Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783
Giovanni Boccaccio’s short fiction, one hundred novelle, or tales, is collectively and contemporaneously his longest work of fiction, known as The Decameron. That fact must be kept foremost in mind in any serious analysis of the tales. In other words, Boccaccio’s individual short stories are best understood when examined as part of a much larger work of fiction which has an elaborate cornice, or frame, striking symmetry, and selective and oft-repeated themes.
The word decameron, Greek for “ten days,” refers to the number of days Boccaccio’s fictional characters (three young men and seven young women) dedicate to swapping tales with one another in the tranquil Tuscan countryside away from the plague-infested city of Florence. The work’s subtitle, “Prencipe Galeotto” (Prince Galahalt), refers to the panderer Galahalt, who brought Guinevere and Lancelot together, and emphasizes that Boccaccio’s book— dedicated to women—is written, not unlike many of his early poems, in the service of love. As the narration of the first day begins, three men—Panfilo (“all love”), Filostrato (“overcome by love”), and Dioneo (“the lascivious”), alluding to the love goddess Venus, daughter of Dione—come by chance one Tuesday upon seven women, who are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight, in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The year is 1348, and the Black Death is the macabre background for what happens in the course of the telling of the tales. The seven women—Pampinea (“the vigorous”), Fiammetta (whose name echoes that of Boccaccio’s beloved), Filomena (“lover of song”), Emilia (“the flatterer”), Lauretta (in homage to Petrarch’s beloved Laura), Neifile (“new in love”), and Elissa (another name for Vergil’s tragic heroine Dido)—anxiously wish to remove themselves from the diseased and strife-torn city and repair to the healthful and peaceful countryside. The young men agree to accompany the ladies, and the following day (a Wednesday) the group leaves for a villa in nearby and idyllic Fiesole. Better to enjoy what is essentially a fortnight’s holiday, Pampinea suggests that they tell stories in the late afternoon when it is too hot to play or go on walks. It is decided that one of them will be chosen as king or queen for each day, and he or she will select a theme for the stories to be told on that day. Only Dioneo, who tells the last tale each day, has the liberty of ignoring the general theme if he so desires. They then proceed to tell ten stories per day over a two-week period, refraining from tale-telling on Fridays and Saturdays out of reverence for Christ’s crucifixion and in order to prepare properly for the Sabbath. On a Wednesday, the day following the last day of telling tales and exactly two weeks from the day the group left Florence, they return to their respective homes.
The emphasis on order and propriety, the presentation of the countryside as a locus amoenus, the repetition of the number ten (considered a symbol of perfection in the Middle Ages), and even the total number of tales (one hundred, equal to the number of cantos in Dante’s The Divine Comedy) are all aspects of the work which contrast sharply with the disorder, impropriety, and lack of harmony which characterized Florence during the 1348 plague. The author graphically depicts, in the opening pages of the book, examples of the social chaos caused by the plethora of plague-induced deaths. The pleasant pastime of telling tales in the shade of trees and the skillful ordering of the stories serve, in other words, as an obvious antidote or salutary response to the breakdown of society which resulted from the deadly pestilence which swept Italy and much of Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Further supporting the notion that The Decameron presents an ordered universe as an alternative to the chaos and anarchy created by the plague is Boccaccio’s insistence that his storytellers, though they may occasionally tell ribald tales, are uniformly chaste and proper in their behavior toward one another.
The stories told on each of the ten days which make up The Decameron explore a predetermined subject or theme. On the first day, everyone is free to choose a topic—one is the character “Abraam giudeo” (“Abraham the Jew”). On the second day, the stories treat those, such as the subject of “Andreuccio da Perugia” (“Andreuccio of Perugia”), who realize unexpected happiness after serious misfortune. Then, on the third day, the stories discuss people who have accomplished difficult goals or who have repossessed something once lost, among which is the tale “Alibech” (“Alibech and Rustico”). The next day, the narrators tell love stories which end unhappily (see “Tancredi, Prenze di Salerno” and its English translation). On the fifth day, they tell love stories which depict misfortune but end felicitously (see “Nastagio degli Onesti” and the English translation). The stories told on the sixth day deal with the role of intelligence in helping one avoid problems—one of the most famous among these is “Cisti fornaio” (“Cisti the Baker”). On the seventh day, the stories relate tricks which wives play on husbands (see “Petronella mette un so amante in un doglio,” or “Petronella and the Barrel”), and on the eighth day, the stories recount tricks men and women play on each other, as in “Calandrino” (“Calandrino and the Heliotrope”). On the ninth day, once again everyone is free to choose a topic (one is described in “Le vasi una badessa in fretta ed al buio per trovare una sua monaca a lei accusata” and its translation, “The Abbess and the Nun”). Finally, on the tenth day, the narrators tell of men and women who have performed magnanimous deeds and acquired renown in so doing (see “Il Marchese di Saluzzo,” or “The Marchese di Saluzzo and Griselda”).
