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"Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio, an early Italian Renaissance writer

Updated on January 26, 2014
A tale from "The Decameron" painted by John William Waterhouse
A tale from "The Decameron" painted by John William Waterhouse | Source
Statue of Boccaccio on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Statue of Boccaccio on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. | Source
Original illustrated manuscript of "Teseida" one of Boccaccio's earlier poems.
Original illustrated manuscript of "Teseida" one of Boccaccio's earlier poems. | Source

Giovanni Boccaccio 1313 - 1375

Another important and influential Italian writer is the famed Giovanni Boccaccio of the early Italian Renaissance. His writings illustrated the thoughts, social mores, religion and daily life of the Florentines of Florence, Italy. Boccaccio is considered a great Italian poet, author and Renaissance humanist.

Boccaccio is best known for writing the Decameron, and the first to write in the structure of a frame narrative which is a story within a story. In fact, The Decameron influenced and became the forerunner of Geoffrey Chaucer's, Canterbury Tales. As a matter of fact, Chaucer read and studied the Decameron before beginning to write his Tales.

One of the first Italians to write in the Italian vernacular, Boccaccio is also noted for his dialogue and use of verisimilitude in his writings. His writings surpassed all those of his contemporaries.

Verisimilitude is a philosophical concept that distinguishes between the truth and the falsity of assertions and hypotheses and how these falsities can sometimes be closer to the truth than we realize.

Boccaccio was a good friend and correspondent throughout his life of Petrach, another Italian poet and writer and inventor of the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It was Boccaccio that introduced the Sicilian innovation of the octave to Florence, Italy and hence influenced Petrarch who used it in his sonnets.

The details of Boccaccio's birth are not known and he was born either in Florence or in a nearby village, Certaldo, Italy. It is believed Boccaccio was born out of wedlock as his mother is unknown. All we know today is that his step-mother was Margherita de Mardoli and he grew up in Florence.

More is known about Boccaccio's father, Boccacciuno de Chellino, and Florentine merchant and banker. His father worked for the Compagnia dei Bardi, a bank, and married his step-mother who was from an illustrious family in the 1320's.

It is believed Boccaccio was tutored by a Giovanni Mazzuoli in the early works of Dante and his famed, Inferno.

In 1326, Boccaccio moved with his family to Naples, Italy where his father was appointed head of the Neapolitan branch of his bank. At this time, Giovanni Boccaccio was apprenticed to the bank, but this was not his forte to the disappointment of his father. He then persuaded his father to allow him to study law at the Studium in Naples for the next six years.

From law, Boccaccio branched out his studies to include science and literary studies Through his father, Boccaccio was introduced to the royal court and the study of French. He influenced the court of Robert Wise in the 1330's and finally fell in love with and married the daughter of King Robert of Naples. (Robert the Wise)

His wife became immortalized as the character "Fiammetta" in many of Boccaccio's prose romances especially in Il Filocolol which he wrote in 1338. Boccaccio eventually dropped law and concentrated on writing and began what he considered his true vocation, writing poetry, while living in Naples, Italy.

Boccaccio was greatly influenced by humanists Barbato du Sulmona, Giovanni Barrili, theololgian Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolco and writer and curator, Paolo da Perugia.

Here Boccaccio wrote two of his famous writings, Filostrato and Teseida, which later became the sources for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyda and The Knight's Tale.

In early 1341, Boccaccio returned to Florence to live in the aftermath of the Black or Bubonic Plague that had ravaged the city in 1340. He missed the plague, fortunately, and while living in Florence, he wrote the Comedia della niafe fiorentine, a mix of prose and poems.

He continued to produce writings and in 1342 wrote the fifty canto allegorical poem, Amoroso visiones and then followed that up in 1343 with the writing of Fiammetta.

"The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo", a painting of one of the tales from the "Decameron",painted by Marie Spartali Stillman.
"The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo", a painting of one of the tales from the "Decameron",painted by Marie Spartali Stillman. | Source
" Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio
" Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio | Source
 "Decameron" text.
"Decameron" text. | Source
"The Story of the Patient Griselda," one of the tales from the "Decameron."  Painted circa 1500, painter unknown.
"The Story of the Patient Griselda," one of the tales from the "Decameron." Painted circa 1500, painter unknown. | Source

Have you ever read an English translation of the "Decameron?"

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"Decameron" 1349 - 1352

Boccaccio began writing the Decameron in 1349, and wrote it over several years completing it in 1352. It was to be his final piece of writing in literature and one of his last works written in Italian. He returned to The Decameron and revised and rewrote it from 1370-71 and it is this original manuscript that has survived to present day.

Because he was closely involved with the Italian humanism movement, he wanted to write a book that portrayed Florentines as they really were in that particular time in history. He describes in detail, through his character's stories, the physical, psychological and social effects of the Bubonic Plague had on Florence, Italy and its people.

