Introduction to Boccaccio

Boccaccio's Life: Boccaccio made a point of presenting himself by giving details of his life. However, his account may be the most unreliable. In fact, being a master of storytelling, chances are that he made his life conform to the character he made of himself.

He says that he was born in Paris, a fruit of a secret love affair his father had with the king's daughter. Then, as his father moved back to Florence, he was brought along and destined to live with a cruel stepmother.

But he was able to get away from all of this when he went to live in Naples, where he was supposed to study accounting, since his father wanted him to be a merchant.

Here in Naples, he met Fiammetta, an illegitimate daughter of the king of Naples: this was a very difficult love because supposedly she was being unfaithful to him. Nevertheless, Boccaccio says that he became a poet and storyteller because of her.

However, the facts are quite different. Very likely, Giovanni Boccaccio was born in Florence, from a widow who had an affair with Boccaccio's father. And Fiammetta was a daughter of a noblewoman from Naples, wife of a rich merchant, and expert in the matters of love.

Boccaccio's family came from the town of Certaldo, his father was Boccaccio da Chellino, who moved to Florence to practice the profession of merchant. In fact, we know that in 1310 he was working for the Bardi Financial House, one of the most important financial institution in Europe. His employment lasted until 1342, when the institution went bankrupt.

As such he was in Paris a few times, including the time of Giovanni's birth (1313). However, it is certain that his son was born in Florence (or perhaps in Certaldo) from this affair in the latter part of the year 1313.

Later, in 1320, Boccaccio's father married a lady called Margherita dei Mondali (the famous stepmother), who was a relative of Beatrice Portinari, loved by Dante a few years earlier. Hence Boccaccio's interest for Dante's works.

Boccaccio did go to Naples around 1325 where he lived at the court of the kings of Naples, supported by the Bardi financial institution, with the specific purpose of getting the training needed to be a merchant.

Naples was at the time one of the most influential political and economical centers in Europe. Here Boccaccio heard stories of incredible travels, which, along with the environment of the city, inspired some of the best stories of his major work, The Decameron.

This leisurely life is present mostly in his youthful works, such as Filocolo, Ameto, Fiammetta, in which one can feel an intense passion for life.

Meanwhile, Boccaccio studies Mathematics and Arithmetic for his future career, although he cares little for these studies. He prefers poetry and other academic subjects. In fact he will say that he wasted time studying mathematics.

His life in Naples was easy. He lived in a fairy-tale world, with no financial worries. He was in the environment of merchants, it is the middle class society that he got to know so well.

His stay in Naples lasted until 1340, enough time to assimilate the intellectual culture of the time. In a way he learned from real life, and not from schooling. Here he studied medieval lyric poetry (Provençal, Italian, and Dante). In this environment he invented his passionate love story centered on a gentlewoman called Fiammetta. In fact she is present in most of his works up to and including The Decameron.

These early works are based on conventional writing forms of the time, mostly epic narrative. Herre they are:

Filocolo: the story of Florio and Biancifiore (1336);

Filostrato, the story of Troilo and Griselda, from the French Roman de Troie, later imitated by Chaucer and Shakespeare in their Troilus and Cressida.

Teseida, in 12 cantos, an epic poem written in 1340-41, which tells the story of Theseus's deeds against Thebe and the Amazons. But the plot is an excuse for Boccaccio to describe a triangle love affair that put against each other Arcita and Palemone, who are both in love with Emilia, a sister of Ippolita who was Theseus's wife. This story became the plot of Chaucer's Knight's Tale, in the Canterbury Tales.

Later he wrote other minor books of prose and poetry, some of them with allegorical meanings. Among those, one stands out: Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, which portrays the state of mind of a woman in love as she is betrayed by her lover. This is part of Boccaccio's fictional account of his love misadventures.

About this time he was forced to return to Florence because the financial institution of the Bardi went bankrupt, and the source of his income vanished. This was a sour turn of events for Boccaccio. His happy life ended. And so his works changed style, reflecting these changes. His happiness was over, and he would always feel nostalgia for the happy time spent in Naples.

The financially difficult years between 1342 and 1348 were crucial for his literary career. However, his economical difficulties did not destroy his interests for creative writing. In Florence, he comes in contact with the Florentine intellectual circles, and his artistic writings become more "realistic," meaning that he turned his attention to everyday life. In the meantime he travels throughout North Italy.

During these travels Boccaccio observes Nature, which is portrayed in his Ninfale fiesolano, the last verso work before the The Decameron.

In 1348 he is in Florence, where he witnesses the black death, a bubonic plague that hit Europe and killed more than half of the population, especially in cities. The effect of the black death is described in the Introduction to the Decameron. After these events he remains in Florence to administer what's left of the family business.

Between 1348 and 1351 Boccaccio writes the Decameron.

Then Boccaccio undergoes a religious crisis, which will affect his writings from then on. In fact, he turns to the official culture, obviously influenced by Petrarch, whom he met as he was traveling. When he was in Romagna, he also met Dante's daughter, who was in the monastery of Santo Stefano, in Ravenna.

At this time he became a diplomat, traveling all over. Among his assignments, he was the one who represented Florence, when in 1365, the Pope returned to Rome from Avignon.

Throughout these years he feels disappointed by the way he lives, especially because he has little money. He retires in the town of Certaldo to get away from Florence. Here many humanist scholars visit him, as he is already a legend. And during these years, following Petrarch's lead, he writes many scholarly books.

In the meantime, he becomes a deacon, with the purpose to straighten up the souls of the sinners. This is Christian Humanism.

