Boccaccio, Giovanni°

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BOCCACCIO, GIOVANNI ° (1313–1375), Italian author, whose greatest work, Il Decamerone, contains a number of Jewish elements. The son of a Florentine merchant, Boccaccio was apprenticed in his youth to a merchant in Naples and may have come into contact with some of the Jews who were flourishing in Neapolitan commerce at that time. He later introduced Jews into two of the early tales of the Decameron (the second and third story of the "First Day" of the cycle). Boccaccio summarized the second story as follows: "Abraham, a Jew, at the instance of Jehannot de Chevigny, goes to the court of Rome, and having marked the evil life of the clergy, returns to Paris and becomes a Christian" (because God would tolerate such conduct only in followers of the true faith). His summary of the third story is "Melchisedech, a Jew, by a story of three rings, averts a great danger with which he was menaced by Saladin." He uses the character of Abraham to criticize the contemporary ecclesiastical establishment and the corruption of the clergy, and that of Melchisedech to praise human wisdom. Both tales are based on medieval literature, Christian as well as Jewish. A story of three rings or three precious stones, representing the debate as to the relative excellence of the three monotheistic religions, is used by early English, French, and Italian writers. The theme also appears in Jewish literature in the Shevet Yehudah (ch. 32) of Solomon *Ibn Verga (ed. Y.F. Baer (1947), 78–80). Although this was not published until 1550, the author was undoubtedly quoting a story which was well-known long before he wrote his book. Debates between representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often to be found in medieval Hebrew literature.

Boccaccio's choice of Jews as heroes would appear to result from the great emphasis he placed on wisdom and tolerance, both of which he regarded as Jewish characteristics. In his very earliest stories he stressed the keen intelligence of the Jew, his freedom from blind ideology, and his adaptability. Regarding the Jewish character as essentially realistic and individualistic, he also used his two heroes to mock any regimented approach to life. Boccaccio had an important and formative influence on European literature. The strongest echo of his Melchisedech story occurs in Nathan the Wise (1779), a play on the theme of religious tolerance by the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing. Some reflection of the "three rings" story has also been detected in the casket scene in *Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.


G. Paris, La leggenda di Saladino (1896); idem, La Poésie du Moyen-Age, 2 (1895); M. Penna, La Parabola dei tre anelli e la tolleranza nel Medio Evo (1953); H.G. Wright, Boccaccio in England… (1957); H. Hauvette, Boccace… (1914); R. Ramat et al., Scritti Su Giovanni Boccaccio (1964). add. bibliography: S. Zoeller, in: Aschkenas 7, 2 (1997), 303–39; A.L. Mittleman, in: Harvard Theological Review 95, 4 (2002), 353–72; M. Aptroot, in: Zutot 3 (2003), 152–59.

[Isaac Garti]