The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta

by Giovanni Boccaccio
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

Fiammetta has a dream that a serpent bites her while she is lying in a meadow and that, as darkness comes, the wound festers and brings her close to death. When she awakens, she discovers that she has no injury and, failing to realize that the dream is a warning and a prophecy, she dismisses it from her thoughts.

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Fiammetta is admired by the ladies and gentlemen who surround her when she goes to church on a certain festival day, but of all her admirers none strikes her fancy until she sees a young gentleman leaning against a marble pillar of the church. The glances that she and the young man exchange prove that the attraction is mutual.

Realizing that she is overtaken by love, Fiammetta spends hours in her chamber picturing the young man and hoping to see him again. As other chance meetings increase her interest in him, she becomes so disturbed and changed by love that her nurse comments on it and warns her of the dangers of passion and of betraying her husband. Fiammetta, however, is too much enamored of the young man to heed such warnings; she dreams that Venus comes to her and tells her of the delight and power of love, urging her to ignore her nurse’s warnings and to submit to love’s promptings.

Encouraged by her fond glances, the young man becomes familiar with Fiammetta’s friends and with her husband, so that he and Fiammetta might converse together, hiding their love. The young man teaches her by his example how to converse in the company of others so as to reveal their love only to each other; he pretends to be telling of two lovers, Fiammetta and Panfilo, in order to show how deeply his own passion moves him. Although Fiammetta grows adept at this word game, she knows that their love cannot forever be kept within the bounds of propriety.

Despite Fiammetta’s refusals, which Panfilo takes as coy signs of encouragement, he finally gains what all lovers desire. He and Fiammetta spend innumerable nights together, learning new delights of love. Nothing else matters to Fiammetta. She thanks Venus for encouraging her in love, and she laughs at other gentlewomen who imagine that they know what passion is.

Fiammetta’s happiness, however, is fated to come to an end. One night, while she and Panfilo are together in her chamber, Fiammetta awakens to find Panfilo weeping. She hesitates to inquire into the cause of his distress for fear that he will reveal some other love for whom he is secretly longing. Pretending that she does not see him weeping, she suddenly cries out as if in her sleep. When he wipes his tears and turns to her, she tells him that she suddenly feared that she lost him. He answers that neither fortune nor death can change his love for her; he then begins to sob and sigh again. Answering her question concerning his sorrow, Panfilo tells her that he has to leave the city for four months because of his father’s illness.

Fiammetta argues that if he loves her he will not leave her. She is sure of his love and cannot bear to part with it; as one so desperately in love, she deserves his presence more than his father does. She fears for his health and safety if he leaves her. Finally, she concludes, a storm is coming; no man of sense will go out in such weather.

In spite of her protests, Panfilo insists that it is his duty to see his dying father, but he assures her that he will return at the end of four months. After a long and loving farewell, she accompanies him to the gate. Then, overcome with sorrow, she faints and has to be revived by her maid.

During the four months of Panfilo’s absence, Fiammetta spends her days remembering the delights she shared with him, wondering whether he is falling in love with someone else, counting the days and scolding the moon for being slow in its course, and imagining and dreaming that he returns to her.

Even the satisfaction of daydreaming is denied to Fiammetta when she learns from the conversation of a merchant that Panfilo is married. She is plunged into jealousy and grief, but as time goes on, she begins to hope that Panfilo might not find happiness with his wife. She offers prayers to Venus asking that he be stricken again with love for her so that he will return.

Fiammetta’s husband notices that she loses her appetite and is having difficulty sleeping. Ignorant of the cause, he at first has medicines prescribed for her and then takes her on a vacation to some beautiful islands. The medicines, however, have no effect on her passion, and the islands only remind her of the delightful times she spent with Panfilo. Feasts and shows fail to please her, and she spends her days sighing and praying to the gods of love and fortune.

Fiammetta learns from one of her servants that Panfilo is not married, as she supposed from the merchant’s tale, but rather that he is in love with a beautiful gentlewoman who loves him. Her misery intensifies at this news. She finds no comfort in her husband’s loving and compassionate words, and her nurse cannot bring her to her senses. She considers many ways of suicide, all of which seem too painful or too difficult to be considered. She then reasons that if she kills herself she will never see Panfilo again. Finally, fearing that worse torments are to come, she attempts to leap from the house, but she is stopped by the nurse and other servants.

After her nurse tells her that Panfilo is returning, Fiammetta, for a time, hopes to see him again. The rumor, however, confuses Fiammetta’s Panfilo with another man having the same name, and Fiammetta is forced to realize that she lost him forever. She compares her condition to that of other betrayed lovers, supposing herself to be more unfortunate than they. She tells her story in order that others might take it as an example of what misery may befall an amorous gentlewoman.

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