In 1348, the Black Death, the most devastating epidemic in European history, swept across the continent. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), at the beginning of his famous Decameron, describes its effects on his city, Florence. Many people just dropped dead in the street. Others died in their houses, often unattended by their families. Husbands and wives, fearing infection, sat and prayed in separate rooms. Mothers walked away from their children and closed the door. In the words of a new translation of the Decameron (Norton), by Wayne A. Rebhorn, a specialist in Renaissance literature at the University of Texas, the Florentines
carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.
Shops stood empty. Churches shut down. An estimated sixty per cent of the population of Florence and the surrounding countryside died.
And so begins the Decameron. Seven young ladies, friends—Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, and Emilia—meet after Mass. They range in age from eighteen to twenty-eight, and they are all of genteel birth. Let’s get out of here, Pampinea, the eldest, says. Let’s go to our country estates. The other women say that they’d love to, but they think they should bring some men along. Soon, they assemble three gentlemen linked to them by kinship or by affection—Filostrato, Dioneo, and Panfilo—and the ten young people decamp at dawn for the countryside.
They agree on a routine. In the morning and in the evening, they will take walks, sing songs, and eat exquisite meals, with fine wines, golden and red. In between, they will sit together and each will tell a story on a theme set for the day: generosity, magnanimity, cleverness, etc. They will stay together for two weeks. Two days must be devoted to personal obligations, and two to religious duties. That leaves ten days. Ten tales times ten days: at the end, they will have a hundred stories. That collection, with various introductions and commentaries, is the Decameron.
Boccaccio wrote the book between 1348 and 1352, when the values of the Middle Ages (valor, faith, transcendence) were yielding to those of the Renaissance (enjoyment, business, the real). The Middle Ages were by no means over. Boccaccio’s young ladies do not assemble in real meadows, where bugs might crawl up their dresses. They gather in ideal fields. Birds sing; jasmine perfumes the air. The animals don’t know to be afraid of humans: little rabbits come and sit with the young people. This is the locus amoenus, or “pleasant place,” of ancient and medieval pastoral poetry. It is a sort of paradise, and that is what it is based on: Eden.
Social relations, too, are idealized, and imbued with the conventions of medieval courtly love. The Decameron has not just one frame—the young people in the countryside—but two. In the outer one, Boccaccio speaks to the reader directly. He is writing this book, he says, for ladies afflicted by love: “Gracious ladies,” “amiable ladies,” the narrators begin. And, whatever the day’s theme, love figures prominently in perhaps nine out of ten tales. As in the songs of the medieval troubadours, love ennobles you. In one story, a young man known locally as “stupid ass” no sooner falls in love than he begins to dress elegantly and to study philosophy.
Boccaccio was not a noble; he was one of the nuova gente, the mercantile middle class, whose steady rise since the twelfth century the nobles feared and deplored. Boccaccio’s father, Boccaccino di Chellino, was a merchant, and he expected Giovanni to join the trade. Giovanni was born illegitimate, but Boccaccino acknowledged him. When the boy was thirteen, Boccaccino moved from Florence to Naples to work for an important counting house, and he took his son with him, to learn the business: receive clients, oversee inventory, and the like. Boccaccio did not enjoy this work, and so his indulgent father paid for him to go to university, to study canon law. Boccaccio didn’t like that, either, but during this time he read widely. (The Decameron is, unostentatiously, a very learned book.) He also began to write: romances in verse and prose, mostly. With those literary credits, plus his father’s contacts, he gained entry to Naples’s Angevin court, whose refinements seeped into his work. He later said that he had never wanted to be anything but a poet. In Naples, he became one, of the late-medieval stripe. These were the happiest years of his life.
When he was in his late twenties, they came to an end. Boccaccino had business reverses. He and Giovanni returned to Florence, which, at that time, was the capital of Italian mercantilism. And so, from the exalted realm of court manners and medieval allegory, Boccaccio dropped down into a milieu of calculation and ambition and realism—of merchants, after a day’s work, sitting around the fire at an inn, with their boots on the grate, talking business and trading stories. The young man no doubt recoiled, and then, eventually, he acclimated. Indeed, on the evidence of the Decameron, he came to love this rough-and-tumble world. The majority of the tales are about people of the merchant class, and the skill they most feature is the one most prized by that class, ingegno: cleverness, wit, thinking on your feet. Only on four of the ten days is cleverness the declared theme, but many stories told on the other days are also about that. Boccaccio still liked gentlefolk, especially highborn ladies, with cheeks like roses, but it is in their commentaries on the tales—and, for the most part, only then—that the Decameron becomes boring. The proles are what give the book its richness and humor and vital force.
