. Literature eBooks. Gale. Trial Site Database. June 10, 2008

Giovanni Boccaccio

views updated Jun 08 2018

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. □

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated Jun 08 2018


Nationality: Italian. Born: Paris, 1313. Education: Tutored by Giovanni da Strada; studied law, 1333-39. Career: Apprentice to a merchant, Florence, 1327-33; associated with artists and philosophers, Naples; befriended the poet Petrarch, Florence, 1350; secretary to Francesco degli Ordelaffi and to Ostasio da Polenta; chamberlain of treasury; traveled throughout Italy. Spent his last years in Certaldo. Died: 31 December 1375.


Short Stories

Filostrato. n.d. /span>

Teseida. n.d.

Decameron. 1348-?.


Filocolo. n.d.

Fiammetta. n.d.

Corabaccio. 134?.


Ameto. n.d.

Amorosa visione. n.d.

Ninfale Fiesolano. n.d.


Life of Dante. n.d.

Bucolicum carmen. 1351-66.

De casibus virorum illustrium. 1355-60

De claris mulieribus. 135?.

De genealogiis deorum gentilium. 135?.


Critical Studies:

The Tranquil Heart: Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio by Catherine Carswell, 1937; The Life of Giovanni Boccaccio by Thomas C. Chubb, 1979; The World at Play in Boccaccio's Decameron by Giuseppe Mazzotta, 1986.

* * *

Giovanni Boccaccio is the third member of the famous trinity (the others being Dante and Petrarch) that reigns over Italian medieval literature. Though he trained as a lawyer and worked as a diplomat, he found his true vocation in writing. From his early twenties on, he wrote with equal elegance and fluency in both Latin and the Italian vernacular, producing allegories, romances, epic poems, and learned treatises. In 1348 he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death in Florence, a grueling experience that gave him the idea for his best known work, the Decameron (Ten Days). He began composing it in the following year and finished the first draft in 1351. The technique and presentation of the Decameron's one hundred short stories reveal a master of the genre. Boccaccio was immensely well read and took many of his plots from a wide variety of sources. At the same time he elevated the novella into a genuine art form. His influence on other writers has been widespread, beginning, for example, in France with Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron and continuing in England with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. His life even inspired the romantic operetta Boccaccio (1879) by the Austrian composer Suppé.

The introduction to the Decameron records with grim detail the physical effects of the Black Death on its victims: how a swelling big as an egg appeared in the groin or the armpit of the victim, followed by livid patches all over the body, then death within three days at most. The plague was incurable and was transmitted to others by the slightest touch. Animals as well as humans died in agony.

Amid the stench of rotting corpses, a group of seven young Florentine ladies decide to leave the city and find refuge in the country. They are accompanied by three young gentlemen, each of them smitten by one of the ladies and bound by family links to the other four. The ten refugees set up house in a beautiful mansion surrounded by lovely gardens with sparkling fountains, verdant lawns, and flowers in bloom. Here they pass the time singing, dancing, and playing chess, although their main amusement is telling stories. The Decameron's structure is derived from the refugees' plan that on each day, for 10 days, 10 stories will be told by members of the group.

While scholars detect religious and philosophical implications in the framework of the Decameron, which also contains respectful echoes of Dante, its most striking characteristic is that it suits to perfection Boccaccio's special talent for short fiction. Like many gifted short story writers, he was ill at ease in long-winded works and most at home in recounting brief episodes. The episodes of the Decameron concentrate on such topics as love, passion, lust, and greed, which he treats in styles that can be Rabelaisian, comic, tragic, or romantic. Each day is given a general theme which the stories illustrate, except for the first and ninth days which are left open to the raconteurs. The themes may be the tricks that men play on women and that women play on men, or the challenge of love and how it can be successfully mastered, or the unpredictability of fate and how happiness may be achieved despite ill fortune, or the deceits practiced by adulterous wives, or the destructive power of obsessive love. The combination of these eternal themes with Boccaccio's sprightly storytelling has ensured that the Decameron continues to fascinate and amuse.

Typical of the more Rabelaisian tales is the one about the old bricklayer and his pretty wife, Peronella. One day while she is in bed with her lover, Giannello, the husband returns unexpectedly. She hides Giannello in a barrel. The husband announces that he has at last found a buyer for the barrel. Peronella convinces him that another prospective buyer is already inspecting it, that is to say Giannello, who jumps out and complains that he won't purchase the barrel until it has been properly cleaned. The husband, armed with a scraper, climbs inside and starts to scrape away. As he cleans up the barrel, Peronella leans into it directing the operation from above. Giannello, "who had not achieved total satisfaction that morning before her husband returned home," pleasures her while standing up. This time he completes the deed satisfactorily, just before the husband emerges from the depths of the barrel. Giannello pays the agreed price and bears away his purchase (Day VII, ii).

