Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1935
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 Love, like The Decameron, begins with a group of characters who escape unpleasant reality by fleeing to a world of fantasy. The stories are told within a certain structure. As in The Decameron, there is a presiding officer to order and control the episodic events and certain problematic questions to be addressed and established at the outset.
The technique of writing a narrative that contains within it many narratives is characteristic of Boccaccio. It is present in The Decameron and Labor of Love; hints of it had also appeared in such earlier works as The Nymph of Fiesole and the L’amorosa visione (1342-1343; English translation, 1986). Numerous dominant themes and motifs so richly portrayed in The Decameron were cultivated in his earlier writings. The pathetic, abandoned, or scorned lover is one such figure; it inhabits The Decameron but was introduced in such early works as The Filostrato, Amorous Fiammetta, and L’amorosa visione. The theme of adultery is present throughout Boccaccio’s writings, without necessarily a moral judgment.
The Decameron, however, views such things from a totally new perspective for the Middle Ages: a perspective that shrugs at human indecencies and failings and portrays them in a comic light. It is this unique, delightful perspective that has prompted literary critics to compare The Decameron to Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
First published: Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto, 1349-1351 (English translation, 1620)
Type of work: Novel
Ten young people escape the city of Florence together during the Black Death and amuse each other by telling stories.
Contemporary Florence, during the terrible Black Plague, is the setting chosen by Boccaccio for The Decameron, which historians generally agree was written between 1349 and 1351. A desire to escape the horrors of the city prompts a group of ten young people (seven women and three men) to retreat to a country villa. There, they amuse themselves by telling each other stories.
The structure of The Decameron begins with a frame. The author addresses his readers, whom he presumes to be women, in his prologue, declaring his intent. He offers The Decameron as a pleasant distraction to those tormented lovers whose woes are more difficult to endure. He then apologizes to the “charming ladies” for the book’s unpleasant but necessary beginning. A graphic description in realistic detail of the devastation of the plague in the city of Florence follows. The device of the frame was used by Boccaccio in earlier works, but on a smaller scale, as in Labor of Love. The frame in The Decameron provides a specific location and date to the story, while offering a realistic and reasonable explanation for such a collection of unchaperoned young people in a remote place. It further serves to unify what would otherwise be a loose collection of seemingly unrelated tales. The frame characters are the ten narrators, each endowed with intelligence, breeding, charm, and some distinguishing feature. Once settled in their country villa, it is proposed that each of the ten preside as queen or king for one day, choose a topic for that particular day, and invite everyone to recount an appropriate tale: thus, the significance of ten by ten, or one hundred stories, which explains the title and also satisfies medieval numerology.
The first day is ruled by Pampinea, the oldest, who assumes throughout the book a somewhat mature, motherly stance. There is no appointed topic of the day, but many of the stories told represent the tenor of the book as a whole. The tale of the debauched and irreverent Ciappelletto, who confesses falsely on his deathbed with such seemingly deep contrition to sins so minor as to render him a saint in the perception of those around him, is one of the most famous stories in The Decameron. Vice and virtue intertwine in the work as in life, and Boccaccio chooses to begin with a symbol of ultimate evil.
Filomena rules the second day, and her theme is those who overcome adverse fortune to their advantage. Representative is the story of Andreuccio, a simple-minded horse trader from Perugia, whose misfortunes in the city of Naples teach him to sharpen his wits—an apt lesson for any merchant.
The third day, under the reign of Neifile, is dominated by stories of lust, although the proposed theme is the successes of people who seek to achieve through their own efforts. The use of ingenuity and guile to achieve seduction is common to most of the stories of the day, and members of the clergy are not spared as protagonists in this collection of characters.
The theme of the fourth day, ruled by Filostrata, is in striking contrast to its predecessor. The theme of unhappy loves is designated, and the stories that follow are, for the most part, of a pathetic, if not tragic, nature. One example is the story of Ghismonda, who eloquently defends her love of a man of low breeding to her disapproving father by stating that his is the only true nobility, one of character. Ghismonda ultimately kills herself after her father has the lover’s heart cut out and sent to her in a goblet.
The fifth day is ruled by Fiammetta, who calls for stories of lovers whose trials have ended happily. The most moving story is that told by Fiammetta herself: the tale of Ser Federigo and his beloved falcon, which he ultimately sacrifices to please his lady. The focus in this episode is utmost chivalry, a reminder of the traditions dominating contemporary literature, and perhaps a personal comment on nobler times.
The theme for the sixth day, announced by Elissa, is the use of clever retort as a means of avoiding danger or embarrassment. The witty Filippa, who avoids the death penalty for adultery by eliciting an admission from her husband that he was never denied her charms and by exclaiming that she should not be punished for donating her leftovers to others, is exemplary.
The seventh, eighth, and ninth days, ruled by Dioneo, Lauretta, and Emilia, are devoted to tricksters: women who try to fool their husbands or men who play tricks on others. Human astuteness is praised, even if the emphasis seems to be on the comic. Many of the tales concern the Bruno-Buffalmaco pranksters, who never tire of victimizing their simple-minded companion, Calandrino, who is even duped at one point into thinking that he is pregnant.
The stories of the tenth day, according to Panfilo, are to be of those who acted liberally or magnanimously, in love or other matters. The theme on the tenth day is to treat only those actions motivated by generosity or lofty ideas. The last story is that of Griselda, who appears as a symbol of womanly virtue, of humility and goodness, and who thereby offers a poignant contrast to the very first tale and the figure of Ser Ciappelletto.
Viewing The Decameron as a whole, it is not surprising that critics have referred to it as “The Human Comedy” while comparing it to Dante’s masterpiece. Human nature is examined and reexamined throughout, from the tragic to the comic, from noble to base, but always with a tolerance that is the force behind the comic spirit that only Boccaccio could create.
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