The book is named the Decameron, originally from the Greek, which means ten days. There are one hundred stories contained in the book and each story begins with a short heading explaining the plot of the story,

Ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, gather at the Basilica di Santa Novella to escape the Black Death by leaving Florence and staying in a fictional villa outside the city walls for ten days. The pretty much quarantine themselves from the plague there.

To pass the time over the ten days each one agrees to tell one story each day for ten days. The stories are told in the garden of the first villa the company stays at. Each person is named King or Queen for the day and this person determines the theme of the stories each one must tell each day The first and the ninth day are the exceptions and the stories told are open topics.

Some of the themes that are covered in the ten days are:

  • misfortunes that unexpectedly bring a person to happiness
  • people who achieve an object of their desire
  • people who have recovered something previously lost
  • unhappily ended love stories
  • happily ended love stories
  • tricks lovers play on one another
  • those who have avoided danger


The subtitle of the written work is, "Prencipe Galeotto" because Boccaccio dedicates his work to single women who had no diversions in life as did men (hunting, fishing, falconry, etc) and who are forced to conceal their amorous passions and stay idle and concealed in their rooms. Who knew Boccaccio was an early supporter of feminism?

One of his philosophical outlooks is the common medieval theme of Lady Fortune and how quickly one can rise and fall through the external influences of the "Wheel of Fortune." This is examined closely through the stories the ten people tell.

Boccaccio, like Dante in his Inferno, used various forms of allegory to show the connection between literal events and the Christian message within the written work. In the aftermath of the Black Death, most Florentines grew discontented with the Catholic Church. How could a just God allow such a thing as the Black Death to decimate their city and the rest of Europe?

Therefore, Boccaccio used satire against the Catholic Church, priests, and religious beliefs at the time, and they became a source of comedy throughout the Decameron.

It is also known for its medieval allegory because of its bawdy tales of love from the erotic to the tragic. Also, many of the details include the medieval sense of numerology and mystical significance.

The seven women represent the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude; and the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. The seven women all have Italian names: Pampinea (flourishing one), Fiammetta (small flame), Filomena (faithful in love), Emilia (rival), Lauretta (wise), Neifile (cloudy) and Elissa (God is my vow.)

The three men represent the tri-part Division of the Soul: Reason, Spirit, and Lust. The three men's names are: Panfillo (completely in love), Filostrato (overcome by love) and Dioneo (lustful).

As Boccaccio compares the men and women and their stories, he comes to the conclusion and favors women as the better sex in terms of good and evil. Although the women are stronger, more lustful, and more cunning, he believes men can only have victory over women by achieving victory through underhanded means. Therefore, women outshine men and are surprisingly more sexual than men as he portrays in his stories of female lust.

Through the Decameron we learn the thoughts and beliefs of Florentines during the early Renaissance when humanism was just taking hold in Italy. Boccaccio, therefore, wanted his writings to be available to all Florentines and Italians to read, not for just the royal courts and the nobility. Hence, the reason his book is written in the vernacular, the everyday Italian spoken by the Florentines. This is also the reason Florentine Italian eventually became the Italian taught and spoken throughout the entire country of Italy. Boccaccio was the forerunner in achieving this for Italians and making the classical antiquity writings available to all and this became one of the biggest humanistic achievements of the Renaissance.

After writing and revising the Decameron, Boccaccio did some diplomatic assignments for the city-state of Florence government and traveled extensively to Naples, Padua, Venice, and Molina.

His final years were wracked by illness and he died at age 62 in 1375 in Certaldo, Italy and he is buried there today. Boccaccio's entire personal library, which was extensive by the time of his death, was given to the monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence where it still resides today.

The Decameron has always been a popular and entertaining book to read with all the stories being told by the seven women and three men. It was finally adapted to film in 1971, by Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who also wrote the Italian script.

Painting from the" Decameron"
Painting from the" Decameron" | Source

The Decameron - 1971 Italian film

© 2014 Suzette Walker

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    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Carolyn: I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. I have read excerpts of it - not the entire book, but it is fascinating and about a sad time in Europe and Italy's history - the plague. But, it does give a look into how people were thinking at the time. Thanks so much for your visit and share.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      5 years ago

      What a wonderful hub! I was briefly a Medieval Studies major in college (had to change schools due to family issues, and the new one didn't offer that major) so I have heard about The Decameron, and had intended to read it but never got around to it. Your hub has piqued my interest again! Upvoted and sharing in a Medieval History group I run :-)

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Huntgoddess: Yes, LOL! I have written a lot of hubs - I enjoy writing. Thanks so much for your revisit!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you so much for reading my reviews as I have enjoyed some of yours. I like how you write them. I will certainly enjoy your hubs also. Thanks so much for your comments - most appreciated.

    • Huntgoddess profile image

      Huntgoddess 

      5 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

      I see you have enough Hubs here to keep me busy for a while, and give me a great education, as well.

      Thanks.