A famous tribute to ingenuity is the story of Peronella, told by Filostrato. Peronella spins wool for a living, and her husband is a stonemason. She is pretty, and soon she has a lover, Giannello. One morning after the husband has gone to work, Peronella and Giannello are enjoying each other’s company when suddenly the husband returns. There is a barrel in the house, and Peronella tells Giannello to hide in it. When the husband enters, she begins loudly berating him:
What’s the story here? Why have you come back home so early like this? It seems to me, seeing you there with your tools in your hands, that you want to take the day off. If you carry on like this, how are we going to live? Where are we supposed to get our bread from?
Calm down, the husband says. We’ve had a windfall. See that barrel over there? Well, he just sold it for five silver ducats. Call off the deal, Peronella says. She has sold the barrel for seven ducats, and the man who bought it is right now inside the barrel, checking its condition. Out pops Giannello, claiming that the inside of the barrel needs to be scraped if he is to buy it. The husband climbs in and goes to work. Peronella leans over the top of the barrel and gives him orders: “Scrape here, and here, and over there.” As she bends over, Giannello, whose business with Peronella that morning had been interrupted, lifts her skirt from behind. After the three have finished, simultaneously, Giannello pays the husband the seven ducats and, in a lovely, tart last sentence, gets him to take the barrel to his house.
What Peronella and Giannello are up to as the husband cleans the barrel is Boccaccio’s other main theme: unfraught sex, of a kind that has probably not been wholly comprehensible to Western people since the Reformation. Today’s audience can perhaps understand the adultery that is rampant in the Decameron, especially since, at that time, most marriages were still arranged by the families. And modern readers can probably also sympathize with the young people in the Decameron who claim that they have a right, by reason of their age, to bed whomever they can. But many readers, however amused, have also been taken aback by tales like Peronella’s, and the Decameron overflows with such material. This is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon.
Some of the unchaste are punished. Tancredi, the prince of Salerno, discovering that his daughter is having an affair with one of his valets, orders that the man be strangled, and his heart cut out. He then puts the heart in a golden chalice and sends it to his daughter. She unflinchingly raises the bloody organ to her mouth, kisses it, puts it back in the cup, pours poison over it, drinks, and dies. There are other terrible conclusions—defenestration, decapitation, disembowelment—but they have a certain élan, as in Jacobean tragedy. Most important, the miscreants feel no guilt. There may be sorrows, but not that sorrow.
Even less do unpunished lovers feel remorse. They often live happily and, despite their former inconstancy, faithfully ever after, either meeting frequently or even, by some means, marrying. Boccaccio writes of one couple, “Without ever paying attention to holy days and vigils or observing Lent, the two of them had a jolly life together, working away at it as long as their legs could support them.”
The dominant notes of the Decameron are this realism and cheer and disorderliness, but, whatever you say about the book, something else arises to contradict you. Though Boccaccio insists on Renaissance earthiness, he makes room for elegant medievalisms. The young people often join hands and do the carola, a circle dance born of the Middle Ages. They also, now and then, between tales, deliver long, ornate speeches, full of medieval rhetorical flourishes. You may weary of these refinements and long to get back to the nice, rude tales, but the tension between the two modes is fundamental to the Decameron.
Another conflict has to do with religion. The young people sometimes make ardent professions of faith. Yet Boccaccio is not afraid of blasphemy—at one point, he refers to a man’s erection as “the resurrection of the flesh”—and there is almost nothing he insists on more than the corruption of the clergy. They are stupid and lazy. Your wives are not safe with them. They smell like goats. In one story, the merchant Giannotto di Civignì tries to get his Jewish friend Abraham to convert to Christianity. Abraham says that he must first go to Rome, to observe the clergy and see if they lead holy lives. This worries Giannotto. He fears that Abraham will discover how debauched the priests are. And that is exactly what happens. Abraham, returning home, reports that the Roman clergy are all sots, satyrs, and sodomites. Then he invites Giannotto to go with him to church, where he intends to be baptized. If the Roman church survives, he says, despite the debauchery of its representatives, then it must be endorsed by the Holy Spirit, and he wants to join the winning team.
