Giovanni Boccaccio Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)
0111201519-Boccaccio.jpg Giovanni Boccaccio (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Boccaccio was the father of Italian and European narrative. He was also a pioneer of Latin and Greek scholarship in the late Middle Ages and, along with Petrarch, a precursor to the Renaissance Humanists.

Early Life

Giovanni Boccaccio was the illegitimate son of a merchant of Certaldo, identified as Boccaccio di Chellino, and was probably born in Florence in June or July, 1313. Some scholars believe that Boccaccio was the product of a relationship between his father and an unknown Parisienne. That, however, is unlikely. Although his father did travel to Paris for extensive periods and the identity of his mother is not known, Boccaccio was absolutely Tuscan in blood and spirit. His father legitimized him about 1320 and gave him a decent education, sending him to the school of a famous educator, Mazzuoli da Strada, whose son, Zanobi, later to achieve some fame as a poet, remained a lifelong friend and correspondent of Boccaccio.

In 1327, Boccaccio’s father was sent to Naples to head the branch of the Bardi banking company there. He took his son with him, having clearly planned for him a life in commerce. The King of Naples, Robert of Anjou, was eager to establish lines of credit with the major Florentine banking houses. Under the Angevins, Naples was a commercial hub and, since King Robert had a taste for culture, a major center of learning. Boccaccio’s formative years were spent in this vibrant southern capital. While in theory he was learning the business of banking (for which he had little inclination), his attention was drawn to the dynamic life of the port and the tales of merchants who arrived from all corners of the Mediterranean. Through the royal court and library, he came into contact with some of the most distinguished intellectuals of his day. Among them was Cino da Pistoia, a contemporary of Dante and surviving member of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) school of poets, who introduced Boccaccio to vernacular love poetry in the Tuscan tradition. Paolo da Perugia, the royal librarian, probably inspired Boccaccio’s later, encyclopedic works, while the scholar Dionigi da Borgo san Sepolcro introduced him to the genius of Petrarch and an encounter with Barlaam da Calabria began Boccaccio’s lifelong fascination with Greek.

Naples was also a city of beautiful women, who both stimulated the young man’s senses and inspired his first literary efforts: romances in prose and verse which were close to the tradition of French love poetry (the height of fashion in Angevin Naples). Like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, Boccaccio’s Fiammetta served as a Muse, inspiring the works of the first half of his career. She has frequently been identified as Maria of Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert. Yet, like the notion of Boccaccio’s Parisian mother, this idea must be dismissed as myth, in part encouraged by Boccaccio himself, who sought to romanticize his life into a story overshadowed by the cloud of illegitimacy.

An important friend of Boccaccio during this period was the Florentine Niccolò Acciaiuoli, who was to exercise considerable influence over the life of the writer. Acciaiuoli had embarked on a political career that was to make him a major figure in the history of the Angevin dynasty, both before and after the death of King Robert in 1343; yet he was also to prove an unreliable friend to the scholarly Boccaccio, who tended to be dazzled by his countryman’s charisma.

Before leaving Naples, Boccaccio had composed La Caccia di Diana (c. 1334; Diana’s hunt), a bucolic narrative in terza rima (a verse form first used by Dante), and the lengthy Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873), a version of the tale of Troilus and Cressida in octave form. He had completed the prose romance Il filocolo (c. 1336; Labor of Love, 1566) and had certainly begun the Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974), the story of Palamon and Arcite. The Filostrato and The Book of Theseus are of particular interest, since they are, respectively, the sources of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).

Life’s Work

When Boccaccio returned to Florence at the end of 1340, he found a city in crisis. His father had preceded him in 1338, following the closing of the Bardi office in Naples. An upheaval in the banking world had brought many major Florentine companies close to bankruptcy, and the Black Death had devastated the city in early 1340. Boccaccio’s father, having weathered severe financial setbacks, had been married again, to a woman for whom the son expressed little sympathy. Naples must have seemed far away, and Florence a dreary alternative.

During the next decade, however, Boccaccio established himself as the leading storyteller of his generation. Il ninfale d’Ameto, also known as Commedia delle ninfe (1341-1342; comedy of the nymphs), is modeled after Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life, 1867). L’amorosa visione (1342-1343; English translation, 1986) is a lengthy disquisition on love in terza rima and is a direct predecessor of Petrarch’s Trionfi (1470; Tryumphs, 1565; also known as Triumphs, 1962). The Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344; Amorous Fiammetta, 1587) is a psychological novel, entirely in prose, which tells of Fiammetta lamenting the departure from Naples of a young Florentine merchant. All the above works show Boccaccio closely bound to the medieval tradition of moral reflection on, and allegorization of, love. In particular, Boccaccio was faithful to the dolce stil nuovo, which derived from contemporaries of Dante who celebrated the themes of sacred and profane love.

