BORN: 1313, Italy
DIED: 1375, Italy
GENRE: Poetry, fiction
Filostrato (c. 1335)
The Decameron (1349-1351)
Life of Dante (1373)
Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio, Giovanni, photograph. The Library of Congress.
The Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio is best known for The Decameron. For his Latin works and his role in reviving Hellenistic learning in Florence, he is often considered one of the early humanists. Though Boccaccio is rooted in the Middle Ages, his conception of life hints at the Renaissance; like his fellow poet Petrarch, he straddled two periods. He strove to raise Italian prose to an art form nurtured in both medieval rhetoric and classical Latin prose and had immense admiration for Petrarch as well as for another of his Italian contemporaries, Dante Alighieri.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Desire to Compose. Giovanni Boccaccio was the son of a merchant from Certaldo, identified as Boccaccio di Chellino. The exact date and place of Boccaccio’s illegitimate birth are unknown. Despite tales of his birth in Paris, it seems that he was born in 1313 in Certaldo or, more likely, in Florence, where he spent his childhood. Of these years he wrote, ‘‘I remember that, before having completed my seventh year, a desire was born in me to compose verse.’’
Banking, a Muse, and Education in the Royal Court. His father claimed him as legitimate about 1320 and gave him a decent education, sending him to the school of a famous educator, Mazzuoli da Strada, whose son Zanobi remained a lifelong friend and correspondent of Boccaccio. In 1327, Boccaccio’s father was sent to Naples to head the branch of the Bardi banking company there. He took his son with him, clearly planning for him a life in commerce. The king of Naples, Robert of Anjou, was eager to establish lines of credit with the major Florentine banking houses. Under the Angevins, a French dynasty also named the House of Plantagenet, Naples became a commercial hub and, since King Robert had a taste for culture, a major center of learning. Boccaccio’s formative years were spent in this vibrant southern capital. While learning the business of banking (for which he had little inclination), he was drawn to the dynamic life of the port and the tales of merchants who arrived from all corners of the Mediterranean.
Through the royal court and library, he came into contact with some of the most distinguished intellectuals of his day. Naples was also a city of beautiful women, who both stimulated the young man’s senses and inspired his first literary efforts: romances in prose and verse that resembled the tradition of French love poetry. Like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, Boccaccio’s ‘‘Fiammetta’’ served as a muse, inspiring the works of the first halfofhis career. She has frequently been identified as Maria of Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of King Robert. Yet, like the notion of Boccaccio’s Parisian birth, this idea must be classified as myth, in part encouraged by Boccaccio himself, who sought to romanticize his life into a story overshadowed by the cloud of illegitimacy.
Before leaving Naples, Boccaccio had composed Diana's Hunt (c. 1334) and the lengthy Filostrato (c. 1335), a version of the tale of Troilus and Cressida in octave form. His Filostrato and The Book of Theseus (1340-1341) that followed are of particular interest, since they are, respectively, the sources of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and ‘‘The Knight’s Tale’’ from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).
Back to Florence. When Boccaccio returned to Florence at the end of 1340, he found a city in crisis. An upheaval in the banking world had brought many major Florentine companies close to bankruptcy. Boccaccio’s father, having weathered severe financial setbacks, had returned to the city in 1338 and was married to a woman for whom the son expressed little sympathy. Naples must have seemed far away, and Florence a dreary alternative. During the next decade, however, Boccaccio established himself as the leading storyteller of his generation.
Around this time, Boccaccio began thinking about his masterpiece, The Decameron. This collection of one hundred stories established Boccaccio as one of the founders of European narrative and served as a sourcebook for future storytellers (including Chaucer and Shakespeare). The Decameron weaves the idealized loves of the medieval tradition into the lives of merchants and adventurers. Set against the backgrounds of cities such as Florence, Naples, and Milan, the stories emphasize intelligence and individual initiative. The great pestilence of 1348 may have afforded Boccaccio the occasion to write his masterpiece; it provides the framework for this collection of one hundred stories. The book grew out of a period of despair for Boccaccio, as the plague killed his father and stepmother and made him the head of the family. The Decameron reflects Boccaccio’s desire for the restoration of order out of chaos.
