The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
The Decameron Giovanni Boccaccio
Italian compendium of tales, composed between 1348 and 1353.
The following entry contains criticism on Boccaccio's Decameron. For additional information on Boccaccio's life and works, see CMLC, Vol. 13.
Regarded as one of the masterpieces of Western literature, the Decameron is a compendium of one hundred tales. The stories are told by several narrators who have fled the plague-ridden city of Florence; in the country home of their host, the escapees pass the time by telling tales to each other. In this work Boccaccio departs from the transcendental idealism of the poetry of Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, bringing to literature the same realism that fourteenth century Italian artists brought to painting. Written in vernacular Italian prose, the Decameron conveys the earthiness, ambiguity, paradox, and subtlety that characterize human experience. Also of significance is the fact that the tales, rather than presenting a set view of morality, as was usual in the Middle Ages, encourage conflicting interpretations, signaling the historical change from a unified, God-centered world view to a diverse, human-centered one encompassing varying and sometimes conflicting perspectives.
Composed between 1348 and 1353, the Decameron first appeared in manuscript form in 1370. Its first printed edition is believed to be the Neapolitan Deo Gratias edition, now dated at 1470. In his catalogue of Boccaccio's work, Italian librarian Alfredo Bacchi della Lega records 192 fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions. Some of these are noted for the artistry of their design, and two, texts prepared by Ruscelli (1552) and Salviati (1587), are notorious for their emendations. In 1812 the only complete surviving copy of the 1471 Venetian edition of the Decameron printed by Christopher Valdarfer fetched a record auction price when it was bought by the Duke of Roxburge. The first English translation of the Decameron is by John Florio and was published in 1620. During the twentieth century there have been a number of popular and scholarly English translations.
Plot and Major Characters
Based on humorous French tales popular throughout the Middle Ages, the Decameron centers on seven women and three men who, hoping to escape the Black Plague of 1348, retreat to the hills of Fiesole above Florence, where for ten days they candidly tell each other stories dealing with such topics as love, intelligence, and human will before returning to the city. Although the one hundred novellas comprise numerous themes and characters, critics have observed that Boccaccio's use of framing structures and narrative devices—like his proem, or preface, his introductions to the first and fourth days, and his epilogue—lend a sense of thematic and stylistic unity to a work which otherwise might have appeared disordered or fragmented.
The fundamental theme of the Decameron is the struggle between life and death and the multiple ways in which life can assert itself, regardless of conventional moral attitudes and beliefs. The brigade of young people abandon the hell of the plague-infested city, where death is the rule and suffering and strife its consequences, for the Eden of the countryside where they form a sweet and harmonious society. The themes assigned for each day's series of stories reflect both the joyful and grim aspects of the human struggle to attain pleasure and preserve life itself.
When it first appeared in manuscript form in 1370, the Decameron attained enormous popularity among the literary middle class; however, writers and scholars were indifferent to the work, and it was rarely included in aristocratic and scholarly libraries. The Decameron did not receive serious critical attention until 1871, when prominent literary scholar Francesco De Sanctis, in his Storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian Literature) described it as the “Human Comedy,” thus suggesting that it is worthy of comparison to Dante's Divine Comedy. Since De Sanctis's study, criticism on the Decameron has been volumnious, with much of it centering on Boccaccio''s use of allegory and irony, his attitude toward women, and the significance of various metaphors, symbols, and allusions in the individual novellas. In contrast to the intellectual elite who once shunned the book, modern scholars have now recognized the Decameron as a multifarious composition that addresses the most complex, fundamental, and eternal questions facing humankind.
La caccia di Diana [Diana's Hunt] (poetry) 1334
Il filostrato [The Filostrato] (poetry) 1335
Il filocolo (prose) 1336-38
Teseida [Book of Theseus] (poetry 1339-41
L'amorosa visione [Amorous Vision] (poetry) 1342
Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta [Amorous Fiammetta] (poetry) 1343-44
Decameron (novellas) 1348-53
De Genealogia deorum gentilium [Genealogy of the Gentile Gods] (treatise) 1350-74
Il Corbaccio (satire) 1354-55
Vita de Dante Alighieri [Life of Dante] (essays) 1354-55
De casibus virorum illustrium [On the Fates of Illustrious Men] (history) 1355-74
De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominibus maris (nonfiction) 1355-74
De claris mulieribus [Concerning Famous Women] (biography) 1360-74
Amorous Fiammetta (translated by Bartholemew Young) 1587; revised by Edward Hutton, 1926
The Decameron (translated by John Florio) 1620
The Filostrato (translated by N. E. Griffin and A. B. Myrick) 1929
Boccaccio on Poetry, Being the Preface and Fourteenth and...
