Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313-75)

Born in Certaldo or Florence (not Paris as was once believed), Boccaccio spent his youth in Naples, studying commerce and law and living on the fringes of the court: his youthful love 'Fiammetta' may have been the natural daughter of King Robert. His literary and scholarly interests began in Naples, and continued after 1340 when his family called him back to Florence. It was this double experience, of courtly Naples with its French feudal traditions and of mercantile bourgeois Florence, that enabled him to present in the Decameron such a remarkably complex synthesis of 14th century life and attitudes.

Boccaccio's early writings are uneven but consistently innovatory, providing. among other things the first attempts at sustained narrative in artistic Italian prose, and (probably) the first verse narratives in ottava rima. (The dates of composition are very approximate.) The Filocolo (1336-38) tells in prose the story of Florio and Biancofiore; while the Filostrato (c. 1335) and the Teseida (1339-41) are the verse antecedents respectively of Chaucer's Troilus poem and of his Knight's tale. The Caccia di Diana (c. 1334) mythologizes some ladies of his Neapolitan circle, and he continued in this vein after the move to Florence with the more complex Ameto (or Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine, 1342). This work mythologizes the history of Florence, Boccaccio's own life, and a new circle of female companions; and at the same time attempts to make pagan sensuality symbolize Christian charity - all in a pastoral setting which is itself a new revival of a classical literary mode. The Fiammetta (1343-44) on the other hand, is a psychological novel with autobiographical overtones, analyzing the torments of a woman abandoned by her lover. Other Florentine works are the Amorosa visione (1342-43) and the Ninfale fiesolano (1344-46).

In the celebrated Decameron (c. 1330), ten young aristocrats flee from the Florentine plague of 1348, set up an idyllic court of pleasure, and entertain each other with a total of 100 stories which cover an immense range of tone from the most idealistic to the most scurrilous. The majority are tales of trickery, enterprise, survival and self-reliance which have led Vittore Branca to speak of a 'merchant epic'; and the numerous zestfully triumphant adulteries have variously condemned the book and exalted Boccaccio as a champion of 'natural' behaviour against social and religious prohibitions. The truth is probably more complex. Alongside the examples of self-seeking mercantile opportunism there are others of selfless gentlemanly 'courtesy', and the collection ends with an account of the inhumanly chaste and patient Griselda. Whether the subversive sexual behaviour should be seen as prescriptive, as well as entertaining, may depend on one's view of how fiction works, remembering that these fictitious stories are told by fictitious narrators who themselves behave with impeccable propriety. Nevertheless, the book seems to shatter medieval literary moulds with its unprejudiced and detailed realism, the flexibility of its imagination and style, and its presentation of human behaviour with small reference to any supernatural context. Immensely successful and rapidly diffused, the Decameron was influential on a European scale. In 16th century Italy it was proposed by Bembo as a canonical model for vernacular prose language.

By the time of the misogynist outburst of the Corbaccio (c. 1365), Boccaccio had already turned to humanist compilations in Latin under the influence of his new friendship with Petrarch. His compendia of classical mythology and history were used as reference works in the later Renaissance: particularly influential was the Genealogia deorum gentilium (composed and revised from c. 1350), which involved a systematically allegorical approach to mythology and to poetry in general. He also wrote a eulogistic biography of Dante (c. 1355, revised c. 1364), and a series of commentaries, first delivered as lectures (from 1373), on early cantos of the Divine comedy. His newly acquired humanist gravity led him to regret and disown the Decameron; but posterity has tended to take a different view.

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