Article abstract: Boccaccio was the father of Italian and European narrative. He was also a pioneer of Latin and Greek scholarship in the late Middle Ages and, along with Petrarch, a precursor to the Renaissance Humanists.
Giovanni Boccaccio was the illegitimate son of a merchant of Certaldo, identified as Boccaccio di Chellino, and was probably born in Florence in June or July, 1313. Some scholars believe that Boccaccio was the product of a relationship between his father and an unknown Parisienne. That, however, is unlikely. Although his father did travel to Paris for extensive periods and the identity of his mother is not known, Boccaccio was absolutely Tuscan in blood and spirit. His father legitimized him about 1320 and gave him a decent education, sending him to the school of a famous educator, Mazzuoli da Strada, whose son, Zanobi, later to achieve some fame as a poet, remained a lifelong friend and correspondent of Boccaccio.
In 1327, Boccaccio’s father was sent to Naples to head the branch of the Bardi banking company there. He took his son with him, having clearly planned for him a life in commerce. The King of Naples, Robert of Anjou, was eager to establish lines of credit with the major Florentine banking houses. Under the Angevins, Naples was a commercial hub and, since King Robert had a taste for culture, a major center of learning. Boccaccio’s formative years were spent in this vibrant southern capital. While in theory he was learning the business of banking (for which he had little inclination), his attention was drawn to the dynamic life of the port and the tales of merchants who arrived from all corners of the Mediterranean. Through the royal court and library, he came into contact with some of the most distinguished intellectuals of his day. Among them was Cino da Pistoia, a contemporary of Dante and surviving member of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) school of poets, who introduced Boccaccio to vernacular love poetry in the Tuscan tradition. Paolo da Perugia, the royal librarian, probably inspired Boccaccio’s later, encyclopedic works, while the scholar Dionigi da Borgo san Sepolcro introduced him to the genius of Petrarch and an encounter with Barlaam da Calabria began Boccaccio’s lifelong fascination with Greek.
Naples was also a city of beautiful women, who both stimulated the young man’s senses and inspired his first literary efforts: romances in prose and verse which were close to the tradition of French love poetry (the height of fashion in Angevin Naples). Like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, Boccaccio’s Fiammetta served as a Muse, inspiring the works of the first half of his career. She has frequently been identified as Maria of Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert. Yet, like the notion of Boccaccio’s Parisian mother, this idea must be dismissed as myth, in part encouraged by Boccaccio himself, who sought to romanticize his life into a story overshadowed by the cloud of illegitimacy.
An important friend of Boccaccio during this period was the Florentine Niccolò Acciaiuoli, who was to exercise considerable influence over the life of the writer. Acciaiuoli had embarked on a political career that was to make him a major figure in the history of the Angevin dynasty, both before and after the death of King Robert in 1343; yet he was also to prove an unreliable friend to the scholarly Boccaccio, who tended to be dazzled by his countryman’s charisma.
Before leaving Naples, Boccaccio had composed La Caccia di Diana (c. 1334; Diana’s hunt), a bucolic narrative in terza rima (a verse form first used by Dante), and the lengthy Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873), a version of the tale of Troilus and Cressida in octave form. He had completed the prose romance Il filocolo (c. 1336; Labor of Love, 1566) and had certainly begun the Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974), the story of Palamon and Arcite. The Filostrato and The Book of Theseus are of particular interest, since they are, respectively, the sources of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).
When Boccaccio returned to Florence at the end of 1340, he found a city in crisis. His father had preceded him in 1338, following the closing of the Bardi office in Naples. An upheaval in the banking world had brought many major Florentine companies close to bankruptcy, and the Black Death had devastated the city in early 1340. Boccaccio’s father, having weathered severe financial setbacks, had been married again, to a woman for whom the son expressed little sympathy. Naples must have seemed far away, and Florence a dreary alternative.
During the next decade, however, Boccaccio established himself as the leading storyteller of his generation. Il ninfale d’Ameto, also known as Commedia delle ninfe (1341-1342; comedy of the nymphs), is modeled after Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life, 1867). L’amorosa visione (1342-1343; English translation, 1986) is a lengthy disquisition on love in terza rima and is a direct predecessor of Petrarch’s Trionfi (1470; Tryumphs, 1565; also known as Triumphs, 1962). The Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344; Amorous Fiammetta, 1587) is a psychological novel, entirely in prose, which tells of Fiammetta lamenting the departure from Naples of a young Florentine merchant. All the above works show Boccaccio closely bound to the medieval tradition of moral reflection on, and allegorization of, love. In particular, Boccaccio was faithful to the dolce stil nuovo, which derived from contemporaries of Dante who celebrated the themes of sacred and profane love.
While the Black Death of 1348 was profoundly disastrous, it actually furthered Boccaccio’s career by providing the starting point for his masterpiece, Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351;...
(The entire section is 2550 words.)