Most of the works written during these years were in Latin, however, he wrote Corbaccio in Italian. This is a book to chastise women (in the early 50's). In this book he criticizes the nature and behavior of women, a definite shift from the free-spirited Decameron.

Later in life he wrote also, in Italian, two books on Dante: a Life of Dante and a series of lessons on the Inferno. He was giving these lectures in a Florentine church.

But, as mentioned, the majority of the writing done between 1350 and his death in 1374 was in Latin: the most important is Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, a dictionary of mythology. He began this book in 1350, and kept working on it until he died. In this book (chpt.15 and 16, Boccaccio defends his theories of poetry -- a similar defense is present in the introduction to the fourth day of the Decameron).

He also wrote:

Bucolicum Carmen (1351-66): allegorical poems based on contemporary events. Here Boccaccio follows the same pattern begun by Dante and employed by Petrarch.

De Claribus Mulieribus (1360-74): a collection of lives of the most famous women from ancient times to Middle Ages (parallel to Petrarch's book on the most illustrious men).

De Montibus, silvis, fontibus (1355-74): on the geographic culture of the time.

De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (1355-74): to show the vanity of earthly wealth.


The Decameron

Dedication: Boccaccio writes this book for women. This is one of the revolutionary element of the book. Why women? Because, says Boccaccio, they are being wrongfully neglected. They have no saying in shaping their destinies, they have no outlet to express their feelings, they are left in their castles by their fathers, brothers, husbands with nothing to do. [Obviously Boccaccio is talking about the women of the nobility]

The background for this book is the black death of 1348, which killed a large number of people in Florence. Within this environment Boccaccio creates the structure of the book.

The premise: The black death is terrorizing the city of Florence, and is causing a complete breakdown of all moral values. Surrounded by this horrible death, people loose respect for each other. Boccaccio is, for all purposes, describing what is happening as hell on earth. (He brought to earth what Dante had placed in the Inferno)

Within this dissolution, one Spring morning seven young ladies meet in a church where they went to pray. Soon they put their prayers aside and turn to a more pragmatic topic: how to survive the rampant death. After considering various possibilities, they decide that it is their duty to preserve their lives by getting out of the city, and isolate themselves in the countryside, away from death. However, in their opinion, they will be successful only if they are joined by some men. (At this time women felt that a man's guidance was necessary).

In the meantime, three young men, friends and relatives to the ladies, enter the church, and are asked to go along. They agree, and the next morning they leave the city with a few of their servants who have survived death. They go to a beautiful country villa, and there they will wait for the pestilence to be over.

But in order for the group to function well, they decide that they need a ruler (king or queen). So, in a democratic fashion, the decide that each one of them will be king or queen for a day, and everyone will obey and follow his/her rules. They also decide to spent the time entertaining themselves, eating well, singing, dancing, and telling stories: one story each for each day.

These stories represent the content of the book. Therefore, we have ten stories for each day. These stories portray all aspects of society, form the most noble behavior to most vulgar and depraved. This is the world of the Decameron. Here we find merchants alongside with kings, clerics, and the common people.

It is a complete representation of human behavior. It is the "human comedy," where the real life becomes the centerpiece (Dante, instead, saw life from a distance). In fact the Decameron completes Dante's vision of life. This is humanity as it is actually behaving in everyday circumstances.

From this point of view, the Decameron does not belong, as it has been suggested, to the new culture centered on Petrarch. Rather it is more properly medieval, as it is encyclopedic in nature (like Dante's Commedia).

However, this work is what we consider today as politically incorrect. It disregards all rules of literature and accepted etiquette. As already mentioned, it is dedicated to women, written with the specific purpose to entertain them, as they are bored during long days with nothing to do. This is a very modern concept: the artist addresses and meets the needs of a specific audience.

In fact, the purpose of the book was so out of place that Boccaccio had practically all the intellectual establishment against him (see his defense in the Introduction to day 4). Even he himself, later in his life, denounced his own masterpiece. In fact, the scholars who immediately followed him admired his scholarly works, not the Decameron. It will take 150 years for the book to be recognized for its artistic, intellectual, and linguistic values.

On the other hand, this book was well received by an audience that was outside the official intelligentsia. It found a crowd of imitators already in its own time in writers who realized that there was an audience for narrative. In fact, the Decameron ended up as being one of the most imitated books in history. No one escaped Boccaccio's influence: he set the rules for story-telling. His presence is felt in the entire Europe, in English literature his influence is felt by many, to name just two, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

With the Decameron, Boccaccio takes the short story and makes it come to life. His characters are, in fact, psychologically alive; he gives the plot and the characters an evolutionary development. In short, he took a minor art form -- telling short anecdotal stories, and created an artistic form.

The Decameron, contrary to other collections of stories of the time, is not a series of unrelated plots. Here, each story becomes a part of the whole. These stories are complete in themselves, and yet they add to the completeness of the book. The stories are in fact grouped by themes and by authorship (the story-tellers). Each day covers a specific theme.

The external structure (the ten young people escaping death to preserve life) is itself a story which contains all other stories; some individual stories have their own stories within, etc. Each story is characterized by the person who tells it. For examples, Dioneo (one of the ten) reserves his position to be the last one to tell his story so that he can be free to close the day with his peculiar tales that do not necessary follow to the themes of the day. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales uses the same concept of a large story as the framework which includes all other stories. The frame-story will be a description of a pilgrimage to Canterbury during which the characters tell their stories.

And at the center of this world we find humanity, in all its variety. People are seen as victim of jokes, victims to human cruelty, or survivor to misfortunes, etc. But what stands out in all this is the triumph of intelligence (mostly in day 6).

Follow this link for the structure of the Decameron, day by day.