Boccaccio’s message about the clergy is perhaps not truly double—faith is not the same as its representatives—but his attitude toward women is genuinely puzzling. Women are absolutely central to the Decameron, and they are resourceful, direct, and frequently saucy. In the words of the medievalist Thomas Bergin, woman as “victim of man’s lust, exploited, betrayed, and abandoned, who has contributed so many pathetic pages to world literature is simply not found in the Decameron.” These ladies have a long afterlife. To cite just the most famous of them, there would be no Rosalind in “As You Like It,” no Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” without the precedent of Peronella and her sisterhood.
Yet women are also repeatedly defamed in the Decameron. They are “fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, weak, and fearful.” (It is a woman, Filomena, who says this.) They are tirelessly lustful. Strong men may imperil their health by trying to fulfill their sexual demands. So, in order for life to proceed calmly, women must submit to men and, above all, be chaste—the very thing that Boccaccio’s heroines so seldom are. Those who do not obey their husbands should be beaten. (Again, this is a woman speaking.)
In support of that view, Boccaccio ends his book with what has become the famous story of “patient Griselda.” Gualtieri, the Marquis of Saluzzo, has no wish to marry, but his subjects pressure him. So he takes, as a wife, a peasant girl, Griselda. In time, Griselda gives birth to a daughter and a son. Both babies are taken away from her, with the strong suggestion that they will be put to death. Griselda makes no protest. So Gualtieri tightens the screw. He declares that he needs a noble wife, not a peasant. Stoically, Griselda returns to her father’s house, leaving even her dresses behind, since she feels that they belong to her husband. Soon Gualtieri calls her back, saying that he needs her to oversee the preparations for the wedding. “Gualtieri’s words pierced Griselda’s heart like so many knives,” but she agrees. On the wedding day, a boy and a girl appear whom Griselda does not know. Gualtieri introduces the girl as his bride-to-be. Griselda praises her. Finally, Gualtieri can go on no longer. He tells Griselda that the boy and the girl are her children (he had them brought up by kinfolk in Bologna), and that he is taking Griselda back, more beloved now: “I wanted to teach you how to be a wife”—that is, submissive.
Hearing this, Gualtieri’s courtiers all declare that he is “very wise,” if harsh. Yet the tale’s teller, Dioneo, finishes by saying of Gualtieri that perhaps “it would have served him right if, instead, he had run into the kind of woman who, upon being thrown out of the house in her shift, would have found some guy to give her fur a good shaking and got a nice new dress in the bargain.” Readers will no doubt agree, but what, then, does the story mean?
Such contradictions have led a number of critics to describe the Decameron as amoral. Erich Auerbach, the revered literary historian, says that, as soon as Boccaccio touches on anything tragic or even problematic, the book becomes “weak and superficial.” There is some truth to this. Many of the stories of day ten, featuring people who become famous for their magnanimity, are uninteresting and even ridiculous. Griselda is in this group. So is the story of two friends in ancient Rome, Titus and Gisippus, each of whom vies to be crucified in place of the other, for a murder that neither committed. Moved by this spectacle of altruism, the real criminal confesses, whereupon Titus takes Gisippus home and gives him half of everything that he owns, plus one of his sisters.
You could say that Boccaccio erred only when he ventured out of his home territory: realism. That was the opinion of Alberto Moravia: that Boccaccio’s values were those of an artist, not a moralist. The sheen on the Decameron, Moravia wrote, derives precisely from the book’s indifference to ethics, its exclusive focus on the facts. In Boccaccio’s tales, the world is
like the tiny natures mortes, corners of landscapes, and background-figures of some of our fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century painters. Action, pure action, without intended meaning or ethics, gains depth, lucidity and mystery from those details that no amount of serious moral intention could give it.
Think of the little towered cities, and the villages, with shepherds and sheep, in the far distance, behind the Virgin Mary or St. Francis or whomever, in Renaissance paintings. Love of the world: these painters had it, and so, Moravia says, did Boccaccio.
