Giovanni Boccaccio and the Italian Novelle

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born in 1313, Giovanni Boccaccio was brought up in a merchant’s family in Certaldo, near Florence. As a young man, he studied commerce and canon law in Naples, where he began his literary career and fell in love with the woman he would call Fiammetta. He returned to Florence in 1341, held various positions in Ravenna and Forli, and was settled again in Florence by 1348 when the Black Death devastated the city.

Although deeply inspired by the work of Dante and influenced by his elder contemporary and friend, Petrarch, Boccaccio’s literary output throughout his life was highly versatile and original. He composed the first Italian hunting poem (La caccia di Diana, c. 1334), the first Italian prose romance (Il filocolo, c. 1336; Labor of Love, 1566), the first Tuscan epic (Teseida, 1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974), the first Italian prose romance with pastoral elements (Ameto, 1341-1342), the first Italian psychological romance (Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, 1343-1344; Amorous Fiammetta, 1587, better known as The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta), the first Italian idyll (Il ninfale fiesolano, 1344-1346; The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597), allegories, lyric poetry, and The Decameron.

The Decameron is a bit of an anomaly among Boccaccio’s other works, which tend, on one hand, to be romantic and adventurous tales told for the aristocratic class and, on the other hand, to be sober, learned works for the scholars. The Decameron is at once a collection of diverting novelle for a wide, newly literate bourgeois audience and a glimpse into the increasingly realistic and observational art of the Renaissance. The setting for the frame of The Decameron is contemporary Florence, a city in the midst of the Black Plague. The framing tale is a remarkable piece of writing that heralds much of the Renaissance spirit to come. It is, undoubtedly, a grim introduction to the lighthearted tales to follow, but the circumstances of the Florentine plague allow for the extraordinary gathering of the young tale-tellers in a suburban villa.

Boccaccio’s description of plague-stricken Florence is one of the earliest European eyewitness accounts of a disaster that neither exaggerates nor allegorizes the events. His descriptions of the physical symptoms of the disease are scientific: “The said deadly buboes began to spread indiscriminately over every part of the body; and after this, the symptoms changed to black or livid spots appearing on the arms and thighs, and on every part of the body, some large ones and sometimes many little ones scattered all around. a very certain indication of impending death.” Likewise, his analysis of the effect of the plague on the citizenry of Florence has an almost sociological ring. He observes that because of the high death rate, such customs as female modesty before doctors and elaborate funeral rites, which had been commonplace, were abandoned out of necessity. Women stricken with the disease were grateful for the attention of any manservant, and dead family members were interred in mass burials. He notes that citizens resorted to a variety of means to ensure their survival—some fled the city, others practiced asceticism in the hope of warding off the deadly fumes, while still others abandoned themselves to the carpe diem pleasures of drinking and carousing away their last days. Anarchy reigned for “like other men, the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or...

(The entire section is 1456 words.)