Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works

Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works


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Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works by Victoria Kirkham

Long celebrated as one of “the Three Crowns” of Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) experimented widely with the forms of literature. His prolific and innovative writings—which range beyond the novella, from lyric to epic, from biography to mythography and geography, from pastoral and romance to invective—became powerful models for authors in Italy and across the Continent.           
This collection of essays presents Boccaccio’s life and creative output in its encyclopedic diversity. Exploring a variety of genres, Latin as well as Italian, it provides short descriptions of all his works, situates them in his oeuvre, and features critical expositions of their most salient features and innovations. Designed for readers at all levels, it will appeal to scholars of literature, medieval and Renaissance studies, humanism and the classical tradition; as well as European historians, art historians, and students of material culture and the history of the book. Anchored by an introduction and chronology, this volume contains contributions by prominent Boccaccio scholars in the United States, as well as essays by contributors from France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The year 2013, Boccaccio’s seven-hundredth birthday, will be an important one for the study of his work and will see an increase in academic interest in reassessing his legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226079189
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/09/2014
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Victoria Kirkham is professor emerita of Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia. Michael Sherberg is associate professor of Italian at Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in St. Louis. Janet Levarie Smarr is professor of theater history and Italian studies at the University of California, San Diego. She lives in La Jolla, CA.

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A Critical Guide to the Complete Works

By Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, Janet Levarie Smarr


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07918-9



Ronald L. Martinez

Boccaccio's Decameron cognominato Prencipe Galeotto (Decameron surnamed Prince Galahalt), one of the most influential and accomplished collections of short tales in European and world literature, contains "a hundred stories, told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men" while they are away from Florence during the great plague of 1348.1 It transmits, in a new Italian vernacular literary form called the novella, a rich selection of short narrative that crowns a thousand years of medieval writing. In addition to stories probably of his own devising, Boccaccio exploits many sources: the Latin classics, especially Ovid's Metamorphoses and Heroides and Apuleius's Metamorphoses of Lucius; the lives of the Christian fathers and the popular Legenda aurea (Golden Legend); didactic medieval compilations like the Disciplina clericalis (Scholar's Guide) of Petrus Alfonsi; bawdy French fabliaux, courtly romances like Tristan, and the lais of Marie de France; and an Italian collection of short tales, the Novellino—all adapted, collected, and placed in a frame story by a single authorial consciousness. In his Proem Boccaccio gives to his novelle the alternate names of favole ("fables," or fictional tales), parabole ("parables," or stories with detectable didactic meaning), and istorie ("histories," implying a basis in historical fact). Further complexity comes at each Day's close in a ballata, a strophic poem with refrain suitable for dancing, sung by one of the ten narrators, so that the work mixes prose and verse.

Although strikingly original, the Decameron benefits from Boccaccio's previous work in manifold ways. The fifteen quistioni d'amore in his early prose Filocolo (4.16–72) are a germ for the collection, which incorporates two of them. The Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine features a protagonist, Ameto, whose adolescent eros is transformed into virtuous love when he hears a set of narratives related by seven beautiful nymphs representing the virtues, and whose allegorical names conceal those of women in existing Florentine families. The prose Elegia di madonna Fiammetta, written in the voice of a married woman abandoned by her lover, anticipates the dedication of the Decameron to women suffering from love-melancholy (Proem, 9–12). In several early works Boccaccio experimented with ways to fashion a single book out of various parts and paratexts (e.g., titles, rubrics, proems, and arguments). From a thematic perspective, most reflect an attempt to mediate conflicts of love and duty, sexual energy and official morality ingrained in late medieval Christian culture, a tension also discernible in the Decameron.