What if happiness, including sexual happiness, were itself a moral virtue? In the Middle Ages, acedia, spiritual torpor or gloom, was regarded as a sin. You were supposed to love God’s world. And the wealth of things and people and incidents in Boccaccio’s book—the flowers lifting their faces to the sun, the merchants’ ships flashing across the seas, the nuns taking turns having sex with the gardener in the tool shed—are a warrant of his love. Boccaccio’s characters, Moravia says, are so particular and lively, it’s as if he were jealous of them.
Happiness may also foster tolerance—toward Jews, for instance (see the story of Abraham), and women (most of the time). Such open-mindedness is a subdivision of a general spirit of good will in the Decameron. The duped husbands don’t suffer much. One example is the story of Ferondo, a wealthy peasant. The local abbot, finding Ferondo’s wife attractive, gives him a sleeping potion, claps him in a dungeon, and goes to woo the wife. When Ferondo wakes up, a monk instructed by the abbot tells him that he is in Purgatory, and then beats him to a pulp. This goes on twice a day for almost a year, at which point Ferondo’s wife becomes pregnant by the abbot. Ferondo must therefore be brought back. That is accomplished, and Ferondo tells the neighbors how he was in Purgatory, and what it was like. They all ask him how their relatives are doing there, and he makes up wonderful stories, which they believe. He is now an important man in his town. The wife and the abbot still get to rendezvous occasionally. Everyone is content.
Finally, the high spirits of the Decameron have political force. They help make the book proto-democratic. Boccaccio probably wasn’t trying to raise the humble. Yet, because he clearly liked these people, he did raise them. Most of Boccaccio’s compliments to ordinary folk are in the form of language—for example, his bright, piquant presentation of their slang. They seem to have a hundred lovely metaphors, with a donkey or a bucket or whatever, for everything in life. And, however improper the goings on in the Decameron, the language is almost never filthy. An instructive companion volume to Rebhorn’s Decameron is the recent “Fabliaux” (Liveright), translated by Nathaniel E. Dubin, and described by R. Howard Bloch, in the introduction, as the first substantial collection of fabliaux, in any language, for today’s general reader. Fabliaux are comic tales, in verse, composed between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, typically in northern France. Most of them are anonymous. They are, Bloch writes, the “first important expression of European literary realism”; they tell us how the citizens of that period actually lived—how they ate and dressed and slept and did their hair. Most of the tales also describe, not politely, how people had sex, and dealt with bathroom matters. Glancing down the table of contents of Dubin’s volume, we find the following titles: “The Knight Who Made Cunts Talk,” “The Piece of Shit,” “The Mourner Who Got Fucked at the Grave Site,” “The Peasant’s Fart.” The words used here have not been adjusted to conform to modern immodesty; the translation is literal. In “The Piece of Shit,” a man actually eats one, though it’s his wife’s, and small.
This is fun, until you get tired of it. A fuck is always a “fuck,” regardless of what was presumably one episode’s difference from another. Likewise, the sentence structure is paratactic: ABCD. The knight said such-and-such; then the peasant said such-and-such; then his wife said such-and-such. To this, Boccaccio is like a castle to a cave. He is probably Western literature’s foremost master of sexual euphemism. His lovers grind at the mill; they give the wool a whacking; they make the nightingale sing. Boccaccio does this not because he is abashed by his material but because, as an artist of language, he would be ashamed to say “fuck” five times in one story. Even more intelligent is his syntax. Because the knight said such-and-such, the peasant said such-and-such, even though his wife had previously said such-and-such. This is the kind of sentence structure that was handed down to us by Latin, and that Western people, whether or not they ever studied Latin, recognize as their own.
Italians before Boccaccio had written prose in a sophisticated form. Dante was the first truly distinguished practitioner, but his monumental work, the Divine Comedy, is written in verse, not prose. “Art” fiction in prose took centuries to come of age, because medieval writers, like the ancients, considered prose inferior to verse for the purposes of imaginative literature. Today, it is the primary medium of literary writing: novels, short stories. In Italy, the pioneer of that change was Boccaccio. In the words of one critic, “It is no exaggeration to say that Boccaccio almost by himself established the Italian language as an effective and supple medium for prose.”
