An appreciation of the numerous and varied works of Boccaccio must begin with an understanding of the historical and cultural milieu in which they were conceived. Boccaccio was an innovative artist whose development as a writer sprang from a solid foundation on traditional medieval rhetoric and classical models. Evidence of medieval philosophy and literary devices, as well as those of ancient classical writers, pervades all of his works. Boccaccio was also engaged, however, in a new endeavor: the development of an Italian literary language comparably suitable for literary purposes, as Latin had been. Although vernacular Italian had been developed and used in the poetry of such authors as Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio was the first Italian writer to employ the models of past classical traditions and style to develop a rich vernacular prose for fiction. This singular achievement, coupled with his masterful development of the narrative, places him among the greatest of Italian writers. His remarkable skill in characterization and his unparalleled status as a consummate raconteur influenced writers throughout the world.
A summary glance at the works of Boccaccio tempts the novice to categorize his literary efforts simply into three distinct phases. His first works, both poetry and prose, clearly reflect the conventional medieval treatment of the subject of idealistic courtly love. Characteristic emphasis on rhetorical eloquence, the heavy use of allegory and theological symbolism, and the ever-present influence of Dante as well as classic Greek writers are common threads throughout the writings preceding The Decameron.
At least superficially, The Decameron itself seems to stand out among the works of Boccaccio as an anomaly. This period in his life as a writer is markedly distinct from any other. In his later years, scholarship replaced creativity in the author, and the object of his efforts was to service the needs of those devoted to erudition. The Decameron, however, was neither the exposition of ideals of a romantic young poet nor work written for the consumption of scholars. Rather, it served, by the author’s own admission, as a diversion for the new flowering class of the bourgeois public, particularly women. It is a unified collection of tales, many comic, some rather bawdy, written strictly to delight from the perspective of an open-minded realist, with winking tolerance of the flaws of human nature that motivate the actions of his various colorful protagonists.
An adequate analysis of Boccaccio’s works must also address the fruits of his labor in an integrated manner. Numerous stylistic, thematic, and structural traits unique to the times and the author himself appear throughout his youthful works as well as his most advanced literary endeavors. The influence of Dante, Petrarch, and other poets who claimed allegiance to il stil nuovo (the sweet new style), a popular style of poetry of the time, is evident in the majority of Boccaccio’s works, as well as the use of “tertiary rhyme,” a rhyming device popularized by Dante. Also borrowed from these poets were the conventional themes of courtly love, the dedication to a particular lady and her heavenly beauty, and the ennobling power of love.
Perhaps the most significant Dantean influence in the works of Boccaccio is the use of allegory, whether under the guise of fictitious narrative, portraying a moral (Amorous Fiammetta and The Decameron), or as a representation of the refining effects of sensual love (The Filostrato, The Book of Theseus, and The Decameron). Erotic allegory and the use of history as allegory were also characteristic of Boccaccio’s early works.
Boccaccio, like his colleagues, inherited and utilized the thematic resources of Old French ballads and traditions, as evidenced by Labor of Love, The Filostrato, and The Decameron, with their themes of star-crossed lovers confronting adversity in the form of social or class distinctions and consequent disapproval.
Although Boccaccio incorporated into his writings the vast legacy of literary forms and devices provided by his predecessors, he fashioned these elements into a new style, a new perspective, and created an art form that was to become uniquely his own. Boccaccio’s greatest distinction lies in his vivid narrative style and strategy in his prose fiction. It is first evidenced in embryonic form in Labor of Love, which is considered a plot model for The Decameron.
It is notable that, in both works, the author himself intrudes to explain his purpose in writing the book: to please the fair sex. Labor of...
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