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.
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 fellow men; Peronella, the deceitful Neapolitan wool comber cuckolding her husband; the whole...
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convent of nuns eagerly lying with the youth Masetto—these Boccaccio describes in believable, human situations.
Although he draws upon the entire arsenal of medieval rhetoric, the author of these one hundred stories goes beyond figures of speech and linguistic tools in his modern paradoxical style and cynical tone. Although his satire often bites deeply, his comic mood generally embraces evil and holiness alike with sympathy and tolerance. His treatment of themes, situation, and character is never didactic. Like Geoffrey Chaucer, Boccaccio is indulgent, exposing moral and social corruption but leaving guilty characters to condemn themselves.
A novella such as the comic tale of Chichibio, told on the sixth day, is pure comic farce, moving rapidly by question and answer, playfully rollicking to a surprise ending brought about by this impulsive, foolish cook. The story of Rossiglione and Guardastagno, ninth tale of the fourth day, has a tragic plot, but the narrators draw no moral in either case. The interaction of character, scene, and plot brings into relief forces that motivate the world of humanity and allows the readers to judge if they must. Again and again, characters in the tales are relieved from moral responsibility by the control of fortune.
Throughout The Decameron, Boccaccio concerns himself primarily with presenting a human world as he observed and understood it. In this presentation, there is no pedantry or reticence; he paints men and women in all of their rascality, faithlessness, nobility, and suffering, changing his Italian prose to suit the exigency of purpose, whether that results in a serious or comic, refined or coarse, descriptive or analytical style. Boccaccio has command of many styles and changes easily from one to another.
In utilizing fables and anecdotes from many medieval sources, in employing figurative and rhythmical devices from books on medieval rhetoric, and in structuring his framework according to the chivalric world of valor and courtesy, among other things, Boccaccio’s work is a product of the Middle Ages. In its frank, open-minded treatment of worldly pleasures, in its use of paradox and cynicism, and in its realistic handling of character, however, The Decameron transcends the medieval period and establishes a literary pattern for the Renaissance and after.