Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio

(1313 – 1375)

Giovanni Boccaccio was perhaps the greatest realistic story teller of the later Middle Ages and along with Chaucer did much to develop a vernacular literature of wit, sharp psychological observation, and tolerance for human foibles. He was born the illegitimate child of a merchant of Naples but was later legitimized.

His father, a banker, gave him a good education and allowed him to follow a literary career. He claimed that his mother was French, though this, like other supposed “facts” in his biographical comments, may be pure self-construction. Another key element in his life, his love for a certain Fiammetta, may also have been somewhat fictionalized. Boccaccio went to work in Naples in his father’s countinghouse, but he soon left to study canon law at the University of Naples about 1331. All told, he spent some thirteen years in Naples, reading in the Royal Library, learning the life of the court and of the mercantile classes. Thus, books, business, and aristocratic love would all come to be later subjects of his work. It was also in Naples that he started to read Dante.

Life in Mercantile Florence

The second phase of Boccaccio’s life was in a totally different environment, in the mercantile city-state of Florence, where the nobility were forbidden to hold public office. Here money and political shrewdness were elevated above the virtues he had learned at Naples.

In 1340 he became secretary to important Florentines, making a living serving the commune as a roving ambassador or as an emissary to the papal court at Avignon (in 1354 and again in1365). It was in Florence that he became friendly with the famous poet Francesco Petrarch in about 1350, who helped him with his Latin. He also later learned Greek, though with difficulty. Thus Boccaccio was a man of two worlds: one of the Neapolitan culture of lords and vassals, watching tournaments and pageantry, and reading about aristocratic values and refined love; the other of Florentine mercantilism, in a city dominated by a class struggle for political and social power, where money and opportunism were prized above all things.

Writing in the Classical style

Boccaccio’s early experiences were reflected in poems with mythological titles and classical subjects, like Diana’s Hunt (1334), the Filostrato (about the Troy legend, 1335), and the Teseida (c. 1340), about the Theban story of Theseus and the war against the Amazons. In all of the secourtly love works, love rules all and knows no law. In his middle period there is evidence of his Florentine learning in works that still use classical materials and feature the power of love, but now more in an allegorical than a narrative mode.

By the 1350s, Boccaccio turned from vernacular narrative poetry to Latin learned prose works, such as the Praise of Famous Women, On the Fall of Famous Men, and the Genealogies of the Pagan Gods, the last reflecting his newly acquired skill in classical Greek.

The Decameron

decameron boccaccio

In 1351, however, Boccaccio turned directly to the contemporary Florentine world with the Decameron, a work that has proven to have an enduring influence. In this collection of stories, ten young people seven women and three men, all rich and cultivated meet at the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and plan to escape the plague decimating the city by going to a country house, where they will pass time by telling 100 tales ten from each person. Based on Eastern story collections, classical sources, fabliaux, Florentine gossip, and personal observation, these stories mark a shift from the world of refined erotic fancy illustrated in Boccaccio’s earlier writings to the land of things as they are, where calculation displaces illusion.

The majority of the characters are middle class, including merchants or wives of merchants, peasants, laborers, and artisans. While Dante believed that only people of prominence could serve a didactic purpose, Boccaccio used people from every walk of life, including a larger proportion of female characters and of women in importantroles than any other writer of his period. In contrast to earlier works like the Song of Roland, the Decameron represents a recognition of the triumph of wit over prowess in a world where values were less absolute and increasingly more relativistic.

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