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Giovanni Boccaccio has been called the father of Italian prose. He was a great admirer of Dante and a contemporary of Francesco Petrarca, whom he knew personally and who had a direct influence on his development as a humanist scholar. Boccaccio's most famous work, the Decameron, was condemned by the Catholic Church and included in the index of Prohibited Books (Index librorum prohibitorum) in 1559 on the grounds of its "intolerable errors." In the USA the work was banned until the 1930s.
"There may also be those among you who will say that I have an evil and venomous tongue, because in certain places I write the truth about the friars. But who cares? I can readily forgive you for saying such things, for doubtless you are prompted by the purest of motives, friars being decent fellows, who forsake a life of discomfort for the love of God, who do their grinding when the millpond's full, and say no more about it. Except for the fact that they all smell a little of the billy-goat, their company would offer the greatest of pleasure." (in the Decameron, translated by G.H. McWilliam, 1972)
Boccaccio was born in Florence or Certaldo, June or July 1313.
was the illegitimate son of Boccaccino di Chelino, a merchant and an
agent of the Bardi bank, and an unknown French woman. After being
educated in Florence by the grammarian Giovanni di Domenico Mazzuoli da
Strada, he was
sent to be an apprentice in his father's bank in Naples, where he was
trained as a money changer. Boccaccio then
studied canon law at the University of Naples until 1336, staying on
and working in banking
until 1341, but meanwhile deciding to be a writer. During this period
he made the acquaintance with
the royal librarian, Paolo da Perugia, the Florentine mathematician
Paolo dell'Abbaco, the astrologer Andalò del Negro, and other
intellectuals. In an often cited passage of Genealogia deorum gentilium,
Boccaccio asserted that his father's fruitless attemps to shake
him out of his attachment to literature had the disastrous result that
he "turned out neither a business man, nor a canon-lawyer, and missed
being a good poet besides" (Boccaccio on Poetry, translated by
Charles G. Osgood, 1954).
While in Naples he
had or imagined a love affair with a noblewoman, the "Fiammetta"
(Little Flame) of his 1343 novel. She
has been identified with Maria d'Aquino, illegitimate daughter of King
Robert, whose court Boccaccio frequented between 1328 and 13440. Many
critics have questioned the probability of their love affair, but like
Dante's Beatrice or Petrarch's Laura, she served as his Muse. Boccaccio
never married but he fathered at least five natural children. In the Decameron, she is one of the
characters who tell stories. Much of Boccaccio's early work there was
in the form of
romances in prose and verse. Il
filostrato (The Filostrato), of about 1335, is the story of
Troilus and Cressada in terza rima.
Later he moved away from the allegorical and figurative style of his
early romances, pastorals and poems.
Due to financial setbacks, Boccaccio returned with his father
to Florence in winter of 1340-1341,
occupied some minor official posts and was there during the Black
Death, 1348. He wrote in novel form the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta
(Amorous Fiammetta) and in ottawa
rima the love story Il
ninfale fiesolano (The Nymph of Fiesole). It was followed by the
famous collection of tales, the Decameron,
of 1348-51. Christine de Pizan (ca.1365 - ca.1429) based her most famous feminist work, Le Livre de la cité des dames (1405, The Book of the City of Ladies), on Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris
(1361-62), a collection of biographies of famous women. Boccaccio
also dedicated it to a woman, but written in Latin, the text was
principally aimed at male rather than female audience.
After meetings with Petrarch ‒ first time in October 1350 ‒
Boccaccio devoted himself to
humanist scholarship. And following the example of his colleague, he
decided to take holy
orders. As a diplomat he served the Signoria, the governing body of
On behalf of his city, Boccaccio tried to persuade Petrarch to return
to Florence and take up professorship at the new university. Petrarch,
a good psychological eye, said of Boccaccio's character: "I fear
that this fine humility of yours is pride." A master storyteller and a
celebrity of his day, he welcomed everywhere he went.
According to some sources, Boccaccio met a Cathusian monk, who told him to repent his sins; his warning prompted Boccaccio to destroy his earlier, "profane" works. He produced mainly works of erudition in Latin and Italian, but his critics ‒ wrongly ‒ casted him as a diletanttish scholar, without recognizing the merits of his Latin works and vernacular fiction. Boccaccio himself wrote in the Decameron, that "I stray not so far from Mount Parnassus nor from the Muses as many belike conceive." From 1354 he was active in Florentine public life and in the 1350s and 1360s went to Rome, Ravenna, Avignon and Brandenburg on diplomatic missions. It is possible that Boccaccio also traveled on secret missions, like Chaucer, his English contemporary, who conducted secret negotiations for Edward III in Florence in 1373. There is no evidence that Chaucer had read the Decameron, but it has been suggested that his Canterbury Tales was influenced by the work.