While the Black Death of 1348 was profoundly disastrous, it actually furthered Boccaccio’s career by providing the starting point for his masterpiece, Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351;...

(The entire section is 2550 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Boccaccio was a scholar whose voluminous works included romantic novels, epic poems, biographies, and collections of myths and legends. His most famous work—and the one most often censored—is the Decameron, a collection of one hundred tales that appeared from 1349 to 1351. Although Boccaccio had probably collected the tales over many years, his introduction to the work explains that seven young ladies and three young men entertained each other with the stories for ten days while the bubonic plague ravaged Florence in 1348. Both charming and humorous, the stories deal mostly with themes of love and sex—often in a lascivious fashion. Although Boccaccio appears to have been a practicing Roman Catholic, he used the stories to poke fun at the moral laxity of the priests and monks of his time.

From an early date, pious critics were shocked by the salacious and ostensibly anticlerical aspects of the Decameron. In 1497 Girolamo Savonarola, the prior of Florence’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, burned the work as a part of the “bonfire of the vanities.” In 1559 the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of Pope Paul IV condemned the book; however, in 1573 Pope Gregory XIII allowed publication of an expurgated edition that retained the licentious parts but removed portions considered disrespectful of the Church and tainted by heresy. Fourteen years later, Pope Sixtus V proscribed all editions of the work. Around 1600 Boccaccio’s book was...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The exact place and date of the birth of Giovanni Boccaccio are not known. Until the first half of the twentieth century, it was believed that he was born in Paris of a noble Frenchwoman; scholars now regard that story as another one of the author’s fictional tales. Most likely, he was born in Florence or Certaldo, Italy, in June or July, 1313, the natural son of Boccaccio di Chellino and an unidentified Tuscan woman. His father, an agent for a powerful Florentine banking family (the Bardi), recognized Giovanni early as his son; the boy, as a result, passed both his infancy and his childhood in his father’s house. Boccaccio’s teacher in his youth was Giovanni Mazzuoli da Strada, undoubtedly an admirer Dante Alighieri, whose...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KAH-cheeoh) was born in June or July of 1313 in Florence or Certaldo (now in Italy), the illegitimate son of Florentine merchant Boccaccio di Chellino. The identity of his mother is uncertain. He spent his early childhood in Florence, but in 1327 he moved with his father to Naples, where he studied banking, trade, and canon law. Boccaccio eventually abandoned his pursuit of a vocation in commerce and law for a literary life.

The years spent in Naples were crucial to Boccaccio’s social, intellectual, and literary development. Because of his father’s connections with the aristocracy of Naples, Boccaccio enjoyed the carefree and privileged lifestyle of the court of King Robert of Anjou. There,...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although influenced by past literary traditions and the classics, Giovanni Boccaccio developed a style and language uniquely his own in the area of prose fiction. A review of his earlier works reveals his gradual development toward the skilled use of vernacular Italian in narrative prose form. His masterpiece, The Decameron, was written at the pinnacle of his career as a literary artist, displaying without restraint his refined gifts for narration and rich characterization. The Decameron not only was an innovation in Italian literature but also became a fertile source of reference for authors throughout the world for centuries to come.

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KAHCH-eeoh) was born in 1313, probably in Florence or Certaldo (but possibly in Paris), and he may have been the illegitimate son of a respectable Florentine merchant then living in France. Boccaccio called himself a citizen of Florence. His father reared him well, giving him a sound education. He studied with Giovanni da Strada, a celebrated grammarian in Florence, and by his own account he was from his earliest years devoted to poetry. He said that he was writing verses at the age of seven. Very early, however, he was apprenticed to an eminent merchant with whom he remained for six years and with whom he seems to have traveled about Italy and France. Because the boy was deeply interested in studies, his...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Giovanni Boccaccio Biography

(European Poets and Poetry)

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313, in Florence or Certaldo, as the illegitimate son of Boccaccino di Chellino and an unknown mother. His father, a fairly well-to-do merchant banker for the Bardi banking family, made his home in the village of Certaldo some twenty miles southwest of Florence. Despite the circumstance of Boccaccio’s birth, his father recognized his son’s legitimacy by 1320 and sought an education for him. By the age of seven, Boccaccio had had his first taste of Latin verse, in particular that of Ovid and Vergil. His father, however, hoped for his son to follow him in his career as a merchant-banker, and by the time Boccaccio was fourteen, he was brought or sent to Naples to be apprenticed as a merchant in one...

(The entire section is 574 words.)