Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2550
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.
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).
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 Decameron, 1620). This collection of one hundred stories, carefully grouped around three central themes (Fortune, Love, and wit), established Boccaccio as one of the founders of European narrative and served as a sourcebook for future storytellers (including Chaucer and William Shakespeare). It is a wonderful literary synthesis, weaving the idealized loves of the medieval tradition into the lies of merchants and adventurers. Set against the backgrounds of cities such as Florence, Naples, and Milan, the stories emphasize intelligence and individual initiative. They move beyond the Middle Ages, pointing the way toward the Renaissance. The plague killed Boccaccio’s father and stepmother, making him the head of the family and the arbiter of its affairs. The fact that the book grew out of this period of despair indicates the author’s desire for the restoration of order out of chaos and his respect for human law in the midst of social dislocation.
Crucial to Boccaccio’s spiritual and artistic development in these years was his friendship with Petrarch, whom he had admired from a distance but finally met in Florence in September, 1350. The devotee of Laura was en route to Rome when he was entertained at Boccaccio’s house and introduced to a distinguished circle of admirers. In the spring of 1351, Boccaccio led a delegation to Padua, where Petrarch was residing, bringing with him the official restoration of citizenship to the poet (Petrarch’s father having been exiled, along with Dante, in the political crisis of 1300). Boccaccio also offered Petrarch a professorship at the newly established University of Florence—which he declined. In a garden in the shadow of the city cathedral, these two masters of Italian letters spent weeks in intimate conversations (faithfully transcribed by Boccaccio, who always regarded himself as the “disciple”) on questions of literature, such as the nobility of Latin authors, the strengths of the vernacular, and the moral function of poetry. They also discussed political matters, expressing their devotion to the ideals of freedom in the Florentine republic and the hatred of tyranny as embodied by the Visconti of Milan.
Two years later (July, 1353) Boccaccio was offended to learn that his noble friend had accepted a stipend from that same dynasty he had condemned in writing and conversation and had settled in the despised Milan. There was in Petrarch’s character both a conservatism and a cultivation of self-interest that set him apart from his more consistent and idealistic admirer. Boccaccio—a true Florentine—could not contain himself and gave vent to his indignation in an angry epistle to which Petrarch did not reply. In time, however, the two friends were reconciled, and their correspondence on literary and moral matters continued unabated until Petrarch’s death in 1374. There would be further encounters: one in the hated Milan (1359), a visit marked by the planting of an olive tree in Petrarch’s garden, and another (March, 1363) in Venice, which afforded Boccaccio great consolation, since it followed a most dispiriting visit to Naples in search of preferment from his old acquaintance and nemesis, Acciaiuoli, who appears to have treated the author of The Decameron with cavalier indifference. Furthermore, when Boccaccio experienced a religious crisis in 1362, Petrarch persuaded his dear friend not to abandon the vocation of literature and not to burn (for whatever symbolic reasons) the manuscript of The Decameron.
In all these years Boccaccio was also at the service of the republic when required and actively engaged in diplomatic activities. He twice led delegations to the papal court in Avignon (in 1354 and 1365). The intention was to assure the pope of Florence’s devotion to the papacy, as well as to encourage Urban V to restore the pontificate to Rome. In spite of his age and growing corpulence, as well as the dangers from bandits, both journeys were diplomatically successful and rich in pleasant memory, including visits to Petrarch’s old estate in idyllic Vaucluse.
By early 1361, Boccaccio had retired to Certaldo, following a reported conspiracy against the current Guelph faction then governing Florence in which several of the writer’s most influential friends were said to be implicated. It seemed a politic moment to remove himself to the country. Certaldo thereafter remained his home and refuge. In this final chapter of his life, three themes persisted: fidelity to relatives and friends (notably Petrarch), prompt service to the republic, and tireless devotion to literature.
