Other Literary Forms

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Although Giovanni Boccaccio’s greatest work is the masterfully framed collection of one hundred Italian short stories known as The Decameron, he also left a large and significant corpus of poetry. His earliest poetry, written in Naples, is in Italian and includes the Rime (c. 1330-1340; poems), which comprises more than one hundred lyrics, mostly sonnets and not all of sure attribution. These short poems are largely dedicated to the poet’s beloved Fiammetta, who is identified in some of Boccaccio’s pseudoautobiographical writings as Maria d’Aquino; supposedly, she was the illegitimate daughter of King Robert of Naples, but more probably she was the invention of the poet. Similarly, the longer poem La caccia di Diana (c. 1334; Diana’s hunt), Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873), Il filocolo (c. 1336; Labor of Love, 1566), and Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974) are all poems ostensibly inspired by Boccaccio’s ardor for Fiammetta, whose name means “little flame.” Other poems that were composed in the 1340’s also treat the formidable power of love and include the Commedia delle ninfe, entitled Il ninfale d’Ameto by fifteenth century copyists (1341-1342; the comedy of the nymphs of Florence), L’amorosa visione (1342-1343; English translation, 1986), Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344; Amorous Fiammetta, 1587), and Il ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346; The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597).

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Achievements

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Giovanni Boccaccio created many literary firsts in Italian letters. He is often credited, for example, with the first Italian hunting poem (La caccia di Diana), the first Italian verse romance by a nonminstrel (The Filostrato), the first Italian prose romance (Labor of Love), and the first Italian idyll (The Nymph of Fiesole). Many scholars also regard Boccaccio as the greatest narrator Europe has produced. Such high esteem for the Tuscan author assuredly arises from his masterpiece, The Decameron, which has provided a model or source material for many notable European and English authors, from Marguerite de Navarre and Lope de Vega Carpio to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Even if Boccaccio had never composed his magnum opus, however, he would still enjoy significant acclaim in European literary history for his presumedly minor writings. For example, many consider his Amorous Fiammetta to be the first modern (that is, postclassical) psychological novel. Certainly his Il ninfale d’Ameto anticipates Renaissance bucolic literature. Contemporary medieval authors also looked to Boccaccio for inspiration. In The Filostrato, Geoffrey Chaucer found ample material for his Troilus and Criseyde (1382), and in The Book of Theseus Chaucer discovered the source for “The Knight’s Tale.” Boccaccio’s encyclopedic works in Latin resulted in his being regarded as one of the most prominent Trecento humanists. Indeed, it was as a Latin humanist, rather than as a raconteur of vernacular tales, that Boccaccio was primarily remembered during the first century following his demise.

Discussion Topics

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Define “visceral realism” in The Savage Detectives. Is it a literary movement, a way of life, a fraud, an affectation, or a mixture of these?

Roberto Bolaño’s novels frequently have a central mystery or shadowy character that appears to motivate the plot, but they are never themselves completely elucidated. Why?

Bolaño employs multiple points of view and narrative voices in some of his novels. Discuss how this technique builds suspense in The Savage Detectives. Does it lead to a resolution?

Is Father Urrutia’s attitude toward literature in By Night in Chile similar to Bolaño’s?

What details in Nazi Literature in the Americas suggest that it is fiction instead of a reference work? Discuss their effect, such as humor, satire, and political or literary critique, among others.

Other literary forms

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Although Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KOCH-ee-oh) was an excellent poet, his long-lived literary reputation is founded on his prose works. As a scholar and humanist, he wrote long encyclopedic works, including genealogies of the pagan Greek and Roman gods, geographies, and biographies of famous men and women from history, myth, and legend. De casibus virorum illustrium (1355-1374; The Fall of Princes, 1431-1438) as well as De mulieribus claris (c. 1361-1375; Concerning Famous Women, 1943) were influential in Geoffrey Chaucer’s composition of “The Monk’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). One of his most curious prose works, Corbaccio (c. 1355; The Corbaccio, 1975), is a long vernacular work, misogynistic in its theme, that parodies the conventions of the medieval dream-vision genre.

It is Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) that reveals his literary genius and narrative gift. Set during the Black Death, this large prose work consists of an outer narrative frame describing the effects of the plague on the city of Florence and the subsequent flight of three young men and seven women to the countryside, where they tell a hundred tales to amuse one another and pass the time. Often labeled the “mercantile epic,” The Decameron, with its focus on the vices and virtues of everyday life, is decidedly Renaissance in its outlook and tone.

