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by Bamber Gascoigne

Boccaccio (1313-1375)


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. He 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 Florence. On behalf of his city, Boccaccio tried to persuade Petrarch to return to Florence and take up professorship at the new university. Petrarch, who had 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 of ten 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 gather in 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)     


  • Elegia di Costanza, ca. 1332
  • Epistole mitologica, 1332-1334
  • Caccia di Diana, 1334-35
    - Diana's Hunt/Caccia di Diana: Boccaccio's First Fiction (translated by Anthony K. Cassell and Victoria Kirkham, 1991)
  • Filocolo, 1336-40
    - Giovanni Boccaccio's Il Filocolo, or The Labours of Love (translated by Rocco Carmelo Blasi, 1974) / Il Filocolo (translated by Donald Cheney and Thomas G. Bergin, 1985)
  • Filostrato, 1338
    - Chaucer's Troylus and Cryseyde . . . Compared with Boccaccio's Filostrato (translated by Wm. Michael Rossetti, 1875-1883) / Il Filostrato: The Story of the Love of Troilo as It Was Sung in Italian by Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by Hubertis Cummings, 1924) / The Filostrato of Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by Nathaniel Edward Griffin and Arthur Beckwith Myrick, 1929) / Il Folostrato (translated by Robert P. Roberts and Anna Seldis Bruni, 1986) / Troilus and  Criseyde (edited by Stephen A. Barney, 2006)
  • Epistole allegoriche, 1339
  • Epistole, 1339-1374
  • Teseida, c.1340-41
    - The Book of Theseus: Teseida delle nozze d'Emilia (translated by Bernadette Marie McCoy, 1974)
  • La Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine (Ninfale d'Ameto), 1341/43
  • - The Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine, or Ameto, of Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by Bernadette Marie McCoy, 1978) / L'Ameto (translated by Judith Powers Serafini-Sauli, 1985)
  • Amorosa visione, 1342 (revised c. 1365)
    - Amoroso Visione (translated by Robert Hollander, Timothy Hampton and Marhherita Frankel, 1986)
  • Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, 1343
    - Amorous Fiammetta (translated by Bartholomew Young, 1587) / La Fiametta (translated by James Clark Brogan, 1907; rev. version by Edward Hutton, 1926) / The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta (translated by Mariangela Causa-Steindler and Thomas Mauch, 1990)
    - Fiammetta (suom. A.R. Koskimies, 1952)
  • Ninfale fiesolano, 1344
    - A Famous Tragicall Discourse of Two Louers, Affrican, and Mensola, Their Lives Infortunate Loues, and Lamentable Deaths (London: William Blackman, 1597) / Two Tracts: Affrican and Mensola. an Elizabethean Prose Version of Il ninfale fiesolano by Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by John Taylor, ed. by C.H. Wilkinson, 1946) / The Nymph of Fiesole (translated by Daniel Donno, 1960) 
  • De vita et moribus Domini Francisci Petracchi de Florentia secundum Iohannem Bochacii de Certaldo, ca. 1348-1350
  • Decamerone, 1348-53 (rev. 1373)
    - The Palace of Pleasure, Beautiful, Adorned and Well Furnished... (by William Painter, 1566-67, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, in The Palace of Pleasures: Elizabethan Versions of Italian and French Novels, 3 vols., 1966) / The Decameron, Containing An Hundred Pleasant Novels (London: Isaac Jaggard, 1620) / The Decameron of Giovanni Boccacci (Il Boccaccio), Now First Completely Done Into English Prose and Verse by John Payne (3 vols., 1886) / Tales from Boccaccio (translated by Joseph Jacobs, 1899) / The Decameron (translated by J.M. Rigg, 2 vols, 1903) / The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by Richard Aldington, 1930) / The Decameron (translated by Frances Winwar [pseudonym], 1930) / The Decameron (translated by George Henry McWilliam, 1972) / The Decameron: A New Translation: 21 Novelle, Contemporary Reactions, Modern Criticism (translated and edited by Mark Musa and Peter E.Bondanella, 1977) / Decameron (3 vols., revised and annotated version of the John Payne translation, by Charles S. Singleton, 3 vols., 1982) / The Decameron (translated by Guido Waldman, 1993) / Decameron (translated by J.G. Nichols, 2008) / The Decameron (translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013)
    - Boccaccion Decameron 1-3 (suom. 1908-1910) / Novelleja Giovanni Boccaccion Decameronesta (suom. Joel Lehtonen, 1914) / Rakkaustarinoita Decameronista (suom. 1926) / Prinsso Galeotto eli jutelmia Decameronista (suom. 1932) / Decamerone. 1 osa (suom. F.E. Wickström, 1936) / Decamerone. Neljäs päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone (suom. Ilmari Lahti ja Vilho Hokkanen, 1947) / Decamerone. Ensimmäinen päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone. Toinen päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone. Kolmas päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone. Seitsemäs päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone. Kuudes päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) /  Decamerone. Viides päivä ja siihen kuuluvat 10 kertomusta (suom. Anja Elenius-Pantzopoulos, 1947) / Decamerone: valikoima kertomuksia (3. p.; suom. Ilmari Lahti ja Vilho Hokkanen, 1955) / Novelleja Decameronesta (suom. Joel Lehtonen; piirrokset Aimo Virtasalo, 1972) / Decamerone 1-2 (suom. Ilmari Lahti ja Vilho Hokkanen, 1973) / Decamerone (suom. Ilmari Lahti, Vilho Hokkanen, kuv. Arnee Ungermann, 1983) / Decamerone (16. p.; suom. Ilmari Lahti ja Vilho Hokkanen, 2000) 
