The Renaissance Novelle Analysis

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.)

Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has many resemblances to The Decameron, most critics are unwilling to admit that Chaucer was familiar with Boccaccio’s book. The connections between Chaucer’s book and Boccaccio’s are stylistic and thematic, not directly verbal. Although “The Clerk’s Tale,” the story of patient Griselda, is derived from The Decameron, Chaucer used Petrarch’s retelling of the tale as his model. Both Chaucer and Boccaccio present a variety of tales from the perspectives of different narrators; both use frame tales to set up a situation in which tales will be told to divert and entertain the company; and both authors have an enigmatic attitude toward the nature of language and reality. Chaucer’s frame, however, is more intricately and dramatically developed than Boccaccio’s.

Bound for a pilgrimage to the Canterbury shrine of Thomas à Becket, a group of about thirty citizens including a knight, a variety of religious figures, guildspeople, country folk, and Geoffrey, Chaucer’s affable and naïve avatar, gather at the Tabard Inn across the Thames from London. Encouraged by Harry Bailly, the host of the inn, the pilgrims agree to a storytelling contest on their journey. In the prologue Geoffrey introduces each of the pilgrims in a vivid and character-revealing sketch, and interspersed between the twenty-four tales are lively dramatic scenes involving the host and one or more of...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

French Nouvelles and Marguerite of Navarre

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Throughout the Middle Ages, French writers from Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France to the Chevalier de La Tour Landry and Christine de Pizan to countless anonymous authors of romances, exempla, and fabliaux exhibited skill and mastery in short fictional forms, both in verse and prose. At the end of the fourteenth century, the first vernacular collection of exempla, the Les Contes moralisés, compiled by Nicole Bozon, appeared in France. Nevertheless, it was the circulation of Italian novelle that provided a model for the development of French nouvelles in the fifteenth century.

The appearance of Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles (1456- 1461; One Hundred Merrie and Delightsome Stories, 1899), whose anonymous author declares that he consciously penned his work in imitation of The Decameron, occasions the first French collection of stories with no didactic overtones. However, it is the form of Boccaccio’s collection, not the stories, that are imitated. The frame for the tales is lightly developed—the storytellers are named, but there is little interaction or characterization. Some of the tales have analogues in Italian collections, but most are retold with original twists, and all have French settings. Oral sources probably supplied much of the material, as the author claims they are of fresche memoir.

The novella in France reached its peak in the sixteenth century in response to the growing bourgeois audience’s demand for an art based not on aristocratic fancies but on everyday life. The basic narrative technique depended upon a brief exposition, a humorous denouement dependent on a twist ending or trick, and a swift conclusion. The clear connection between the audience and the narrator and the dependence on oral sources is revealed in the use of repetitive devices, stereotyped reactions to events, and the use of verbal irony and understatement. A rather static and cynical view of human nature with a tendency to divide people into stereotypical categories leads to an emphasis on action over character or thought.

Nevertheless, the settings of the nouvelle are highly realistic: The audience demanded vérité—truthfulness—and the authors responded by asserting that their stories really happened and by providing such specificity of everyday life that the nouvelle remains one of the most reliable sources about how people actually lived in fifteenth and sixteenth century France. There is practically no use of the marvelous, miraculous, supernatural, or exotic—the authors are self-consciously and patriotically French. Dialogue reflects accurate patterns of speech with dialectical and regional...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)

Miguel de Cervantes and the Spanish Novelle

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The earliest influence on the development of the prose tale in Spain was, undoubtedly, Arabic. The eight hundred years of Moorish presence in Spain fostered the diffusion of Arabic learning and culture. When the Spaniards recaptured Toledo, it became a center for translation from Oriental sources. In the thirteenth century, Kalilah wa dimnah, the translation of an Arabic beast fable, and Sendebar, an adaptation of the Oriental Seven Sages tales, were the first examples of storytelling in Spanish. Translations of other collections of Eastern stories found their bridge into Europe through Spain. Don Juan Manuel’s Libro de los enxiemplos del conde Lucanor et de Patronio (1328-1335; Count Lucanor: Or, The Fifty Pleasant Stories of Patronio), a collection of exempla, draws on Arabic sources but exhibits an originality that marks it as an important harbinger of Spanish fiction.