(The entire section is 233 words.)
SOURCE: De Sanctis, Francesco. “Boccaccio's Human Comedy.” In Critical Perspectives on the “Decameron,” translated by Joan Redfern, edited by Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 26-37. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.
[In the following excerpt from an essay written in 1871, De Sanctis celebrates Boccaccio's earthy comedy, contrasting it with the high seriousness of the works of Dante and Petrarch.]
Boccaccio is not a superior soul, a writer who looks at society from a lofty height, sees the good and bad in it, exposes it impartially, and is perfectly conscious of it all; he is an artist who feels himself one with the society in which he lives, and he writes with that sort of semi-consciousness of men who are swayed by the shifting impressions of life without stopping to analyse them. And this is really the quality that divides him substantially from the ecstatic Dante and the ecstatic Petrarch. Boccaccio is all on the surface of life, among the pleasures and idlenesses and vicissitudes of everyday existence, and these are enough for him, he is busy and satisfied. He is not the type to turn his soul into himself and think deeply with knotted brow and pensive gaze; it was not for nothing that they called him ‘Giovanni the Tranquil’. Intimacy, raptness, ecstasy, the unquiet deeps of thought, the living in one's own spirit with phantasms and mysteries, disappear from Italian literature when Boccaccio...
(The entire section is 5172 words.)
SOURCE: Moravia, Alberto. “Boccaccio.” In Man as an End: A Defense of Humanism: Literary, Social, and Political Essays, translated by Bernard Wall, pp. 143-55. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1965.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1955, Moravia argues that the defining quality of Boccaccio's literary sensibility is a love of adventure rather a than concern for morality or for depicting character psychology.]
It has been remarked before now that while true men of action are usually embittered if reduced to impotence, inertia and incapacity, placid and dreamy men find that these things enrich and enhance the very real pleasure they derive from their imagination. It is surely not an accident that writers of adventure stories are mostly sedentary people.
Moreover these imaginative yet lazy men, these insatiable yet stationary pursuers of action, are by nature and necessity very far removed from any form of moral reflection. It is peculiar to the moralist that he cuts down the number of possible alternatives and acts resolutely and consistently within them. The moralist defends himself from the imagination as from the most dangerous of mirages, above all when the imagination plays on action that is entirely governed by the caprices of chance, action for action's sake. In fact action for action's sake, whether dreamed up or practised, requires a...
(The entire section is 8106 words.)
SOURCE: Shklovskij, Victor. “Some Reflections on the Decameron.” In Critical Perspectives on the “Decameron,” translated by Ronald Walter and Robert S. Dombroski, edited by Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 61-68. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1959, Shklovskij argues that, with the opening tales of the Decameron, Boccaccio subverts traditional Christian piety and its accompanying sexual morality.]
The very first tale of the Decameron leads us into a world full of conflict, irony, and contradictions. The novella's content is anticipated in its title: ‘Ser Cepperello deceives a holy friar with a false confession, then he dies; and although in life he was a most wicked man, in death he is reputed to be a saint, and is called Saint Ciappelletto.’
Boccaccio presents the time and the story's entire band of circumstances with the utmost precision. He tells us that a certain Musciatto Franzesi, compelled to journey into Tuscany with Carlo Senzaterra, brother to the King of France, and discovering that his affairs are in disarray, dispatched a man called Cepperello da Prato to collect the repayment of money he had lent to some Burgundians. Ser Franzesi was a wealthy merchant. The information given about him confers a business-like tone to the prose.
Ciappelletto is small in stature, dresses nicely,...
(The entire section is 3140 words.)
SOURCE: Scaglione, Aldo D. “The Decameron.” In Nature and Love in the Late Middle Ages, pp. 53-75. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.
[In the following excerpt, Scaglione explores Boccaccio's attitude towards spiritual and sexual love as they are expressed in the Decameron.]
The first question about a book concerns its form, and the Decameron is, in form, an unusually systematic collection of novellas. A good deal of realistic literature had developed in the Middle Ages within the framework of the short story, from the Latin forms (variously called exemplum, parabula, fabula, historia, legenda), to the French contes and fabliaux (fablel, fableau) and the Italian novella (conto). Of the literature that lies at the formal origin of the Decameron one must distinguish two types: firstly, the parable or tale with a moral (conte à queue, as the French used to call it), closest to the ecclesiastical milieu, frequently used by priests in sermons; such paradigmatic stories could occasionally be gathered into allegedly edifying collections, with a general ethical or satirical purpose, such as the Disciplina clericalis and the Novel of the Seven Sages in the various languages. Secondly, the fabliau or conte à rire, pure divertissement without serious afterthought. A number of items of the first type derived...