Petrarch and Politics. Crucial to Boccaccio’s spiritual and artistic development in these years was his friendship with Petrarch, whom he had admired from a distance but finally met in Florence in September of 1350. In the spring of 1351, Boccaccio led a delegation to Padua, where Petrarch was residing, bringing with him the official restoration of citizenship to the poet (Petrarch’s father had been exiled, along with Dante, in the political crisis of 1300). Boccaccio also offered Petrarch a professorship at the newly established University of Florence—which he declined. In a garden in the shadow of the city cathedral, these two masters of Italian letters spent weeks in intimate conversation (faithfully transcribed by Boccaccio) on questions of poetry, politics, and morals. When Boccaccio experienced a religious crisis in 1362, Petrarch persuaded his dear friend not to abandon the vocation of literature and not to burn the manuscript of The Decameron.
During these years, Boccaccio was also at the service of the republic when needed and was actively engaged in diplomatic activities. He twice led delegations to the papal court at Avignon (in 1354 and 1365). The intention was to assure the pope that Florence was devoted to the papacy, as well as to encourage Pope Urban V to restore the pontificate to Rome. In spite of his age and the increasing dangers from bandits, both journeys were diplomatically successful.
By early 1361, Boccaccio had retired to Certaldo, which thereafter remained his home and refuge. In this final chapter of his life, three themes persisted: fidelity to relatives and friends (notably Petrarch), prompt service to the republic, and tireless devotion to literature. News of Petrarch’s death reached him late in 1374. On December 21, 1375, Boccaccio himself died and was buried in Certaldo in the Church of Saints Michael and James.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Boccaccio's famous contemporaries include:
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321): Boccaccio wrote the first biography of this famous Italian poet known for The Divine Comedy.
Petrarch (1304-1374): This close friend of Boccaccio was known for his poetry and gave his name to a sonnet form.
Pope Urban V (1310-1370): Pope from 1362 to 1370, Urban was a supporter of education and of the restoration of the papacy to Italy.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-c. 1400): This English writer's Canterbury Tales is very similar to The Decameron.
Works in Literary Context
Italian Prose. Boccaccio wrote in Italian at a time when Latin was considered the proper language of literature. He wrote prose when poetry was considered the domain of artists. He paved the way for generations of future novelists who sought to capture real speech in their works. The prose of The Decameron, in its balanced, rhythmic cadences, became the model of Italian literary prose.
Humanism. The Decameron tales have an abundance of subjects. In his multitude of characters, from ridiculous fools to noble and resolute figures, from all times and social conditions, Boccaccio depicts a fair version of human nature. He emphasizes intelligence and a kind of worldly prudence with which characters overcome difficult situations, noble or ignoble. Boccaccio presents life from an earthly point of view, with a complete absence of moralizing intentions. While Petrarch’s humanism is considered classic, Boccaccio’s approach is considered vernacular, or common, yet Petrarch’s traditional influence eventually changed Boccaccio’s style.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Boccaccio is said to be one of the Western world's first important humanists. Humanists during Renaissance times were concerned not with the supernatural but with morality and decency for all human beings, despite class, religion, or education. Here are some other works that affirm humanity's basic rational qualities.
History of the Peloponnesian War (c. 411 BCE), a history by Thucydides. This account of the famous war is special because it is relatively neutral, based on hard evidence, and does not focus on gods.
Canzoniere (1327-1368), poetry by Petrarch. Though these descriptions of the poet's love for Laura are often lofty, they express very honest human emotions.
Utopia (1516), a book by Thomas More. In More's idealized world, almost everything is tolerated, particularly most religions.
Works in Critical Context
Women in The Decameron The essential feature of The Decameron is realism; the world of the tales is the world of here and now. The demographic range is wide: it includes not only lords and princes but merchants, bankers, doctors, scholars, peasants, priests, and monks—and a surprising number of women. A token of the feminist thrust of the work may be seen in the fact that seven of the ten narrators are women. Additionally, Boccaccio prefaces The Decameron with a dedication to women. Scholar Ray Fleming, in his study of ‘‘Day Five’’ of The Decameron, looks at what he sees as Boccaccio’s ‘‘happy endings’’ through a feminist lens and shows that these endings are only perceived as happy due to ‘‘masculine priorities and values.’’ In contrast, Pamela Joseph Benson invites a reading of female agency: ‘‘A persuasive and sensitive profeminist voice emerges from the text, a voice that admires female political, moral and physical strength although it does not endorse a change in the contemporary political status of women.’’ Janet Levarie Smarr summarizes: ‘‘The issue of Boccaccio’s attitudes towards women has evoked considerable debate, especially in the last decade [1990s]. Arguments are easily found for both cases: that Boccaccio was a feminist ahead of his time, and that he shared the traditional or even misogynistic views of his era.’’