    • Huntgoddess profile image

      Huntgoddess 

      5 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

      No problem. My pleasure.

      I'll be looking forward to more of your great literary Hubs.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Huntgoddess: Thanks so much for reading this and for your kind comments. I am so glad you enjoyed this. I have read some of the stories from the Decameron but not all 100 of them! LOL! Yes, this was an important work that influenced other writers and authors. Yes, both Shakespeare and Chaucer referred to the Decameron in writing some of their works. We all are inspired by someone else who writes. Thanks so much for your visit and for your insightful comments.

    • Huntgoddess profile image

      Huntgoddess 

      5 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

      Very interesting Hub.

      The art is awesomely beautiful. (Did not have time to watch the movie yet, though.)

      I believe Shakespeare based Othello (or perhaps The Winter's Tale?) on one of the stories from the Decameron?

      I've always wanted to know more about Boccaccio and The Decameron. It's great to read something in English like this.

      I knew that Canterbury Tales was similar to the Decameron, but never knew that Chaucer actually did it intentionally. Very cool!

      Thanks. Up, Beautiful, Awesome, Interesting.

      Keep up the great work!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      jamie: I have always loved the Renaissance and it is my favorite time in history because of the 'rebirth' of knowledge. I have not read all 100 stories of the Decameron either, but I have read excerpts also. The bawdy tales are the funniest and my favorite. I am so glad you have read excerpts of this also. It is always more interesting to read the specific written work than to learn from an overview as you say. Thanks so much for your comments and I am glad you enjoyed and appreciated this hub.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      5 years ago from Reno NV

      I love everything Renaissance! What a well researched and written hub on "The Decameron." I had the good fortune of attending a small catholic university in Montana for my BS and I took a Renaissance course where the instructor was more interested in reading text from the period than those horrible overview texts and I remember reading excerpts from this book. Anyways, what a movement towards the light in human creativity. When will the next one be? Jamie

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      cmoneyspinner: You are certainly welcome and of course I would put it in my article. Thank you for your share of my link. We need to help one another here on HP, that's all. I am just glad you enjoyed my article and I enjoyed yours so much and what you have done with it.

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Oh my! Thank you! I wasn't expecting reciprocation. Please don't take it back! Thank you ten zillion times! :)

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      cmoneyspinner: I just added your Renaissance article as a link in mine above.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      cmooneyspinner: Thank you so much for reading and linking. How kind of you. I will check out your article. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your comments and link. Thanks so much!

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Hi! I embedded a link to this HUB, using the text "The Decameron", at my article about Renaissance men. FYI. Voted Up!

      http://wizzley.com/are-you-a-renaissance-man/

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      teaches: Thanks so much for your visit and your comments. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate you stopping by.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Jodah: Thank you so much for your visit and your insightful comments. I agree with you - these great works can have a whole new meaning later in life. I have always told my students to go back and re-read the classics when they are 50 years old and see what new things they learn the second time around reading them. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this as I enjoyed writing it.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Faith: Thanks so much for your visit as always! Yes, the English Renaissance came later - more in the 17th century - and Chaucer did a lot of studying Italian and French poets as he wrote. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and you have a great week!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Ashok: Your comments touch my heart. To think your English reading skills are improving by reading my hubs makes me so happy! :-) I have written about some Italian writers because they are part of my heritage and they are in tribute to that fact. You would enjoy reading an English translation of this also. Thanks so much for your kind comments and for always visiting my site to read - most appreciated!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      I loved Dante's Inferno and now I may have to pick up this book for a good read. Thanks for the review. Blessings.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 years ago from Queensland Australia

      hi Suzette, this is a very interesting and educational hub. I have both read The Decameron and watched the movie many years ago, when still a teenager. I think I should revisit it now that I am older and wiser. I think about the same time I read canterbury Tales and Tales of the Arabian Nights. Must have been a stage I was going through...lol. Anyway this is well researched and writte. Thank you. Great pics too. Voted up.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      5 years ago from southern USA

      Fascinating article, Suzzette! So interesting that Chaucer was influencd by The Decameron. I love your hubs as they always educate us as to phenomenal writers. Love the imagery. Up and more and sharing. Have a lovely Sunday, Faith Reaper

    • Ashok Rao profile image

      Ashok Rao 

      5 years ago from Mumbai, India

      A well researched article. I think I am becoming a better reader after visiting your hub. The best thing about your hub is I get to know about writer I've never heard about. I enjoyed reading this hub. It was not only informative but also quite absorbing - kept me engaged.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thanks so much Jackie. I am so glad you enjoyed this. I would love to visit his library too. I didn't know it was available to visit when I was in Florence much to my disappointment. Thanks again for stopping by and commenting - most appreciated.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      What a wonderful article, I so enjoyed it! The pictures are wonderful too. I would dearly love to go to his library in Florence, what an experience that would be. A+ here, fantastic. ^

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