(The entire section is 13115 words.)
SOURCE: Bergin, Thomas G. “An Introduction to Boccaccio.” In Giovanni Boccaccio:“The Decameron,” A New Translation, 21 Novelle, Contemporary Reactions, Modern Criticism, translated and edited by Mark Musa and Peter E. Bondanella, pp. 151-71. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1975, Bergin reviews Boccaccio's career and reflects on the historical and environmental foundations of the Decameron, characterizing it as a work that conveys the solace that can be provided by art in the face of intolerable reality.]
Italian literature is built firmly and enduringly on the great triangular base of Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio. These are figures of such authority and magnetism as not only to have affected the course of Italian letters but to have left as well visible traces of their inspiration and example on the thought and creative fancy of the Western world. Thinking of any one of them, it may sharpen our appreciation of his special talents if we at the same time bear in mind the gifts of the other two. All of the three are of Tuscan stock, all nourished in the same cultural climate; indeed for a few brief years all were sharing this world of the living. Dante, the oldest, died in 1321; Boccaccio, the youngest, was eight years old at the time. There are personal links between the members of the great triumvirate: Petrarca met...
(The entire section is 10068 words.)
SOURCE: Almansi, Guido. “Passion and Metaphor.” In The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the “Decameron,” pp. 133-57. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Almansi presents a psychological interpretation of Boccacio's first novella of the fourth day in the Decameron, theorizing that Tancredi's murder of his daughter's lover is rooted in his own incestuous feelings for her.]
Here is an outline of the plot of the first novella of the Fourth Day. Tancredi, Prince of Salerno, has a deep affection for his daughter, Ghismonda. So at first he is slow to arrange a marriage for her. Later, when she returns to her father's palace as a widow at a still youthful age, he unwisely postpones any arrangements for her to re-marry. Ghismonda feels that she is left with no alternative but to take herself a lover, and after carefully reviewing all the young men who attend the palace, she fixes her choice on Guiscardo, who is a brave and noble-spirited young man, but of low social rank. The princess invites Guiscardo to come to her bedchamber by passing along a secret passage which leads to an open cavern in the mountainside. Thus the young pair become lovers, but their relationship is found out by Tancredi, who has Guiscardo killed, and his heart cut out of his body. The Prince then sends the heart as a present to his daughter. Ghismonda reacts with considerable...
(The entire section is 9893 words.)
SOURCE: Auerbach, Erich. “Frate Alberto.” In Critical Perspectives on the “Decameron,” translated by Willard Trask and Robert S. Dombroski, edited by Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 69-81. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.
[In the following essay, Auerbach offers a close textual analysis of how Boccaccio's style and syntax influence the tone and momentum of his narrative.]
In a famous novella of the Decameron (IV, 2), Boccaccio tells of a man from Imola whose vice and dishonesty had made him a social outcast in his native town, so that he preferred to leave it. He went to Venice, there became a Franciscan monk and even a priest, called himself Frate Alberto, and managed to attract so much attention by striking penances and pious acts and sermons that he was generally regarded as a godly and trustworthy man. Then one day he tells one of his penitents—a particularly stupid and conceited creature, the wife of a merchant away on a journey—that the angel Gabriel has fallen in love with her beauty and would like to visit her at night. He visits her himself as Gabriel and has his fun with her. This goes on for a while, but in the end it turns out badly. This is what happens:
Pure avenne un giorno che, essendo madonna Lisetta con una sua comare, et insieme di bellezze quistionando, per porre la sua inanzi ad ogni altra, si come colei che poco sale aveva in...
(The entire section is 5389 words.)
SOURCE: Marino Lucia. “Audience and Narrators.” In The “Decameron” “Cornice”: Allusion, Allegory, and Iconology, pp. 25-36. Ravennba: Longo Editore, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, Marino examines how Boccaccio's depiction of the various narrators in his cornice or frame-text, amplifies and enriches the Decameron.]
The options not chosen by a writer can offer significant hints of what moves him towards the path he finally does elect. Boccaccio could very well have kept his fictive author an abstract voice with no explicit role within the Decameron text and, moreover, he could have had only one member of his brigata act as narrator to the rest. Instead, he decided on a panoply of viewpoints for his frame-text and represented eleven of them in the act of narrating. He could not have done so without some awareness of the extraordinary potential for complexity and flexibility such a fiction afforded him; he probably set to writing with a good deal of excitement and even curiosity over what results the experiment would lead to.