Poetic Force in The Decameron. Barbara Zaczek suggests that ‘‘by imbuing a word with the power to change, even invert, a given situation, Boccaccio draws the readers’ attention to the role of language in society, demonstrating how verbal interaction assumes social significance.’’ Gregory Stone also notes Boccaccio’s intersection between language, meaning, and importance: ‘‘Boccaccio conceives poetry as the force that originates, determines, or triggers physis. Poetry, in other words, is regarded not as the imitation of nature but rather as natura herself, as the birth, blossoming, or arising of a previously concealed human ethos. Poetry, for Boccaccio, is the event of historical alteration of human nature.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read Boccaccio’s Book of Theseus and Chaucer’s ‘‘The Knight’s Tale’’. Make a chart comparing and contrasting them. Consider plot points, characterization, settings, language, and tone.
2. With a classmate, research humanism on the Internet or at your library, then find examples of it in today’s pop culture. Create an audiovisual presentation for the class based on your findings.
3. Read a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. With a classmate, brainstorm ways in which the sonnets are similar to selections from Boccaccio that you have read in class.
4. Love, fortune, and pity are recurring themes in The Decameron. With a classmate, find two passages in the selections of The Decameron that you have read that deal with love, fortune, and/or pity. Together with your classmate, write an informal paper describing Boccaccio’s concept of love, fortune, and/or pity. Use examples from the text to support your opinions.
Bergin, Thomas. G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking, 1981.
Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans. Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
Carswell, Catherine MacFarlane. The Tranquil Heart: Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Chubb, Thomas Caldecot. The Life of Giovanni Boccaccio. London: Cassell, 1930.
Cottino-Jones, Marga. Order from Chaos. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
Hutton, Edward. Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study. London: Lane, 1910.
MacManus, Francis. Boccaccio. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1947.
Serafini-Sauli, Judith Powers. Giovanni Boccaccio. London: Twayne, 1982.
Smarr, Janet Levarie. ‘‘Speaking Women: Three Decades of Authoritative Females.’’ In Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism. Ed. Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki. Vol. 8. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Annali d’Italianistica, 2006.
Stone, Gregory B. The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.
Williams, Caitlin E. The Voice of Dioneo: Women in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Honors thesis, University of Connecticut, 2007. http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/srhonors_theses/24.
Zaczek, Barbara. ‘‘Creating and Recreating Reality with Words: The Decameron and The Women’s Decameron.’’ In Boccaccio and Feminist Criticism.
Ed. Thomas C. Stillinger and F. Regina Psaki. Vol. 8. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Annali d’Italianistica, 2006.
Fleming, Ray. ‘‘Happy Endings? Resisting Women and the Economy of Love in Day Five of Boccaccio's ‘Decameron.’’’ Italica 70, no. 1 (Spring 1993).
Bergin, Thomas G. ‘‘Boccaccio, Giovanni.’’ Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 1: Authors. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James, 2003. 134-136. Literature eBooks. Gale. Trial Site Database. June 10, 2008. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL.literature &u=k12_gvr.
‘‘Giovanni Boccaccio.’’ Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Updated: December 12, 1998. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
Lawton, Harry. ‘‘Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313-1375).’’ DISCovering World History. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. Gale. K12 Trial Site. June 10, 2008, http://find.galegroup.com/srcx/infomark.do?&contentSet=GSRC&type=retrieve&tabID=T001&prodld=DC&docld=EJ2105100396&source=gale&srcprod=DISC&user GroupName=k12_dc&version=1.0. Retrieved 6/ 10/08.
Licastro, Emanuele. ‘‘The Ninth Tale of the Fifth Day of the Decameron. Story by Giovanni Boccaccio, 1470 (Written 1349-1351).’’ Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 2: Works. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James, 2003. 1410-1411. Literature eBooks. Gale. Trial Site Database. June 10, 2008 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do? p=GVRL.literature&u=k12_gvr.