The other remarkable feature of Boccaccio’s language is that, while its structure may be inherited from Latin, the words are Italian. In his time, many educated people still regarded the language of everyday life as too rough a medium for an ambitious piece of writing. Most literary works were in Latin. In Italy, the banner-carrier in the campaign against this policy was, again, Dante. The Divine Comedy was written in the Florentine dialect. Boccaccio worshipped Dante—he gave the name “divine” to the poem that Dante called, simply, the “comedy”—and eagerly followed his example. Others, in turn, copied him. More and more books were written in the common tongue and (as was not the case with Dante) about commoners. From that seedbed grew the idea that the lives of ordinary people could be described in literary language, and thereby ennobled.
Rebhorn’s translation of the Decameron is a thoughtful piece of work, with populist intentions. He believes that Boccaccio’s Latinate syntax, with its cargo of subordinate clauses and phrases, cannot be reproduced fluently in modern English, so he sometimes breaks up a sentence. Again with a concern for the common reader, he has tried to make the slang sound natural, and he succeeds. His slang is dated, though (“muttonhead,” “tuckered out”). Also, he repeatedly runs into the problem of having to combine low language with high. Of a woman who is being pursued by a man she dislikes, he writes, “Finding his constant prodding an intolerable burden, the lady decided to get him off her back.” In literary English, or any English, no intolerable burden would be joined, in one sentence, with getting someone off your back. It should be said, though, that Rebhorn, in his endnotes, explains his decisions. He tells us a lot more as well. When Boccaccio describes a baker, Cisti, whose shop was next to the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Ughi, Rebhorn tells us that in 1300 there was, in fact, a baker named Cisti, whose shop was situated there. He relays the going wisdom: Genoese are misers; Florentines are sly; Perugia is full of homosexuals. He explains the jokes. In one story, there is an ugly man named Scannadio. In the notes, we find out that the man’s name means “he slits the throat of God.” A lot of this information we didn’t need, but it is in endnotes, not footnotes. We don’t have to read them. We should, though. They are a secret message, about Rebhorn’s love of the Decameron, and the years and years of work he spent on it.
1350, as Boccaccio was writing the Decameron, he met Petrarch, who at that time was the most famous writer in Italy and the foremost Italian representative of Renaissance humanism, the return to ancient values and ancient literature that in some measure unleashed the High Renaissance. Under Petrarch’s influence, Boccaccio became ashamed of the Decameron. Musa and Bondanella, in the abridged translation, reproduce parts of the two men’s correspondence. In one condescending letter, Petrarch says that he hasn’t had time to read the portions of the Decameron that had come his way. Actually, he writes, he hasn’t taken the time, because this book seemed to him a product of Boccaccio’s youth, and of a quest for popular readership. In other words, they weren’t worth his time. He did, however, like patient Griselda. He translated the story into Latin and showed it to friends of his. They wept, he says.
In the last period of Boccaccio’s life, the post-Decameron years, he lived on a small family property in Certaldo, a town outside Florence, which may have been his birthplace. Like his father, he never married, but he produced a number of illegitimate children. He complained of having no money—possibly with reason. He went on some diplomatic missions for the government of Florence, and he produced a number of reference books, in Latin. He never again wrote a substantial piece of prose fiction.
In the thirteen-fifties, just after the Decameron, he underwent a religious crisis. By 1360, he had taken holy orders. It is said that he wanted to destroy the Decameron—that he thought it was a frivolous and dirty thing. Yet, a few years before his death, he copied the whole manuscript out in his own hand. (This is the version used by all modern editors and translators.) So he seems to have had some residual pride in this book. Furthermore, he could never have taken the Decameron out of circulation. It was already famous.
Boccaccio is a premier example of that rare species, the one-great-book great writer. I see the Decameron as a picture, with the ten elegant Florentines, in their silk gowns and embroidered doublets, joining hands and dancing their lovely circle dance, the carola. And in the middle of the circle are monks and merchants and painters and prostitutes eating dinner and having sex and kicking one another into ditches. In other words, we see the Renaissance embraced by the Middle Ages, like a planet orbited by its moons. It is a beautiful sight, and also strange. We see it from afar. ♦