Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Giovanni Boccaccio’s elegy has often been touted by scholars as the first psychological work of literature written in a modern language. It is an account of specific emotions occurring in an individual’s mind, whereas most medieval literature relates physical actions, such as the exploits of knights or pilgrims, or expresses idealized emotions, such as in courtly love poetry. Boccaccio’s work is composed as a letter written by the principal character, Fiammetta, to be sent as advice to other women who may find themselves in a similar situation, that is, seemingly duped by a man.
The elegy relates her emotional history from when she first sees and falls in love with her lover, Panfilo, through his leaving her, temporarily as she believes at first, up to her ultimate realization that he must have chosen never to return, thus rejecting her as his lover. Fiammetta seeks to express her feelings; the actions she leaves to readers to imagine. For example, she describes their trysts in only the vaguest of terms, but she expresses fully the emotions she feels during their affair.
Although, by her own account, happily married, she is impressed by the handsomeness of a young man. Becoming acquainted, they fall in love and carry on an affair secret to almost everyone. Even their pretend names for each other reveal the emotional nature of their relationship: Fiammetta (“endearing flame”) and Panfilo (“all-loving,” or “lover of all”). In a stream-of-consciousness literary style, she expresses the agonies of facing separation from her lover and then of wondering why he has stayed away far longer than he said he would, without communicating. Finally, she describes the despair that paralyzes her life. She blames herself, him, and the misfortune of the circumstances that divided them initially. Her emotions revolve between intense anguish in missing Panfilo and extreme anger because of his presumed rejection of her. She contemplates and even acts on thoughts of suicide. Her letter is meant to warn other women of the dangers of loving a man so deeply as to be as vulnerable to his abandonment as she proves to be.
The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta, although one of Boccaccio’s minor works, has become better known as literary critics and historians have paid greater attention to gender-related issues in their research. It is one of only a few works of its time that have a woman as a principal character and of even fewer whose story is actually told through a female voice. Judged by modern social criteria, this work does not stand as a source of enhancing woman’s status. Fiammetta’s language describes her not only as victimized by a particular man but also more generally as a woman who is by nature vulnerable, culpable, and weak. The impression is one of a woman treated by her lover merely as a sexual object to be discarded after use. As Fiammetta relates so vividly, her beauty, her dignity, and her being dissipate in Panfilo’s absence. The reader can choose, however, to evaluate this work in its own historical context. Accordingly, The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta stands as a departure from traditional literature. It portrays a woman in a social role beyond mere subservience, someone who desires a man who is not her husband and seeks to gain him. It does not condemn Fiammetta as a mere adulteress or seductress but presents her as an individual with full awareness of her own life and wishes. The account is sympathetic. She schemes to betray her husband and she may be naïve, but Boccaccio depicts her above all as a victim of fortune.
A particular feature of Boccaccio’s writing unrelated to either its psychological style or its content deserves mention. Reflecting a familiarity with classical literature, Boccaccio frequently refers to stories and characters from ancient history and mythology. Fiammetta and other speakers in the work often draw parallels between her trials and the relationships of other lovers of the past. In some cases, Boccaccio cites long series of classical references. These would have been readily recognized by his contemporary readers; what a modern reader may take as tedious, esoteric references would have reinforced the story and increased its impact for earlier readers.
Scholarly consensus has turned away from an earlier autobiographical interpretation of this work, by which Boccaccio seemed to be describing an affair of his own with a noblewoman in Naples in the late 1330’s. Instead, Fiammetta appears to have been mostly a literary creation. She appears in other of his works, and the evidence linking her to a specific woman is not wholly persuasive. If one were to prefer a historical approach to the work, considering it as an autobiographical revelation, another interpretation offers itself. Boccaccio had lived most of his early life in Naples before leaving for Florence, where he composed this elegy, and one could view it as an emotional parallel to his travels, because he preferred Naples. He perhaps saw himself as Panfilo, the one who loved his southern city but was constrained by circumstances to leave for the north. Accordingly, he also envisaged Fiammetta (Naples) mourning his absence and torn emotionally over why he was no longer in her presence.
The beauty of The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta is in how much Boccaccio leaves to the reader to imagine. Fiammetta’s psyche is revealed, but the women recipients of her letter (and all readers of the work) are left to imagine the specifics of the circumstances of the affair. The affair thus is general; it adapts to individual situations. The reader is left not knowing even if Panfilo eventually returns. The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta is a work that draws the reader into the mind of its principal character and elicits an emotional response. Whether Fiammetta is indicting men or fortune, whether she is medieval in her behavior or modern, and whether Boccaccio was expressing a male perception of society through a female character or was antedating feminism—these issues remain open to interpretation.
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