Clearly reflecting the influence of Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio’s work reveals a man with scholastic and classical interests and a wish for partial withdrawal from the world. De casibus virorum illustrium dates from the period between 1355 and 1374 (translated as The Fall of Princes, 1431-1438), and De mulieribus claris (c. 1361-1375; Concerning Famous Women, 1943) was clearly written as its companion volume. The most ambitious of these scholarly works, the Genealogia deorum gentilium (genealogies of the Gentile gods), was written and revised during the last twenty years of his life, but a first draft was complete by about 1360. To these major compilations, one must add Boccaccio’s devotion to Greek studies and his invitation to the great Greek scholar Leontius Pilatus to live with him in Florence in 1360. Boccaccio not only worked with Pilatus on a translation of Homer but also had him appointed professor of Greek at the university in Florence.
These Latin works emphasize his contribution to the burgeoning climate of Humanism (meaning, on one level, a devotion to classical learning), which was the central feature of intellectual life in the Renaissance. Boccaccio’s works in Latin are quite different from those of Petrarch in that they are compendia and intended as reference works for future scholars. Largely forgotten by modern scholars, they earned for Boccaccio enduring fame throughout the Renaissance and into the nineteenth century. For later storytellers, they offer a rich source of material for fiction and fable.
Boccaccio’s religious crisis of 1362 helps to explain the strong thread of moral reflection on the vagaries of human fortune in these works, which all told illustrate a conscious redirection of energies toward religious contemplation. Connected with these themes are the fourteenth and fifteenth books of the Genealogia deorum gentilium, which amount to a defense of poetry as a force for moral improvement and religious regeneration. A similar impulse lies behind Boccaccio’s Trattatello in laude di Dante (1351, 1360, 1373; Life of Dante, 1898) and the public lectures he gave on Dante (from to 1373-1374). Life of Dante was begun in the 1350’s and continued to be revised into the last years of his life. It represents Boccaccio’s modest devotion to the poet who, although ill-treated by his countrymen, was still upheld as one of the great glories of the republic. Those public lectures on Dante and the news of the death of Petrarch in July, 1374, link the three founders of Italian literature, who established the standards of achievement in the epic, the lyric poem, and the short story for succeeding generations.
Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Essentially a study of the works. Includes useful, if prosaic, summaries of the later Latin writings. The longest chapter is that on The Decameron, and the most interesting chapters cover Boccaccio’s life and depend largely on Branca’s Profilo biografico.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Translated by G. H. McWilliam. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972. The best modern English translation available of Boccaccio’s masterpiece. Includes a lively introduction, along with some interesting observations on the history of the various English translations.
Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1976. This work is the indispensable biography of Boccaccio, on which all students of the writer depend. It is a careful reconstruction of the major events in the life, with reference to the literary works, correspondence, and contemporary documents. A comprehensive portrait of the author emerges, while popular myths (too long in circulation) are demolished. Includes the English translation of Profilo biografico, a biography by Branca.
Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio Medievale. Florence, Italy: Sansoni, 1970. A polemical assessment of Boccaccio’s work from the most authoritative commentator on this author. Focusing on The Decameron, this volume presents Boccaccio essentially as a product of medieval culture and is intended to counteract the prevailing view that the writer from Certaldo was essentially a Renaissance personality.
Chubb, Thomas Caldecot. The Life of Giovanni Boccaccio. London: Cassell, 1930. This old fashioned biography illustrates too vividly the vices of nineteenth century scholarship: the tendency to write Boccaccio’s life as if it were a novella and to accept certain myths encouraged by Boccaccio himself.
Cottino-Jones, Marga. Order from Chaos. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1982. An academic study of Boccaccio’s attempt to reestablish order through art: the aesthetic reflection of the human attempt to recreate social harmony out of the dislocation of the plague. Not for first-time readers of Boccaccio.
MacManus, Francis. Boccaccio. London: Sheed and Ward, 1947. Written just after World War II, with the intention of restoring to Italy, by way of praise of one of her great writers, some of the dignity the country had lost during the years of Fascism. The style is lively, but the author spends too much time coloring his narrative and lends too much credence to some of Boccaccio’s literary fancies.
Serafini-Sauli, Judith Powers. Giovanni Boccaccio. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. A very useful introduction to Boccaccio’s works. Introductory chapters deal with the writer’s background and the early years in Naples. Each section is preceded by biographical information as a preface to the commentary. Contains a good bibliography, with details of the works in Italian, Latin, and English translations.
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