Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995
Although Giovanni Boccaccio is a foundational figure in Renaissance Humanism and literature, his life and work are, nevertheless, an outgrowth of the literary and cultural sensibilities of the late medieval period. Like Dante, whose works he admired tremendously, he chose to write in the vernacular and employ the dolce stil nuovo, “the sweet new style,” which emphasized personal introspection on matters of love and relied on a vocabulary of accepted metaphors and symbols to express the fruit of that introspection. In addition, his devotion to his muse, Fiammetta, and the poetry and prose she inspired reflect the tendency of contemporary poets to spiritualize the older courtly love traditions that originated in the writings of the twelfth century writer Andreas Cappellanus and the poetry of the troubadours and medieval romance poets. To this late medieval tradition, however, Boccaccio brought a burgeoning Renaissance way of thinking, as seen in his passion for the ideals, literary models, and narrative texts of the classical world. Specifically, his long narrative poems reflect a conscious imitation of epic and have for their subject matter classical myth and heroic tradition; he also wrote eclogues, Boccaccio’s Olympia, in Latin in imitation of Vergil.
In his narrative poetry, Boccaccio frequently explores the conflict between love and fortune and how each tests the lovers involved. Two of the most important in this genre are The Filostrato and The Book of Theseus.
Boccaccio based The Filostrato on the twelfth century Le Roman de Troie (the romance of Troy) by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. In this work, Boccaccio creates a complex poem of love, passion, and intrigue divided into eight cantos. The poem is set against the famed Trojan War, and the main character Troilo, a prince in the house of King Priam of Troy and a great warrior in the ongoing battle with the Greeks, is smitten with love for Criseida, a young widow whose father, Calchas, has defected to the Greek side. Her cousin Pandaro, a friend of Troilo, discovers his friend’s love and orchestrates a meeting and later romantic trysts. The vicissitudes of war interrupt their love, however, as Calchas arranges to have his daughter returned to him. Though Troilo and Criseida swear fidelity and plan for a swift reunion, Criseida is soon courted by the Greek Diomede and abandons Troilo, whose pain and sorrow at the loss of his love can find no solace. His subsequent death on the battlefield is the only thing that relieves him of his emotional pain. Throughout the poem, Troilo’s quick and complete surrender to an overwhelming and seemingly boundless love for Criseida is contrasted with her slow and deliberate yielding to the advances made on his behalf by Pandaro.
For Troilo, love is an overwhelming emotion that afflicts the will; it possesses him and renders him completely helpless in either working to fulfill his desires or extricating himself from them. Not so for Criseida, as she rules the relationship and to a great degree her own heart. She chooses to love Troilo and does so fully, but she is quite capable of leaving him behind when the circumstances of her life change. Ultimately, the poem presents how those who love deeply are subject to the whims of a fickle universe that brings lovers together and ultimately separates them. The proem to the text suggests that the theme and events reflect Boccaccio’s own love affairs, although literary historians have long debated how much of the poem is infused with autobiographical details. The Filostrato would eventually serve as the source for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382), which in turn would be the source for Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (pr. c. 1601-1602).
The Book of Theseus
Set in ancient Greece, The Book of Theseus, a twelve-canto poem, is Boccaccio’s attempt to write a poem in Italian that is consciously modeled on the classical epics of Vergil and Statius. Like his The Filostrato, it fuses the subjects of classical heroic poetry with a courtly love tradition. The plot of the narrative relates how Teseo (Theseus) conquers the Amazons, marries their queen, Ippolita (Hippolyta), and then returns to his homeland. After defeating Thebes in battle, Teseo takes two Thebans prisoner, the cousins Arcita and Palemone. While imprisoned, the two catch sight of Emilia, Ippolita’s sister, and are immediately smitten with love for her. Eventually their freedom is gained, and with Teseo’s approval, they compete in a tournament for Emilia’s hand in marriage. All three pray to the gods for intervention to resolve the conflict and receive answers. Mars intercedes on behalf of Palemone, who wins the battle and Emilia for his bride. Shortly thereafter, Venus, on behalf of Arcita, strikes down Palemone. After Palemone’s funeral, Emilia and Arcita are married.
Interestingly, the poem presents the matters of love and war as situations that paradoxically allow human beings to achieve the highest expressions of their virtues, such as loyalty, bravery, piety, and compassion, while at the same time engaging in acts of war and in brutal conflict. In the end, Boccaccio balances the turmoil and strife that both war and love can bring to the world with the balance and order of the world as ordained and maintained by the gods. Teseo is the human counterpart of the gods, as he too is a source of order, wisdom, virtue, and power.
Over the years, critics have debated Boccaccio’s success in reviving the classical epic in The Book of Theseus. For some, his ambition and hopes for the work as epic were not matched by his poetic abilities. They claim that the poem, rather than achieving the lofty seriousness of epic narrative, instead tends toward the melodramatic and that the plot is stretched to meet the required twelve cantos necessary for an epic. Nevertheless, Chaucer found the work to be intriguing enough to use its plot, characters, and passages as the basis for “The Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.