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.