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 Fifteenth Books of Boccaccio's “Genealogia Deorum Gentilium” (translated by Charles G. Osgood) 1930
Concerning Famous Women (translated by Guido Guarino) 1963
The Life of Dante (translated by James Robinson Smith) 1963
The Fates of Illustrious Men (translated by Louis Brewer Hall) 1965
Nymphs of Fiesole (translated by Joseph Tusiani) 1971
Decameron (translated by G. H. McWilliam) 1972
The Book of Theseus (translated by Bernadette Marie McCoy) 1974
Corbaccio (translated by Anthony K. Cassell) 1975
Decameron (translated by Mark Musa and Peter E. Bondanella) 1977, 1983
Diana's Hunt—Caccia di Diana (translated by Anthony K. Cassell and Victoria Kirkham) 1991
The Decameron (translated by Guido Waldman) 1998
The Decameron (translated by Stanley Applebaum) 2000
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 enters it. Life rises to the surface, and is smoothed down, made attractive. The world of the spirit makes its exit; the world of Nature comes in.
This world of Nature, empty and superficial, devoid of all the inner powers of the spirit, has no seriousness at all of means or of end. The thing that moves it is instinct—natural inclination; no longer God or science, and no longer the unifying love of intellect and act, the great basis of the Middle Ages: it is a real and violent reaction against mysticism. The author introduces us to a merry gathering of men and women who are trying to forget the ills and tedium of life by passing the warm hours of the day in pleasant story-telling. It was the time of the plague, and men faced by death on every side felt that all the restraints of life were loosened, and gave themselves up to the carnival of the imagination. Boccaccio had had experience of carnivals at the court where the happiest days of his life were spent, and his imagination had taken its colour from that dungheap on which the Muses and the Graces had lavished so many flowers. In the Ameto, the pastoral Decameron, we have a similar gathering of people. But the stories in the Ameto are allegorical, so are preordained to an abstract ending. Though the poem has nothing of the spirit of the Divine Comedy, it is built on its skeleton. Here, on the contrary, the sole aim of the stories is to make the time pass pleasantly; they are real panders to pleasure and to love, the Greek title of the book being only a modest veil of the author's Italian title, which was that of the Prince Galeotto. And the characters, evoked from so many different people and so many different epochs, here are all of the same world, the external world of tranquil thoughtlessness.
In this care-free world of the Decameron events are left to take care of themselves, the results being decided by chance. God and Providence are acknowledged by name, almost by a sort of tacit agreement, in the words of people who have sunk into complete religious, political, and moral indifference. Nor is there even that intimate force of things which endows the events with a sort of logic and necessity; the book, indeed, is charming for exactly the opposite quality; it is charming for its completely unexpected dénouements, which are utterly different from anything we could reasonably have foreseen, and this by the whim of chance. It is a new form of the marvellous, no longer caused by the penetration into human life of ultra-natural forces, such as visions and miracles, but by a curious conflux of fortuitous events that no one could have possibly foreseen or controlled. We are left with the feeling that the ruler of the world, the deus ex machina, is chance; we see it in the varied play of the inclinations of these people, all of them ruled by the changing chances of life.
Since the machinery, the moving force of the stories, is the marvellous, the fortuitous, the unexpected, it follows that their interest does not lie in the morality of the actions, but in the strangeness of their causes and effects. Not that Boccaccio rejects morality or alters the ordinary ideas of right and wrong; it is only that questions of morality do not happen to be the questions that interest him. But the thing that does interest him is his power to stimulate his readers' interest by strangeness of character and events. Virtue is used as a means of impressing the imagination, an instrument of the marvellous like the rest, so ceases to be simple and proportionate; in fact, it is exaggerated to such a degree as to show clearly the emptiness of the author's conscience and his want of moral feeling. A famous instance is the story of the patient Griselda, the most virtuous of all the characters of the book. To prove that she is a good and faithful wife she suffocates every natural feeling of a woman, and her own personality, and her free will. The author, in trying to show an extraordinary example of virtue that will strike the imagination of his readers, has fallen into the very mysticism he dislikes, and makes use of it by placing the ideal of feminine virtue in the abnegation of self, exactly like the theologians, who teach that flesh is absorbed by spirit, and spirit by God. It is a sort of sacrifice of Abraham, except that here it is the husband who puts Nature so cruelly to the test. And the virtue in the stories of Tito and Gisippo is proved by such strange and out-of-the-way happenings that instead of charming us as an example it only amazes us as a miracle. But extraordinary and spectacular virtue is rare in the tales; the virtue is generally the traditional virtue of chivalric and feudal times—a certain generosity and kindliness of kings and princes and marquises, reminiscences of chivalric and heroic tales in bourgeois times. A prince's virtue lies in his using his power to protect the people below him, and especially to protect the men of high intelligence and culture who happen to be poor, as did the Abbot of Cluny and Can Grande della Scala, who treated Primasso and Bergamino with magnificence. A much-praised person is Charles I of Anjou who, instead of seizing and raping two beautiful girls, daughters of a Ghibelline, who