Boccaccio's work on the Decameron probably began in 1349 and was substantially complete by 1351; however, it underwent revisions until at least 1372, when he wrote out the whole text in fair copy. Consciously designed to appear as a masterpiece, the 1372 version was set out in double columns in a semigothic book hand, a format reserved for major works of learning like the compilation of pagan mythology he began after completing the Decameron. Its inclusion as characters of Tuscan masters like the painter Giotto (6.5) and the poet Guido Cavalcanti (6.9) reflects the Certaldan's awareness of being an artistic innovator. Despite his friend Petrarch's discouragement of vernacular work, Boccaccio's continuing labor on the Decameron—even as his humanist vocation led him to write mainly in Latin—makes it clear that his Centonovelle (as the work was popularly known) was a bid to emulate the hundred cantos of Dante's Commedia and perhaps to rival Petrarch's collection of 366 vernacular lyrics. But where Dante's Commedia, despite fielding many characters, has a single protagonist and narrative voice, and Petrarch's is a wholly monological collection, Boccaccio's includes multiple voices, male and female, making his work represent a social community of thought and speech.

While affiliated with Boccaccio's earlier works, the Decameron is utterly unlike them in the vivid realism and historical specificity of its characters and situations, and in the bawdy humor of many tales, which mine what Bahktin defined as the carnivalesque "lower bodily stratum." The Decameron treats the most urgent topics of the late Middle Ages (love, sexuality, mortality, virtue, fortune, courtliness), as they are lived by a broad range of social groups, from sultans and kings to merchants to cooks, bandits, and pirates. How this leap in range and quality was achieved remains somewhat mysterious, but part of the answer lies in Boccaccio's return to Florence from Naples in 1341, after the failure of the Bardi banking house with which his father was associated. This meant his exposure to the urban, pragmatic, guild-based republicanism of the Guelph regime, so different from the aristocratic leisure of the Angevin court of Naples, and it required his reassessment of Florentine vernacular literature, chiefly Dante's Commedia, a work distinguished by a "creatural realism" representing an epochal advance in narrative technique. In Florence, moreover, Boccaccio could size up the future aristocratic, mercantile, and learned audiences of the Decameron, as well as the "idle ladies" (oziose donne) to whom he dedicates the work in its Proem.

For his large collection, Boccaccio deployed a highly ornate but sinewy artistic prose, far more effective than the often oversweet texture of the Comedia delle ninfe, for example. Not only in the Introduction and other authorial passages but throughout the tales there are rhetorical periods of syntactical complexity equal to the Latin prose of Cicero. Flexible enough to accommodate various levels of decorum and a wide spectrum of diction, the style is also multilingual for the sake of parody, as in Madonna Lisetta's Venetian dialect (4.2) and Rinaldo d'Asti's liturgical Latin (2.2.12). In the authorial defense before the Fourth Day, Boccaccio claims the stories are written "in the humblest and most unassuming style that they can be," echoing the language defining the level of the Commedia in Dante's Letter to Can Grande (remissus et humilis), thus a "comic" or middle register. Boccaccio also thought his work to be of mixed genre, at once comic, tragic, and satirical, again after the model of Dante (Trattatello in laude di Dante 176), thus requiring the middle style. But Boccaccio's style and diction are more uniform than Dante's, and certainly more restrained, despite the sexual or scatological content of many stories: the use of puns and euphemisms to avoid explicit obscenity is virtually a structural principle of the work. Boccaccio never uses "shit" (merda), for example, as Dante does (Inferno 18.116), preferring instead the more decorous "dung" (letame) (Decameron 6.10.21).

Thirty stories set in Florence, twelve more in Tuscany, and six more in which Florentines appear as characters account for nearly half the total, but the book embraces all of Italy. Not surprisingly, given Boccaccio's long residence in Naples, ten stories represent southern Italy, including Salerno, Sicily, and nearby islands. Northern Italy from Milan, Asti, and Treviso to Friuli and the Marche is represented, as are the Atlantic and the Mediterranean from Britain (2.3, 2.8), Portugal (Algarve, 2.7), and Paris (1.2, 3.9, 7.7) to Alexandria (2.6, 2.7, 2.9, 10.9) and Acre in the Holy Land (10.9), including islands from the Balearics and Rhodes to Crete and Cyprus; one story is set in Cathay (10.3). More briefly, we have Italy, the Mediterranean, and the world. In terms of temporal scope, four stories are set in ancient times (5.1, 7.9, 9.9), including one among the Romans of Octavian's day (10.8); one is set in the early seventh century, when the Langobards ruled Italy (3.2). But most tales are set in the period between the First Crusade and Boccaccio's own day (1100–1350), especially between about 1260 and 1330, that is, the period of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts that make up the active "memory" of Dante's Commedia, and of Boccaccio's recent past.

