"Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio, an early Italian Renaissance writer
"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.
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.
Have you ever read an English translation of the "Decameron?"
Read about other Italian Early Renaissance writers:
- Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri He is so important to Italian literature, that he is known only by his first name, Dante. That he wrote the Divine Comedy, probably the greatest literary work ever composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece in world...
- Petrarch and his sonnets
The one person given both the monikers, "father of Humanism" and "father of the Renaissance," by historians is none other than Franceso Petrarca (or Petrarch in English) Petrarch was an Italian writer who gave us t
The Decameron - 1971 Italian film
© 2014 Suzette Walker