Boccaccio gave public
lectures in Florence on Dante, 1373-74, but he only got as far as the
seventh canto of the Inferno,
before he died on December 21, 1375, in Certaldo, where he had
retired. He was famously fat and he suffered from health problems
associated with obesity, scabies, and dropsy. A good part of the money
he earned went to paying his doctor's bill. During his final months,
Boccaccio received the news of Petrarch's death. In his testament, the
poet wrote that his friend Boccaccio will receive fifty Florentine gold
florins "for a winter garment to be worn by him while he is studying
and working during the night hours."
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) said in one of his essays on literature, that "[a]mongst books that are simply pleasant, of the moderns, Boccaccio's Decameron, Rabelais, and the Basia of Johannes Secundus . . . are worth reading for amusement." The earliest known translation into English of the complete text of the Decameron is an anonymous work of 1620, but the first uncencored translation did not appear until 1886. The anonymous translation is sometimes attributed to John Florio. He apparently worked from both the Salviati (1582) edition of the Decameron and Antoine Macon's (1582) French version.
The world of the Decameron
contains a subtle numerological structure, beginning from the numbers
and one hundred, which are given at the opening: "Here begins the
book called Decameron
. . . wherein are contained a hundred stories,
told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men." Moreover, the
title of the book is a combination of two Greek words meaning "ten" and
"day". Boccaccio's tales are unified by a frame narrative about the
1348 plague in Florence and the group of young men and women, who
the Dominican sanctuary of Santa Maria Novella. They decide to take a
refuge from the Black Death outside the city. Led by the oldest woman
of the group, they settle in a villa, where they pass
the time by telling tales to each other. The subjects, which range from
love and lust to celibacy, from religion to lascivious monks and
lustful nuns, are scrutinized from many different perspectives. It has
been said that the Decameron
served as Charles Bukowski's thematic and structural model for his
novel Women (1978) (in More Notes of a Dirty
Old Man: The Uncollected Columns, ed. by Stephen Calonne, 2011,
p. 229). The book was divided into 99 chapters, its working
title had been "Love Tale of the Hyena." According to Bukowski,
Boccaccio knew that sex was funny.
The time of plague, the breakdown of normal life, all law and order, and all morality, provided Boccaccio a defendable excuse to attack all kinds of taboos. Especially in the tales of the Third and the Seventh Days, all constraints and inhibitions are thrown aside. Boccaccio's laughter continued the tradition of carnivalization, which turned social and moral hierarchies upside down. Mostly the Church authorities looked popular comic practices through their fingers. After Petrarch considered that the tales were written for common people, the Decameron was generally ignored by intellectuals and the upper classes, but it was popular in the circles of merchants and financiers. Very probably the book was among the pile of "vanities" burned by Girolamo Savonarola in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, in 1497.
Pasolini's Il Decameron
is the most famous recreation of Boccaccio's medieval world for the big
screen. It was not the first film adaptation of Boccaccio's stories.
The American director Fred Wilcox made in 1924 a silent-film epic, Decameron Nights, starring Lionel
Barrymore. Hugo Fregonese's Decameron
Nights from 1953 combined elements from the novellas and the
author's life. In this film Boccaccio tells three love stories to
Fiammetta and other women. Joan Collins appeared as Pampinea.
Pasolini's selection of stories were arranged in a chronology that
differed from that of the book. A number of the actors were nonprofessional; their
bad teet added to the realism of the film. Pasolini's sympathies were
on the side of his mischievous, double-dealing but clever characters
who defy bourgeois morality. Il Decameron
was first passed by Italy's censorship committee with some cuts, but
then it was denounced as an "offence to public morality". Against the
director's expectations, the film was a commercial success and created
a boom of soft-porn versions of Decameron in Italy. Among the recent films based on the book is Jeff Baena's The Little Hours
(2017), shot in Tuscany. The unapologetically raunchy dialogue was
almost entirely improvised. "When people are committed to things and
the world view they have is no longer in alignment with our world view,
then it becomes funny," Baena said in an interview. (The New Yorker, July 3, 2017)
For further reading: Boccaccio and His Imitators in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian Literature by Florence Nightingale Jones (1910); The First English Translation of the Decameron, 1620 by Herbert G. Wright (1953); An Anatomy of Boccaccio's Style by Marga Cottino-Jones (1968); Critical Perspectives on the Decameron, ed. by Robert S. Dombrowski (1976); The Decameron: A New Translation: 21 Novelle, Contemporary Reactions, Modern Criticism, translated and edited by Mark Musa and Peter E. Bondanella (1977); The Decameron "Cornice": Allusion, Allegory and Iconology by Lucia Marino (1979); Boccaccio by Thomas G. Bergin (1981); 'Giovanni Boccaccio 1313-1375: Italian Story Writer, Poet and Scholar' by Nancy M. Reale, in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English: Volume 1: A-L, edited by Olive Classe (2000); 'Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1374)' by Victoria E. Kirkham, in Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies 1: A-J, edited by Gaetana Marrone (2007); Boccaccio's Naked Muse: Eros, Culture, and the Mythopoeic Imagination by Tobias Foster Gittes (2008); The English Boccaccio: A History in Books by Guyda Armstrong (2013); Five Frames for the Decameron by Joy Hambuechen Potter (2014)