A similar tale (Day II, v) exemplifies Boccaccio's skill in unfolding a series of events which, though highly improbable when briefly outlined, are entirely credible in context, thanks to his narrative dexterity. Andreuccio goes to Naples with five hundred gold florins in his pocket to buy a horse at a fair. A cunning prostitute defrauds him of the money. He falls into a cesspit, realizes he has been tricked, and, dripping with foul-smelling excrement, wanders the streets where he is recruited by two thieves planning to rob the tomb of an archbishop who has just been buried wearing a ring worth more than five hundred gold florins. They squeeze Andreuccio into the tomb, and he passes out the rich vestments as ordered but keeps the ring for himself. The thieves, furious, shut the lid on him and clear off. Some time later other people arrive with the same intention. They prize open the lid, but, when Andreuccio clutches the leg of the first man to drop inside, they shriek with terror and run away. Andreuccio emerges and goes home with a ring worth far more than the horse he intended to buy.

Such are the bawdy tales, and there are many of this sort, that have given the Decameron a certain notoriety. They teem with sinful friars, lustful abbots, sexy gallants, and lascivious wives. Two young men spend the night with a family, and, thanks to the complicated layout of a cat, a cradle, and three beds, are able to enjoy the favors of both a mother and a beautiful daughter (Day IX, vi.) Few variations on sexual themes escape Boccaccio. He includes wife-swapping (Day VIII, viii), threesomes, (Day VII, vi), and even, rare for a European writer of the period, homosexuality. The wealthy merchant Pietro is a closet gay who has married a beautiful redhead to give himself an air of respectability. She, randy but frustrated, takes as her lover a very pretty young lad. Pietro finds them in bed together, but, instead of becoming angry, he is delighted, because for a long time he has been lusting after this particular boy. So he joins them in bed, and, next morning, the boy goes home "still not quite sure whether he'd served more as a wife or as a husband" (Day V, x.).

Yet bawdiness is only one element in the rich mixture served up by the Decameron. There is also a distinct flavor of the macabre and the tragic. This runs through the tale of the Princess Ghismonda and her lover Guiscardo (Day V, i.). Her disapproving father, Tancredi, orders Guiscardo to be killed and has his heart cut out. He then delivers the heart in a golden chalice to Ghismonda, who takes poison and dies. A similar tale is told of Guillaume de Cabestaing and his love for the wife of his friend Guillaume de Roussillon (Day IV, ix). When Roussillon discovers the affair, he murders Cabestaing and plucks out his heart. His chef having sliced, spiced, and cooked the heart, Roussillon serves it up at dinner to his wife who eats it with relish. When he tells her what she has just done, she throws herself out of the window and is smashed to pieces on the ground below. Another grim subject, though this time with a happy ending, is featured in the tale of patient Griselda (Day X, x). It is a chilling story of vicious male chauvinism. The Marquis of Saluzzo marries a peasant girl for the sake of an heir and puts her through a series of the most humiliating tests. Despite it all she remains loyal and uncomplaining. Boccaccio's moral is that the poor and humbly born are as capable of showing nobility and steadfastness as are those of the most exalted birth.

These bare summaries cannot, however, do full justice to Boccaccio's command of the storyteller's art. Although, like Shakespeare, he often borrows plots, he treats them with such ingenuity that he makes them his own and transmutes them into something fresh and individual. He knows how to catch the reader's interest from the very start and to hold it with many a twist and turn until curiosity is satisfied. Witty, cynical, often satirical, he is a man of the world who nonetheless understands human nature, and although he never fails to entertain, he does not neglect to include a subtle moral. Love and money have always been, and always will be, among the most absorbing passions of men and women. That is why, for nearly seven hundred years, the Decameron has remained a treasure trove not only for the general reader and the scholar but also for novelists, playwrights, composers, and filmmakers.

—James Harding

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated Jun 27 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio



Early Life.

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in the small town of Certaldo south of Florence to an employee of the Bardi bank. His father intended that he would pursue either a career in the church or in banking, but from an early age Boccaccio preferred the study of literature. When Boccaccio was a teenager, his father traveled to Naples on business, and there Boccaccio became an apprentice banker, but he also met many literary figures in the local university and court. He was a friend of the royal librarian and several other men, one of whom was a close friend of Petrarch's and who introduced Boccaccio to the poet's works. While in Naples, Boccaccio began to write, and his works in this period show a mixture of contemporary Italian styles with idioms he drew from classical Antiquity. Boccaccio clearly admired Dante, who would be a lifelong influence on his work. His Italian poem Diana's Hunt imitated the medieval poet's style, but it also made use of Boccaccio's knowledge of Ovid and other classical works. Another work from this Neapolitan period, the Filostrato, related the tragic love story of a Trojan prince and his love for Criseida, and would become the model for the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece Troilus and Criseyde. Many of the poems he composed at this time show his affection for classical literature, but they did not step very far outside the confines of contemporary styles in Tuscan poetry.