In addition to the pronounced framing technique created by the introductions to the various days and by the themes themselves, there seems to be a degree of subtle thematic framing within the stories themselves from first to last. The first story of the first day, “Ser Cepparello,” tells how a most wicked man—clearly a figura diaboli, or type of the devil—deceived a friar with a false confession and came to be reputed a saint. On one hand, the tale ridicules gullible priests and credulous common folk, but on the other hand, it presents the undeniable power of human cunning. The tenth story of the tenth day recounts the story of how the Marquis of Saluzzo marries the peasant Griselda and subjects her to inhuman trials to ascertain her devotion; for example, he pretends to have their two children killed. His cruelty is ostensibly designed to test her love or respect for him; her extraordinary patience in responding to his bestiality assuredly makes of her a figura Christi, or type of Christ. From the comedic devil figure of Cepparello to the tragic Christ figure of Griselda there appears to be in The Decameron a revelation of the breadth of the human condition and the wide-ranging possibilities of human experience. Nevertheless, Boccaccio explores a variation on at least one of two themes in almost all of his stories: the power of human intelligence (for good or bad) and the effect of love or human passion (for the well-being or detriment of those involved). At times, these themes are intermingled, as in so many of the stories of the seventh day having to do with the ingenious tricks wives play on their (usually cuckolded) spouses.
Often when treating the advantages of human wit, the author provides a Florentine or Tuscan setting to his story. For example, in the sixth day, “Cisti the Baker” is set in Florence and illustrates the rise and power of the hardworking and hard-thinking merchant class Boccaccio knew so well in his hometown. Similarly, “Guido Cavalcanti,” told on the same day, has Florence as its setting and reveals the barbed wit of one of the city’s native sons. There are also tales told of Florentines who are dull-witted; examples would include the various eighth and ninth day stories about the simple-minded painter Calandrino, who is constantly being tricked by his supposed friends Bruno and Buffalmacco. Those who outsmart him, however, are fellow Florentines. By contrast, many of the highly adventurous tales are set in cities far away from Florence, often in exotic locations. Not surprisingly, Naples figures prominently in perhaps the most notable of the adventure tales—that is, “Andreuccio of Perugia,” the story of a provincial young man who goes to a big city (Naples) to buy horses and ends up suffering a series of misfortunes only to return home with a ruby of great value. In the tale, Naples symbolizes adventure and daring and is undoubtedly meant to recall the city of the author’s youth.
The Love Tales
Boccaccio’s love tales repeatedly, though not exclusively, present realistic women in place of the idealized and angelic women Dante was wont to exalt. In stories scattered throughout The Decameron, but especially in those of the third and fifth day, the physical and pleasurable union of man and woman is portrayed as the healthy and correct goal of human love. While some interpret such unabashed celebration of humankind’s sexuality as a sure indication that The Decameron is a Renaissance work, it should be remembered that approximately ninety percent of Boccaccio’s tales derive from medieval sources. G. H. McWilliam, in the introduction to his excellent English translation of The Decameron, reviews with insight the problem of how to classify the book with regard to historical period. He points out that the harsh judgment leveled against friars and monks, whether they are philanderers or simoniacs, has numerous precedents in the literature of the Middle Ages, including Dante’s thoroughly medieval The Divine Comedy.
This is not to say, however, that The Decameron does not look to the future, for it most certainly does. For one thing, when Boccaccio attacks the superstitious religious beliefs and corrupt ecclesiastical practices of his times, he does so with more severity than did his predecessors; for another, he presents the centrality of sexuality to the human condition without recourse to sermons or condemnations of the same. In both ways, he draws closer to the spirit of a new age and distances himself from the Middle Ages. His overriding purpose in the tales, however, is to illuminate the spectrum of humankind’s experiences and to point, in a world accustomed to pain and disease, a way to happiness and health. Boccaccio’s medium is always the well-worded and exquisitely framed story; his best medicine, more often than not, is laughter or the praise of life.
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