Boccaccio, Giovanni 1313–1375
Born in Paris, according to legend, but most likely in Florence in 1313, the son of Boccaccio di Chellino, an agent of the Bardi bank, Giovanni Boccaccio was brought up in Certaldo, near Florence where he died on December 21, 1375 in Certaldo. His stepmother, Margherita dei Mardoli, was related to Beatrice Portinari's family. Early on Boccaccio developed a fondness for literary studies; he also studied banking in the Bardi establishment in Naples from 1325 to 1330. The time he spent at the Anjou court greatly influenced his life as a man and as a writer. There Boccaccio met and fell in love with the woman he called Fiammetta, who became his muse. His love lyrics, or Rime, which were influenced by the style of Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, are mostly dedicated to Fiammetta. La caccia di Diana (c. 1334; Diana's hunt), to be read by women, is a long poem in a mythological frame contrasting Venus and Diana, love and chastity, and presenting Neapolitan maidens in a hunt. It may very well contain the senhal (an allusive pseudonym) of Fiammetta that appear in his subsequent works. Il filostrato (1335), a poem in octaves, is the story of the tragic love of Troilus and Cressida derived from Benoît de Sainte-Maure (fl. twelfth century) and his Roman de Troie. Il filocolo (c. 1338), a prose romance in five books, written at the behest of Fiammetta, recounts the story of the pagan Florio and his Christian love Biancofiore. Teseida (c. 1340–1341), the first epic poem in the Italian vernacular, in twelve cantos, retells the love of Arcita and Palemone for Emilia, the Amazon princess. Next came the Commedia delle ninfe, or Il ninfale d'Ameto (1341–1342; Ameto's story of the nymphs), an allegorical work with a number of amorous confessions, and the L'amorosa visione (1342–1343; The amorous vision), prose verse in Dantean terza rima celebrating the triumphs of fame, wealth, and love. The Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343–1344) is considered the first Italian psychological realistic novel dealing with the torments of a woman jilted by her lover, and is dedicated to ladies in love. His two works in the vernacular are the Decameron (1349–1353) and Il Corbaccio (1353–1355). The latter is a novella containing a bitter invective against women, a seed of which can be found in the Decameron, day VIII, story 7, the tale of a misogynistic scholar who takes his revenge on the woman who scorned him.
Boccaccio's close relationship with Petrarch and his devotion to classical studies led him to write several treatises in Latin, among them the De genealogia deorum gentilium (1350–1375; On the genealogy of the gods of the gentiles), which affirms his aesthetic doctrine as well as his notion of poetry as a sacred science and as theology. The mythological content of the work fosters the inclusion of a number of women. Boccaccio's views of women are represented cogently and exemplified in his masterpiece, the Decameron, a collection of 100 tales dedicated to women, for their entertainment and relief. The cornice, or author's foreword, places the narrative during the plague of 1348, when seven young Florentine maidens and three young men repair to a villa outside Florence (Fiesole) to escape the ravages of the pestilence, symbol of death and decrepitude, and to opt for life and joy by telling tales for ten days, each day with a different theme. He also titles his work "The Book of Prince Galahad," alluding to Guinevere and Lancelot's go-between, as an analogy with his role as writer/intermediary with his female audience.
Boccaccio's fascination with women is unique among the authors of the Middle Ages, but his views are also ambiguous and perhaps influenced by his religious fears and prejudices. This ambiguity is noticeable from the Decameron to the Latin compendia, specifically De claris mulieribus (c. 1360–1374), his treatise on famous women. In the preface to the latter work, Boccaccio states that "women are endowed by nature with soft, frail bodies and sluggish minds," and thus one cannot fail to admire them when they have acquired "a manly spirit and if with keen intelligence [they] have dared undertake and have accomplished even the most difficult deeds." Indeed, the Decameron reflects these deeds and exalts women, for the power of love and nature cannot be hindered by any force or law. A bevy of women embody a new conception of womanhood and the loftiest form of femininity, including the Marchioness of Monferrato who reproaches the king of France (day I, story 5), the lady of Gascogne who ennobles the king of Cyprus (I, 9), Madam Beritola (II, 6), Alatiel (II, 7), the wife of Bernabò (II, 9), Ghismonda (IV, 1), Elisabetta of Messina (IV, 5), and Ginevra (X, 10). Yet they remain subjected, reverent, and obedient to men, as stated by Elissa in the introduction and again by Emilia (IX, 9).
Boccaccio's Decameron provides a complete picture of society in a mercantile and bourgeois world. The author reveals the eroticism present in every level of human society, including religious people. He also alludes to incest in the tales of Titus and Gisippus (X, 8) and that of Ghismonda and her father Tancredi (IV, 1), and to homosexual practices (V, 10), all as part of a natural process. Boccaccio remains constant in his strong belief that intelligence, reason, wit and the power of love and nature are found in everyone (IV, 7). Thus Madam Philippa (VI, 7), who is about to be burnt at the stake for adultery, convinces the judges that the laws are wrong and that they should spare her because she never refused her sexual services to her husband, and what then should she have done with what was left? Another commanding figure is Alatiel, the sultan's daughter, who manages to survive and find a happy ending after so many misadventures and unwanted lovers (II, 7). The entire seventh day is a triumph of women and their ingenuity, tact, and intelligence in pursuit of the sexual pleasures to which they are entitled. The typology of Boccaccio's tales may not be novel, but his approach to and characterization of women certainly are. Nevertheless, Boccaccio returns to the misogynistic conception of women in Il Corbaccio, already present in the tale of the scholar (VIII, 7) or in the stupidity of Calandrino who regularly beats and abuses his wife (VIII, 3). In De claris mulieribus, his portrayal of women is more synthetic and critical, and in De genealogia deorum gentilium, more faithful to sources. In the former, for example, Dido is portrayed different from that of the Virgilian tradition—she is courageous, decisive, and coherent—and the author seizes the opportunity to moralize on the virtue of widowhood.
Overall, Boccaccio offers a mixed picture of traditional misogyny and some fresh views. Most importantly, he opens a door to a more complex characterization of women, and at the very least initiates an enduring debate with readers on the question of women.
Bergin, Thomas G. 1981. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press.
Branca, Vittore. 1976. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works, trans. Richard Monges and Dennis J. McAuliffe. New York: New York University Press.
Di Scipio, Giuseppe. 2000. "Decameron" and "Novella." In Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, ed. Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Forni, Pier Massimo. 1996. Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio's "Decameron." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hollander, Robert. 1977. Boccaccio's Two Venuses. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The Sign of Reason in Boccaccio's Fiction. Florence: Olschki.
Smarr, Janet Levarie. 1986. Boccaccio and Fiammetta: The Narrator as Lover. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Giuseppe Di Scipio