In 1341 the Bardi bank suffered a disastrous failure, and Boccaccio returned with his father to Florence in search of work. There, the young author wrote his Ameto, a work that criticizes the drab commercial nature of Florence when compared to the brilliant court at Naples. Other poems and Italian works gave evidence to Boccaccio's growing literary mastery, including his Elegy of Madam Fiammetti written sometime around 1343. That work has often been judged as one of the first novels because of its central character, longer narrative development, and its emphasis on the psychological examination of its heroine. It relates the tale of Fiammetta, who becomes increasingly miserable in contemporary Naples and attempts suicide before comparing her fate to famous women from classical Antiquity. It became an important source of literary inspiration to Renaissance women writers, including Marguerite de Briet (pen name Hélisenne de Crenne), the French sixteenth-century feminist author. Boccaccio's later collection of short feminine biographical portraits entitled Of Famous Women (1361), would also inspire later authors, including Christine de Pizan who based The Book of the City of Ladies on it.


Boccaccio's greatest fictional achievement was his Decameron, a collection of 100 tales told during the outbreak of the Black Death in Florence in 1347–1348. Collections of novella, which were short stories with morals, had been popular in Florence and Tuscany since the late thirteenth century. Boccaccio's work revolutionized the genre by linking these tales together into a single narrative construction. His prologue sets out a premise for the entire collection and states Boccaccio's stoic perspective on life. As many Europeans did at the time, he pondered the underlying causes for the recent catastrophe of the Black Death, and the subsequent stories present Boccaccio's point of view concerning the perennial question of whether the plague was a divine judgment upon human sinfulness. The will of God, Boccaccio counsels his readers, is inscrutable and trust in God's grace provides the only consolation in times of trials. At the same time the stories celebrate human ingenuity, even as they warn readers that human life is governed by fortune and the passions. Those who succumb to these forces will fail, but the ingenuous can triumph over their desires and use their intellects to succeed in life. Boccaccio began this work sometime around 1348 as the plague had just receded in Florence, and he completed it about four years later. During this same period he met Petrarch, the figure he had long admired. The two eventually became close correspondents, with Petrarch playing the mentor to the slightly younger Boccaccio. The Decameron, though, seems to have been largely formed and shaped before Boccaccio struck up his friendship with the humanist and is thus a testimony to the literary skills he had acquired over the previous years.

Later Works.

In the last two decades of his life, Boccaccio came increasingly under Petrarch's influence, and the relationship with his mentor caused him to devote his efforts to literary scholarship rather than the writing of fiction. After the Decameron, he wrote only one more fictional work, the Corbaccio, a misogynistic tale about a lusty widow. During these years he retired to his family home at Certaldo, outside Florence, and spent the largest portion of his efforts writing the enormous Genealogy of the Gods, a work that would eventually comprise fifteen massive volumes. In it, Boccaccio treated Latin and Greek mythology from a literary perspective, rather than from the Christian moralizing traditions that had long commented upon ancient myth. Boccaccio's Genealogy was also important for its defense of the study of pagan literature and of poetry. Until the eighteenth century the work continued to be the main scholarly reference work on ancient mythology, and it was widely used by authors and painters when they composed works on mythological themes. In his later years Boccaccio also wrote verse in Latin, including his Country Songs (Buccolicum carmen) through which he tried to encourage the revival of ancient pastoral poetry. Written in the ancient form of the eclogue, these poems did not immediately produce any great flowering of pastoral literature, but they did become important in fostering a renewal of the pastoral in Florence a century later.


Boccaccio was generally an appealing and self-deprecating figure on Florence's literary scene in the mid- and late-fourteenth century. In later years he was chiefly responsible for spreading Petrarch's brand of literary scholarship and humanistic philosophy among the educated circles of Florence. The esteem which his admitted masterpieces like the Decameron brought him allowed him to influence intellectual developments in the city. Although his works became a major milestone in the creation of Italian as a literary language, Boccaccio felt that his chief accomplishment in life was his encouragement of the establishment of a Greek professorship at the University of Florence. He himself studied Greek with Leontius Pilatus, the man who filled this position, and he did so with the expressed and revolutionary purpose of studying ancient Greek literature. Boccaccio's scholarly and literary connections were broad, and they helped to spread knowledge of his works throughout Europe. His efforts encouraged the formation of a humanist circle within Florence, and after Boccaccio's death, this circle grew to dominate the city's civic life by the early fifteenth century.


Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Trans. and ed. G. H. McWilliam (New York: Penguin, 1996).

V. Branca, Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans. R. Monges (New York: New York University Press, 1976).

J. P. Serafini-Saulfi, Giovanni Boccaccio (Boston: Twayne, 1982).

Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313–1375)

views updated May 17 2018

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

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated May 29 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio



An Education in Aristocratic Values.

Giovanni Boccaccio was perhaps the greatest realistic story teller of the later Middle Ages and along with Chaucer did much to develop a vernacular literature of wit, sharp psychological observation, and tolerance for human foibles. He was born the illegitimate child of a merchant of Naples but was later legitimized. His father, a banker, gave him a good education and allowed him to follow a literary career. He claimed that his mother was French, though this, like other supposed "facts" in his biographical comments, may be pure self-construction. Another key element in his life, his love for a certain Fiammetta, may also have been somewhat fictionalized. Boccaccio went to work in Naples in his father's counting house, but he soon left to study canon law at the University of Naples about 1331. All told, he spent some thirteen years in Naples, reading in the Royal Library, learning the life of the court and of the mercantile classes. Thus, books, business, and aristocratic love would all come to be later subjects of his work. It was also in Naples that he started to read Dante.

Life in Mercantile Florence.

The second phase of Boccaccio's life was in a totally different environment, in the mercantile city-state of Florence, where the nobility were forbidden to hold public office. Here money and political shrewdness were elevated above the virtues he had learned at Naples. In 1340 he became secretary to important Florentines, making a living serving the commune as a roving ambassador or as an emissary to the papal court at Avignon (in 1354 and again in 1365). It was in Florence that he became friendly with the famous poet Francesco Petrarch in about 1350, who helped him with his Latin. He also later learned Greek, though with difficulty. Thus Boccaccio was a man of two worlds: one of the Neapolitan culture of lords and vassals, watching tournaments and pageantry, and reading about aristocratic values and refined love; the other of Florentine mercantilism, in a city dominated by a class struggle for political and social power, where money and opportunism were prized above all things.

Writing in the Classical Style.

Boccaccio's early experiences were reflected in poems with mythological titles and classical subjects, like Diana's Hunt (1334), the Filostrato (about the Troy legend, 1335), and the Teseida (c. 1340), about the Theban story of Theseus and the war against the Amazons. In all of these courtly love works, love rules all and knows no law. In his middle period there is evidence of his Florentine learning in works that still use classical materials and feature the power of love, but now more in an allegorical than a narrative mode. By the 1350s, Boccaccio turned from vernacular narrative poetry to Latin learned prose works, such as the Praise of Famous Women, On the Fall of Famous Men, and the Genealogies of the Pagan Gods, the last reflecting his newly acquired skill in classical Greek.

The Decameron.

In 1351, however, Boccaccio turned directly to the contemporary Florentine world with the Decameron, a work that has proven to have an enduring influence. In this collection of stories, ten young people—seven women and three men, all rich and cultivated—meet at the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and plan to escape the plague decimating the city by going to a country house, where they will pass time by telling 100 tales—ten from each person. Based on Eastern story collections, classical sources, fabliaux, Florentine gossip, and personal observation, these stories mark a shift from the world of refined erotic fancy illustrated in Boccaccio's earlier writings to the land of things as they are, where calculation displaces illusion. The majority of the characters are middle class, including merchants or wives of merchants, peasants, laborers, and artisans. While Dante believed that only people of prominence could serve a didactic purpose, Boccaccio used people from every walk of life, including a larger proportion of female characters—and of women in important roles—than any other writer of his period. In contrast to earlier works like the Song of Roland, the Decameron represents a recognition of the triumph of wit over prowess in a world where values were less absolute and increasingly more relativistic.


Vittore Branca, Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans.

Richard Monges (New York: New York University Press, 1976).

Robert S. Dombroski, ed., Critical Perspectives on the Decameron (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976).

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated May 18 2018

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

Giovanni Boccaccio

views updated Jun 11 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio


Italian writer, best known for the Decameron(1353), who discussed geology in his Filocolo (c. 1340). In the latter text, he wrote on the origin of fossils and maintained that the sea had once covered the Earth. The willingness of Boccaccio, an educated man for his time, to accept ancient myths is instructive regarding the medieval mind: at one time he reported that the remains of Polyphemus, the Cyclops described in Homer's Odyssey, had been located in a cave in Sicily. According to Boccaccio, the giant was 300 ft (91.5 m) tall.

Boccaccio, Giovanni

views updated May 18 2018

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.

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