Achievements

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Giovanni Boccaccio, along with his friend and fellow humanist Petrarch, can be classified as one of the architects of the Italian Renaissance. Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante are the crown jewels of fourteenth century Italian poetry. Boccaccio was both a scholar and a poet, and his writings in Latin and Italian took inspiration and delight in the classical past and his contemporary world. While he was instrumental in encouraging the reading and translating of ancient Greek literature, he also continued the tradition started by Dante of promoting vernacular Italian as a worthy vehicle for great poetry and prose. Read in the original or translated into a variety of languages, his works were instrumental in spreading Renaissance values and ideas throughout Europe. His prose and poetry were foundational and inspirational for later poets and writers, including Chaucer, Christine de Pizan, Ludovico Ariosto, William Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes. Boccaccio is also credited with popularizing the ottava rima; this verse form, used in his long poetic narratives, would become the mainstay for epic poetry written in Italian for centuries.

Bibliography

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Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent general introduction to Boccaccio. It begins with a historical background to Florentine life in the fourteenth century and proceeds to delineate the life of the author with emphasis on the major influences on his work. The early works are analyzed individually for their own merit and for their relationship to The Decameron. Contains lengthy but lucid discussion of The Decameron followed by notes and a useful list of works.

Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1976. The definitive biography of Boccaccio by an eminent scholar in the field of medieval literature. Branca analyzes Boccaccio from a historical perspective, provides an overview of the Middle Ages, discusses Florentine life during the period of the emerging merchant middle class, and focuses on the episode of the horrendous Black Plague. Branca offers many scholarly insights into Boccaccio’s prose production within a readable style that is accessible to the general public.

Caporello-Szykman, C. The Boccaccian Novella: The Creation and Waning of a Genre. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Defines the novella as a form that existed only between Boccaccio and Cervantes. Discusses generic characteristics of the Decameron, Boccacio’s narrative theory, and the novella’s place within the oral tradition.

Cottino-Jones, Marga. An Anatomy of Boccaccio’s Style. Napoli, Italy: Cymba, 1968. While the influence of Boccaccio on prose literature and the novel is of major importance, his linguistic contribution cannot be ignored. Boccaccio’s style was to be emulated by the writers of ensuing generations, and in the Renaissance he officially became the model for all Italian prose. Cottino-Jones analyzes the style of Boccaccio, its mixture of Latin and Florentine idioms, and illustrates how a study of its linguistic peculiarities can offer interesting insights into an interpretation of The Decameron.

Edwards, Robert R. Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Examines the influence of Boccaccio on Chaucer.

Forni, Pier Massimo. Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Examines Boccaccio’s style in his seminal work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Hollander, Robert. Boccaccio’s Two Venuses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. A thorough analysis of all Boccaccio’s works except The Decameron. The author contrasts classical and Christian influences in Boccaccio’s work and concludes that, although the latter predominates in the later works, even in the earlier prose the classical Venus is tempered by the use of irony. Concludes that Boccaccio is a moral philosopher who, unlike Dante, is not concerned with human appetites that lead to a spiritual death but with their negative effects in this world. More than one hundred pages of notes provide a tool for further research.

Moe, Nelson. “Not a Love Story: Sexual Aggression, Law and Order in Decameron X 4.” Romanic Review 86 (November, 1995): 623-638. Discusses the fourth tale of the tenth day as a reworking of an earlier Boccaccio treatment; examines his reformulation of the social significance of sexual transgression that is at the center of both versions of the tale. Argues that the revision transforms a tale of passion into a tale of property and discusses the use of legal discourse in the revision.

Stierle, Karlheinz. “Three Moments in the Crisis of Exemplarity: Boccaccio-Petrarch, Montaigne, and Cervantes.” Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (October, 1998): 581-595. Discusses Boccaccio’s response to the exemplum as a form of narration that presumes more similarity in human behavior than diversity; analyzes Boccaccio’s turn from exemplum to novella as a shift that indicates a crisis of exemplarity.

Wright, Herbert G. Boccaccio in England, from Chaucer to Tennyson. London: Athlone Press, 1957. Boccaccio’s fame is not limited to Italy, and it is particularly in England that his works had a major impact. This book analyzes the influence of Boccaccio on well-known authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with an especially lengthy and perspicacious discussion of the presence of Boccaccio in The Canterbury Tales. This volume is also a fine introduction to the comparative study of literatures, and it illustrates how masterpieces of literature in any language belong to the world community.

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