had fallen into his power, preferred to dower them magnificently and find them husbands. These powerful nobles were virtuous because they did not misuse their power, but behaved instead in a liberal and courteous manner. And already a class of literati was arising who lived at the expense of this virtue, feeding on its bounty and extolling it in fair exchange. The lofty soul of Dante had bent itself with difficulty to this patronage; not the least of his causes of bitterness was the begging of bread from strangers, crust by crust, and the treading of other people's stairs. But the heroic age was past. Petrarch allowed his Maecenas to provide for him and support him, and Boccaccio lived on the refuse of the court of Naples, comically enraged when the provision struck him as not up to standard, and disposed to panegryic or satire according to whether the food was good or bad. In Boccaccio's world ‘virtue’ as a rule means liberality or courtesy of soul, which had spread from the castle to the city, and even into the woods where the outlaws had taken refuge—men like Natan, and Saladino, and Alfonso, and Ghino di Tacco, and the wizard of Ansaldo. Strictly speaking, of course, this virtue is not morality; but at least it is a sense of nice behaviour, which makes the habits of the day more agreeable, takes from virtue that theological and mystical character connected with abstinence and suffering, and gives it a pleasing appearance, in keeping with a cultured and gay society. It is true that the chance which ruled the lives of these people played them many a trick, and the pervading gaiety, the charming serenity, were often disturbed by some sad event. But the clouds came suddenly, without warning, were soon scattered, and gave an added value to the sun when it shone again; in Fiammetta's words, sorrow was ‘a fine material for tempering gladness’.
If we look more deeply into these questions of joy and sorrow, we shall see that the joy has very few chords; the joy would be level and dull, and no longer joyous (as is often the case with idyllic poems), except that pain pierces into it—pain with its richer and more varied harmonies, and its living passions of love, jealousy, contempt, indignation. Pain is here not for its own sake, but as a seasoner of joy; it is here to enliven the spirit, to keep it in suspense, to excite it—until kindly fortune, or chance, shall suddenly make the sun to shine again. And even when the story has a sad ending (as in all of the tales of the Third Day) the sadness is only superficial; it is relieved and softened by descriptions, dissertations, and musings, and is never so strong as to be torment, like Dante's proud suffering. In that world of Nature and love pain is a tragic apparition that flits past. It is not caused by a moral purpose, but by the ‘point of honour’, the chivalric virtue—by honour in collision with Nature and love. A case in point is the lovely story of Gerbino; and also the story of Tancredi, who is a witness to his daughter's shame, and kills the lover, and sends the lover's heart to his daughter in a golden cup; his daughter puts poison in the cup, and drinks it, and dies. The tragedy turns on the point of honour. Tancredi feels more dishonoured by his daughter's having loved a man beneath her in rank than by the fact that she has loved illicitly. But his daughter justifies her love by quoting the laws of Nature, and says that true nobility comes from worth and not from blood. When we take leave of the father weeping vainly and remorsefully over his daughter's body, we see him not as a man who has avenged his tarnished honour, but as a traitor to the laws of Nature and of love. But indeed, we pity the father and daughter equally—the high-souled father and the human and tender-hearted daughter; both are victims of the society they belong to, and neither has sinned. Our last impression is that nature and love have taken their revenge. So the tragic motive is in keeping with Boccaccio's world; and the fugitive, vanishing pain is shown most tenderly and gently, almost with compassion. Pain gives a flavour to joy, for joy would end by being insipid if pain were not there to season it. Tragedy is changed at its root. There is no longer the terror of a mysterious fate, shown in catastrophe, as with the Greeks, nor of a punishment falling on man for breaking the laws of a higher justice, as in Dante; tragedy here is the fact that the world is at the mercy of its own blind and natural forces, and the higher law in this struggle is love—whoever opposes love is in the wrong. With Dante Nature was sin: with Boccaccio Nature is law. And it is not opposed by religion or morality (of which nothing remains at all, though both are believed in theoretically, and quoted), but by society as arranged in that complex system of laws and customs called ‘honour’. But the struggle is all external; it is shown in the events that arise from these various forces brought into conflict, and is ended by the kindness or the spite of chance or fortune. And the struggle stops short at that inner conflict which leads to passion and makes character. Boccaccio has no idea of rebelling against society, and certainly is nothing of a reformer; he takes life as he finds it. And though his sympathies are entirely with the victims of love, he is not biased for that reason against the characters who are driven to cruel actions through love; they too are worthy of respect, for they are victims of love like the others. Though he glorifies Gerbino, who breaks his pledge to the King, his grandfather, rather than break the laws of love and be thought a coward, he has no word of blame for the King, who orders the death of his grandson, ‘choosing to be without a grandson rather than be thought a king wanting in honour’. In the midst of the outer conflict of events an inner calm, a sort of equilibrium, is born, an inner calm quite empty of emotion, except the degree of emotion that is necessary for varying its...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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