  • De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de diversis nominibus maris, 1350-1365
  • De genealogie deorum gentilium, 1350-60
    - Boccaccio on Poetry Being the Preface and Fourteenth and Fifteenth Books of Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (translated by Charles G. Osgood, 1930) / Genealogy of the Pagan  Gods. Vol. 1: Books I-V (translated by Jon Solomon, 2011)
  • Bucolicon Carmen, 1351-56
    - Boccaccio's Olympia (translated by I. Gollancz, 1913) / Pearl: An English Poem of the XIV Century. Edited with Modern Rendering, Together with Boccaccio's Olympia (translated by Sir Israel Gollancz, 1921) 
  • Il De origine, vita, studiis et moribus viri clarissimi Dantis Aligerii florentini, più noto come Trattatello in laude di Dante . . . (Trattatello in laude di Dante; Vita di Dante), ca. 1351; ca. 1359-66;  third redaction before 1372
    - A Provisional Translation of the Early Lives of Dante and of His Poetical Correspondence with Giovanni del Virgilio (translated by Philip H. Wicksteed, 1898) / A Translation of Giovanni Boccaccio's Life of Dante, with an Introduction and a Note on the Portraits of Dante (translated by G.R. Carpenter, 1900) / The Earliest Lives of Dante (tranlated by James Robinson Smith, 1901) The Life of Dante Trattatelo in laude di Dante (translated by Vincenzo Zin Bollettino, 1990)
  • Corbaccio, or Laberinto d'amore, ca. 1355
    - The Corbaccio (translated by Anthony K. Cassell, 1975; rev. as The Corbaccio, or The Labyrinth of Love, 1993) / Boccaccio's Revenge: A Literary Transposition of the Corbaccio (translated by Normand R. Carrtier, 1977) 
  • Argomenti e rubriche dantesche Argumentum super tota prima parte Comedie Dantis Aligherii florentini . . ., 1355 (as Brieve raccoglimento di cio che in se superficialmente contiene la lettera della prima parte della Cantica overo Comedia di Dante Alighieri di Firenze, ca. 1363-66)
  • De casibus virorum illustrium, 1355-1360 (8 vols.)
    - The Fall of princes (translated by John Lydgate, 1494) / The Tragedies, Gathered by John Bochas, of All such Princes as Fell from Theyr Estates throughe the Mutability of Fortune since the Creation of Adam (translated by John Lidgate, 1554?) / Lydgate's Fall of Princes (ed. by Henry Bergen, 4 vols., 1924-27) / The Fates of Illustrious Men (translated and abridged by Louis Brewer Hall, 1965)
  • Epistola consolatoria a Pino de Rossi, 1361-62
  • De claris mulieribus / De mulieribus claris, 1361-62
    - De Preclaris Mulieribus, That Is to Say in Englyshe, Of the Ryght Renoumyde Ladyes (translated by Henry Parker, 1789) / Forty-six Lives Translated from Boccaccio's De Claris  Mulieribus (by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, edited by Herbert G. Wright, 1943) / Concerning Famous  Women (translated by Guido Guarino, 1963) / Famous Women (edited and translated by Virginia Brown, 2001)
  • Vita sanctissimi patris Petri Damiani, 1361-62
  • Testamento, 21 August 1365
  • Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante / Commento alla Divina Commedia, 1373-74
  • Il Decameron di messer Giovanni Boccacci cittadin fiorentino . . ., 1582 (edited by Lionardo Salviati)
  • Opere volgari, 1827-34 (17 vols., ed. J. Moutier)
  • Le lettere edite a inedite di Messer Giovanni Boccaccio, 1877 (edited by Francesco Corazzini)
  • Lettere, carni ed altri scritti minori, 1789 (edited by Attilio Hortis)
  • Opere latine minori, 1928 (ed. A.F. Massera) 
  • Opere minori. La Fiammetta, L'Ameto, Il corbaccio, Lettera consolatoria a m. Pino de' Rossi, 1932
  • L'ameto. Lettere. Il corbaccio, 1940 (ed. Nicola Bruscoli) 
  • Teseida, delle nozze d'Emilia, 1941 (ed. Aurelio Roncaglia)
  • Novelle burlesche del Decamerone, 1943 (ed. Salvatore Battaglia) 
  • L'elegia di madonna Fiammette, 1944 (ed. Salvatore Battaglia) 
  • Boccaccio on Poetry, 1954 (translated by Charles G. Osgood)
  • Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, 1964-1998 (ed. Vittore Branca, Antonio Enzo Quaglio, Alberto Limentani, Armando Balduino)
  • Opere in versi; Corbaccio; Trattatello in laude di Dante; Prose latine; Epistole, 1965 (ed. Per Giorgio Ricci) 
  • Opere, 1967 (ed.. Bruno Maier)
  • Decameròn e opere minori. Antologia, 1969 (ed. Aldo Borlenghi)
  • Opere minori in volgare, 1969-72 (4 vols., ed. Mario Marti) 
  • Decamerone, Boccaccio IV, 1976 (in Classici Mondadori, edited by Vittore Branca)
  • Opere, 1980 (ed. Cesare Segre, Maria Segre Consigli, Antonia Benvenuti) 
  • Eclogues, 1987 (edited and translated by Janet Levarie Smarr)
  • Vite di Petrarca, Pier Damiani e Livio, 1992 (edited by Renata Fabbri, in Tutte le opera, vol. 5)
  • Le rime, 2010 (ed. Antonio Lanza) 
  • The Latin Eclogues, 2010 (translated by David R. Slavitt)
  • Rime, 2013 (ed. Roberto Leporatti)

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