Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 979

Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri, and Francesco Petrarch were the leading lights in a century that is considered the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Dante died while Boccaccio was a child, but Petrarch was a friend during his middle and later life. Dante’s work was essentially of the spirit; Petrarch’s was that of the literary man; Boccaccio’s broke free of all tradition and created a living literature about ordinary people. The Decameron is his most famous work. Since its composition, readers and critics have made much of its hundred entertaining and worldly tales, comic and tragic, bawdy and courteous, satiric and serious, that compose this work. Unfortunately, much early criticism was moralistic, and Boccaccio was faulted for devoting his mature artistic skill to a collection of “immoral” stories.

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The Decameron has fared better in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with more solid critical inquiries into the work’s literary significance and style. Boccaccio’s collection has been considered representative of the Middle Ages; it has also been viewed as a product of the Renaissance. The work is both. The Decameron not only encompasses literary legacies of the medieval world but also goes far beyond Boccaccio’s own time, transcending, in tone and style, artistic works of both previous and later periods.

The structure, with its frame characters, has many analogues in medieval literature; the frame story—a group of tales within an enclosing narrative—was a device known previously, in Europe and in the East. The material for many of Boccaccio’s stories was gleaned from Indian, Arabic, Byzantine, French, Hebrew, and Spanish tales.

Although The Decameron is not escapist literature, the idea and nature of the framework have much in common with medieval romance. There is the idealistic, pastoral quality of withdrawal into the pleasant place or garden, away from the ugly, harsh reality of the surrounding world. The ten young people who leave Florence—a dying, corrupt city that Boccaccio describes plainly in all of its horrors—find only momentary respite from the charnel house of reality; but their existence for ten days is that of the enchanted medieval dreamworld: a paradise of flowers, ever-flowing fountains, shade trees, soft breezes, where all luxuries of food and drink abound. Virtue and decorum reign. There is no cynicism or lust in the various garden settings, where the pastimes are strolling, weaving garlands, or playing chess. Even Dioneo, who tells the most salacious stories, is as chaste in his conduct as Pampinea, Filomena, Filostrato, and the others. One critic has even seen in these frame characters a progression of virtues and described their stories as groups of exempla praising such qualities as wisdom, prudence, or generosity.

Against this refined and idealized medieval framework are the stories themselves, the majority marked by realism. The locale of each story is usually an actual place; the Italian cities of Pisa, Siena, and especially Florence figure largely as settings. The entire Mediterranean is represented, with its islands of Sicily, Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Ischia. France, England, and Spain also serve as backgrounds. In one story, the seventh tale on the second day, beautiful Altiel, the Sultan of Babylon’s daughter, after being kidnapped, travels in the space of four years over most of the Mediterranean, the islands, Greece, Turkey, and Alexandria. Boccaccio is also concerned with restricted spatial reality, and he sketches, in close detail, internal settings of abbeys, bedrooms, churches, marketplaces, castles, and inns. Different social classes have their own language and clothing. Many characters—such as Ciappelletto, living in profanation of the world; Rinaldo abandoned in nakedness and cold by his...

(The entire section contains 979 words.)

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The Decameron