The geographical limits of the book implicitly frame its material, as when on the first Day Boccaccio sets stories in Genoa (8), in Liguria, Monferrat, and Verona (4, 5, 6), and in Paris and Bologna (2, 10). Genoa was the hub of Italy's seafaring mercantilism; the next three places were known for the cultivation of troubadour lyric; the last pair of cities housed the principal European universities for studies in theology, the liberal arts, medicine, and law. Taken together, they are localities that suggest Boccaccio's appeal to readers from mercantile, aristocratic, and scholarly milieus, respectively. But the Decameron also deploys an unprecedentedly elaborate set of explicit frames. The book is like a series of concentric boxes. Circumscribing the whole is the voice of the Author-Narrator in the Proem and Introduction, in the Author's defense before Day 4, and the Conclusion. Individual storytellers in turn, conditioned by the topics imposed by the ruler of eight of the ten Days, narrate stories that can themselves contain tales (e.g., 1.3, 1.6, 5.8, 10.4). The numerous paratexts also serve a framing function. In addition to the work's highly significant titles, the authorial summaries for each Day and for each tale (rubricated in the Hamilton 90 autograph) condition how readers approach the narratives. In the case of 10.10.1, for example, the authorial emphasis in the rubric on Griselda's oppressive husband, the Marquis of Saluzzo, may qualify the usual intense focus by readers on the wife. By inserting the rubricated headings directly into the 1372 version (i.e., not setting them off with full paragraphing, though leaving a space before the beginning of the novella) Boccaccio minimizes their disruption of continuous reading but conserves their use as indexing devices for selective perusal.

In the Proem, the Author-Narrator, introducing himself as having survived a love affair thanks in part to the ministrations of others, offers up the book as a remedy for women in love who lack the distractions (hunting, gambling, business) available to men. Displays of compassion, as if following the Narrator's exordial sententia, "To have pity for those in distress is human," recur especially in Day 4, when tragic love stories excite the pity of the seven storytelling ladies. These displays of kindness within the fictional world of the tales contrast with the absence of human compassion (the word is not even used) in the account of Florence devastated by the plague with which the first Day of the work properly begins.

The Introduction relates that the plague reached Florence about March 25, 1348—the feast of the Annunciation—and raged until July. A group of seven ladies assemble in the Church of Santa Maria Novella on a Tuesday, and the eldest of them, Pampinea, proposes to leave the city for the sake of self-preservation. The detailed account of the rapid progress of the disease, the fraying of social compacts, the wholesale decay of laws, morals, and husbandry, and especially the neglect of decent burial, follows a medieval Latin account of a much earlier plague and is possibly also influenced by Petrarch, whose Latin poem Epystole 1.14 on the plague of 1340 was copied by Boccaccio into one of his miscellanies. The title Decameron is based on the term Hexaemeron, which in patristic works refers to the six days of Creation, and in Boccaccio's case implies that the ten Days of storytelling serve not only for recreation, but for the re-creation, through narrative, of the Florentine polity. Plagues do in fact traditionally give occasion to new institutions. The idea of the plague remains a presence in the collection. The forthright Nonna de' Pulci of Prato is recalled as having died in the current epidemic (6.3.8), and the narrator Dioneo, despite his wish to avoid memories of the afflicted city (1, Intro., 93), recalls the decay of morals during the plague (6, Concl., 8–9); references near the end of the work to the mortality of the narrators (10, Intro. 4; 9, Concl., 5) are in the same spirit. Related to the plague context is the fact that novella characters sicken and die, beginning with the first one, Cepparello or Ciappelletto (1.1.20); on Day 4 only the second and the last tale end without at least one dead body.