The perspective (according to the Decameron fiction) that generates the novelle and relays them to the successive outer frames of reception in the cornice lies in the novellieri: one of the novellieri or a friend is the “fededegna persona” who communicates their experience and their tales...
(The entire section is 4133 words.)
SOURCE: Smarr, Janet Levarie. “Decameron.” In Boccaccio and Fiammetta: The Narrator as Lover, pp. 165-74. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Smarr argues that in the Decameron Boccaccio further explores his distrust of the power of reason, a theme previously expressed in many of his minor works.]
Reason is certainly one of the key words of the Decameron. The author in his preface states that his love-misery was alleviated only by the “piacevoli ragionamenti … e laudevoli consolazioni” [pleasant conversations / reasonings … and praiseworthy consolations] of an unnamed friend. One can think both back to the “consolation” offered by the Philosophy-like guide of the Amorasa Visione and forward to the narrator's conversations in the Corbaccio first with his own reason and then with a friend. It is just such helpful “ragionamenti” that Boccaccio wishes to pass along for the aid of other melancholy lovers through the brigata's activity of “ragionare.” “Ragionare” is the speech of rational creatures, as the word implies; it is not the utterance of animals that we have encountered in both the Caccia and Corbaccio. The author presents himself in a new light here relative to his earlier works, though not to the Corbaccio: he is no longer someone in need of the...
(The entire section is 5514 words.)
SOURCE: Nissen, Christopher. “Acquisition, Renunciation, and Retribution in The Decameron”. In Ethics of Retribution in the “Decameron” and the Late Medieval Italian Novella: Beyond the Circle, pp. 7-29. Lewiston, N.Y: Mellon University Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Nissen argues that the Decameron reflects a time of shifting values in a society in flux, with Boccaccio exploring some ethical possibilities offered by that society.]
The prevailing interest in the novella as a vehicle for the literary portrayal of society has naturally been directed primarily at the Decameron, the collection which has received the most attention. Decameron studies reveal, in the main, a considerable tendency toward sociological analysis in their approach to the work.1 It is not difficult to see why: even to the casual glance, Boccaccio appears in his book to be principally concerned with the depiction of society and social values; it is in this depiction that most critics in the past century have sought clues to explain the Decameron's overall meaning. This accent on sociology derives in part from Boccaccio's sustained interest in describing societal relationships, but also to a great extent from the Decameron's clear evidence of kinship with older medieval traditions of exemplary and sententious literature. The text is pervaded with ethical language...
(The entire section is 9775 words.)
SOURCE: Forni, Pier Massimo. “Realism and the Needs of the Story.” In Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio's “Decameron,” pp. 43-54. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Forni examines Boccaccio's opening strategies for the stories in the Decameron, focusing on his ability to move from the familiar to the unusual.]
The sixteenth-century pioneer of Boccaccio studies Francesco Bonciani observed from an Aristotelian perspective, that any given novella of the Decameron can be divided into three parts: a “prolago” (prologue), a “scompiglio” (the knotting of the plot), and a “sviluppo,” or “snodamento” (dénouement) (1972: 164-65). Of these, the “prolago” is to be regarded as a pre-narrative introduction. It is the part that gives the essential information about characters and facts, and fades into the first stirrings of action. Bonciani's notion of “prolago” coincides approximately with what modern students of fiction call “initial situation,” “background,” “background and descriptive material,” “exposition,” or “introduction.”1 As Thomas M. Greene, among many others, has observed, this part of the story offers a picture of stability, even as it brings to the fore premonitions of change: “We begin with an initial equilibrium which has maintained itself...
(The entire section is 5018 words.)
Almansi, Guido. Writer as Liar: The Narrative Technique in the “Decameron.” London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, 166 p.
Focuses on the narrative techniques employed by Boccaccio, including essays on various critical interpretations and synopses of each novella.
Bergin, Thomas G. The “Decameron.” In Boccaccio, pp. 286-336. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
Provides an explicatory synopsis of the Decameron.
Cole, Howard C. “Dramatic Interplay in the Decameron.” In The “All's Well” Story from Boccaccio to Shakespeare, pp. 12–32. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Focusing on the tale of Giletta di Nerbona, Cole argues that the individual tales of the Decameron gain complexity when read int the context of other tales and framing conversation surrounding them.
Cottino-Jones, Marga. Introduction to Order from Chaos: Social and Aesthetic Harmonies in Boccaccio's “Decameron.,” pp. 1–19. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
Contends that Boccaccio designed the narrative structure of the Decameron with a view to influencing the patterns of social relationships in contemporary Florence, and that the narrative structure of the text and its characters reflect this...
(The entire section is 395 words.)