Miguel de Cervantes’s claim that he wrote the first collection of novellas in Castilian is probably justified. His Novelas ejemplares (1613; Exemplary Novels, 1846), composed after Don Quixote, contains twelve tales that vary in style and tone but mainly fall into the two categories of romance-based stories and realistic stories. The focus of the tales is neither didactic nor simply entertaining; Cervantes here, as in Don Quixote, is interested in the nature of man’s existence in the world. Cervantes dispensed with the frame tale as did most of the Spanish novella writers of the 1620’s and 1630’s.

One notable exception is María de Zayas y Sotomayor, who wrote two collections of novellas set in the same frame: Novelas amorosas y exemplares (1637) and Desengaños amorosos (1647). In both collections, Lisis, a young noblewoman, is suffering from mal de amor (the malady of love), and her female friends gather around to tell tales about love, desire, and male treachery. All the tales are told by women for women, and the tone is cautionary—in a patriarchal, macho society women are often at the mercy of male treachery. Popular in her own day, Zayas’s frankness and openness about sexuality relegated her to the ranks of scandalous writers in the views of later literary critics. In the last of half of the twentieth century, however, her works have been rediscovered and have garnered a canonical status in the literature of the Spanish Golden Age.

Influence of the Renaissance Novella

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The emergence of the novel in the seventeenth century, the resurgent popularity of drama and poetry, and a preference for journalistic sketches and travel literature led to a decline of short fiction for about two hundred years. Nevertheless, Renaissance drama, especially in England, was highly indebted to novella collections for plots. It was the realism introduced by the Renaissance novella, along with the keen psychological insights about human behavior, that fostered the techniques that led to the development of the novel. The audience of female readers courted by novella writers was the same audience that writers of novels would tap to ensure the success of their endeavors. As the short story emerged in Europe and America at the turn of the nineteenth century, such pioneers of the realistic story as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schlegel acknowledged the debt to Boccaccio. The novella, with its fusion of Eastern and Western elements, is a cornerstone in the development of modern literature.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An approachable and comprehensive study of Boccaccio’s life and works.

Caporello-Szykman, Corradina. The Boccaccian Novella: The Creation and Waning of a Genre. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Caporella-Szykman argues that the true novella genre existed only between the publication of Boccaccio’s Decameron in 1349-1951 and Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares in 1613.

Cholakian, Patricia, and Rouben Cholakian. The Early French Novella: An Anthology of Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century French Tales. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972. A collection of French Renaissance nouvelles with an introduction discussing the history, themes, characters, and realism of the genre.

Clements, Robert J., and Joseph Gibaldi. Anatomy of the Novella: The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes. New York: New York University Press, 1977.

Forni, Pier Massimo. Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. A study of rhetorical tools used by Boccaccio in his development of vernacular realism.

Gittes, Katherine S. Framing the “Canterbury Tales”: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. A study of the Eastern and Western traditions of the frame narrative from the eighth to the fourteenth century that illuminates the methodology of The Canterbury Tales.

Greer, Margaret Rich. Desiring Readers: Maria de Zayas Tells Baroque Tales of Love and the Cruelty of Men. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. A comprehensive study of Zayas’s prose that explores the relationship between narration and desire—the desire for readers and the sexual desire that drives the telling of the novellas.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. A discussion of the influence of Arabic culture and literature on medieval and Renaissance literature.

Thompson, Nigel S. Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Debate of Love: A Comparative Study of the “Decameron” and the “Canterbury Tales.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1996. Thompson uses connections between the two works to argue that Chaucer was familiar with The Decameron.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. A History of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. A chronological history of Italian literature from the thirteenth century to the twentieth with chapters on Boccaccio and his contemporaries.