According to the Author-Narrator (1, Intro., 51) the ten storytellers, hereafter the brigata, do not bear their real names, supposedly those of real people, but have sobriquets assigned "not without reason." One reason is their affiliation with other works of Boccaccio: an Emilia is the heroine of the epic Teseida delle nozze d'Emilia, a Pampinea is found in the pastoral Eclogues, a Panfilo in that precursor of the novel that is Elegia di madonna Fiammetta. Other names point to other authors: Elissa is the original name of Virgil's Dido; Lauretta was Boccaccio's name for Petrarch's Laura, Neifile (new love) evokes the stilnovo (new style) of poets Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, and Dante. Another reason is allegorical significance: on the model of the seven nymphs of Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine, who personify cardinal and theological virtues, Pampinea, who may stand for Wisdom or Prudence, originates the sensible idea of fleeing the plague-ridden city (1, Intro. 92) and dictates the terms under which the brigata functions, "never exceeding the limit of reason" (1, Intro. 65), a crucial interpretive parameter for the book.


Excerpted from BOCCACCIO by Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, Janet Levarie Smarr. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chronology of Boccaccio’s Life and Works
Victoria Kirkham
Introduction: A Man of Many Turns
Janet Levarie Smarr

1 Also Known as “Prencipe Galeotto” (Decameron)
Ronald L. Martinez
2 The Textual History of the Decameron
Brian Richardson

3 Moments of Latin Poetry (Carmina)
Giuseppe Velli
4 A Fable of the World’s Creation and Phaeton’s Fall (Allegoria mitologica)
Steven M. Grossvogel
5 A Portrait of a Young Humanist (Epistolae 1-4)
Jason Houston

6 Love-Struck in Naples (Filostrato)
David Wallace
7 A Lovers’ Tale and Auspicious Beginning (Filocolo)
Elissa Weaver
8 The Girl outside the Window (Teseida delle nozze d’Emilia)
Michael Sherberg

9 The Game of Love (Caccia di Diana)
Arielle Saiber
10 Mural Morality in Tableaux Vivants (Amorosa visione)
Jonathan Usher

11 On the Threshold of Paradise (Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine, or Ameto)
Jane Tylus
12 Myth and History: Toward a New Order (Ninfale fiesolano)
Susanna Barsella
13 The Changing Landscape of the Self (Buccolicum carmen)
David Lummus

14 An Experiment in the Healing Power of Literature (Elegia di madonna Fiammetta)
Annelise M. Brody
15 Rhetoric and Invective in Love’s Labyrinth (Il Corbaccio)
Letizia Panizza
16 Doing and Undoing: Boccaccio’s Feminism (De mulieribus claris)
Deanna Shemek

17 A Life in Progress (De vita et moribus Francisci Petracchi de Florentia)
Giuseppe Mazzotta
18 To Praise Dante, to Please Petrarch (Trattatello in laude di Dante)
Elsa Filosa
19 Boccaccio’s Divided Allegiance (Esposizioni sopra la “Comedia”)
Robert Hollander

20 Gods, Greeks, and Poetry (Genealogia deorum gentilium)
Jon Solomon
21 Boccaccio on Fortune (De casibus virorum illustrium)
Simone Marchesi
22 Vernacularization in Context (Volgarizzamenti of Livy, Valerius Maximus, and Ovid)
Alison Cornish

23 Boccaccio’s Humanistic Ethnography (De Canaria)
James K. Coleman
24 Between Text and Territory (De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus et de diversis nominibus maris)
Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

PART X MISCELLANIES: Lyrics, Letters, Notebooks
25 Pathways through the Lyric Forest (Rime)
Roberto Fedi
26 Personality and Conflict (Epistole, Lettere)
Todd Boli
27 Boccaccio’s Working Notebooks (Zibaldone Laurenziano, Miscellanea Laurenziana,
Zibaldone Magliabechiano
Claude Cazalé-Bérard

28 A Visual Legacy (Boccaccio as Artist)
Victoria Kirkham
29 An Intimate Self-Portrait (Testamentum)
Michael Papio

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