This month’s essay deals with one of the “Three Crowns” of Italian literature, Giovanni Boccaccio. I have written an earlier essay on another of the “Crowns,” (Dante Alighieri, c.1265- 1321), and an upcoming essay will deal with the third (Francesco Petrarca, also known simply as Petrarch, 1304-1374). All three served as the bases of an Italian literature written in the vernacular—these in the Tuscan dialect.
Boccaccio was an Italian writer, poet, correspondent of Petrarch, and an important Renaissance humanist. He was known as “the Certaldese,” after the town in which he was most likely born, and he was one of the most important figures in the European literary panorama of the 14th century. Some scholars consider him the greatest (European) prose writer of his time; he was a versatile author who amalgamated different literary trends and genres, making them converge in original works, thanks to his creative activity that he exercised under the banner of experimentalism.
Boccaccio wrote his imaginative literature mostly in the Tuscan vernacular, although he did write other works in Latin, as did both Petrarch and Dante. He is particularly noted for his realistic dialogue which differed from that of his contemporaries, i.e., medieval writers who usually followed formulaic models for both character and plot. The culture of Boccaccio is rooted in the Middle Ages, but his conception of life pointed forward to the Renaissance. Like his fellow poet Petrarch, he straddled two ages; and yet he was unlike Petrarch in that he accepted both the medieval and the classical traditions, whereas Petrarch was a fervent admirer of primarily classical and Christian antiquity. Boccaccio’s work reflects both his bourgeois mercantile background and the chivalric ideals of the Neapolitan court, where he spent his youth. He sought to raise Italian prose to an art form nurtured in both medieval rhetoric and classical Latin prose. He is remembered for his role in reviving Greek and Hellenistic learning in Florence, thus becoming one of the precursors of Renaissance Humanism, along with his friend and mentor Petrarch. He was the one who began the literary analysis and criticism of Dante’s philology and work. He devoted himself to copying codes of the Divine Comedy and was a primary promoter of Dante’s oeuvre. He was the one who attached the sobriquet “Divine” to Dante’s masterpiece that had simply been titled, The Comedy.
Giovanni Boccaccio was born in Certaldo in the Republic of Florence on June 16, 1313. His father, Boccaccino di Chellino, was a Florentine merchant, who moved to Florence in order to work for the Compagnia dei Bardi, the banking company of the Bardi and Peruzzi families. Nothing is known about Giovanni’s biological mother. (Boccaccio was most likely born an illegitimate child). In the 1320s, his father married Margherita dei Mardoli, who was from a well-to-do family. Giovanni was tutored by Giovanni Mazzuoli and received from him an early introduction to the works of Dante and to the Greek and Roman classics. In 1326, when he was 13 years old, his father was appointed head of a Neapolitan bank and moved his family to Naples. Boccaccino wanted his son to become a merchant, according to the family tradition. So, Giovanni served for a time as an apprentice at the bank, but he greatly disliked the banking profession. He persuaded his father to let him study law at the Studium (the present-day University of Naples), where he studied canon law for the next six years. He also pursued his interests in scientific and, especially, literary studies.
In the 1330s his father introduced him to the Neapolitan nobility and the French-influenced court of Robert of Anjou, known as Robert the Wise, who was the King of Naples and for whom Boccaccino served as financial advisor. In this milieu Boccaccio experienced the aristocracy of the commercial world as well as all that survived of the splendors of medieval courtly chivalry and feudalism. At about this time, he also fell in love with a married daughter of the king, Maria d’Aquino. She had been married when she was 15 years old to the Count d’Aquino who was not very satisfying as a husband to her. She entertained a number of lovers, one of whom was Boccaccio. She became idealized as “Fiammetta” (small, thin flame) in many of Boccaccio’s early prose romances. Boccaccio’s love of Maria was different than that of Petrarch’s love for Laura and Dante’s love for Beatrice. Both of these other poets praised their beloved as the epitome of perfect love. However, neither of them ever had a physical relationship with their ideal lover. Boccaccio, however, did have such a relationship with Maria that lasted for about a year, until he was eventually “dumped” for another of her lovers. Still, she also became his ideal for love in his literary works.
It appears that Boccaccio enjoyed law no more than he had enjoyed banking, but his studies at the Studium allowed him the opportunity to learn broadly and to make good contacts with fellow scholars. Several of these were friends and admirers of Petrarch, and through them he was introduced to the literary works of Petrarch himself. It was while he was in Naples at this time that Boccaccio began what he considered his true vocation… poetry.
Some Important Early Literary Works
Boccaccino had returned to Florence in 1338 to handle the bankruptcy of the Compagnia dei Bardi. Giovanni was recalled by his father to Florence in early 1341, thus avoiding the plague of 1340 in that city, but he also missed the visit of Petrarch to Naples in 1341. The sheltered period of his life that he had enjoyed in Naples came to an abrupt end, and he began facing the difficulties and occasional periods of poverty that life in Florence brought him. Although his father did not appreciate his literary talents, the young Boccaccio brought with him from Naples a store of literary works that he had already completed. La Caccia di Diana (Diana’s Hunt), his earliest work, was a short poem in terza rima (an iambic verse consisting of stanzas of three lines) that featured several Neapolitan women. Much more important were three other works with themes derived from medieval romances: Il Filocolo (The Afflicted Love, 1336), considered to be the first novel of Italian literature written in vernacular prose, a work in five books on the loves and adventures of Florio and Biancofiore and in which “Fiammetta” plays an important part; Il Filostrato (The Love Struck, 1338), a short poem in ottava rima (a stanza form composed of eight 11-syllable lines) telling the story of Troilus and the faithless Criseida; and Teseida (probably begun in Naples and finished in Florence, 1340–41), an ambitious epic of 12 cantos in ottava rima, written in the Tuscan dialect, in which the wars of Theseus serve as a background for the love of two friends, Arcita and Palemone, for the same woman, Emilia. Arcita finally wins her in a tournament but dies immediately after.
After his return to Florence, Boccaccio continued to produce literary works, even though he was dissatisfied with his return to the city. He produced Comedia delle Ninfe Fiorentine (Comedy of the Florentine Nymphs, 1341), which was a mix of prose and poetry. He completed the fifty-canto allegorical poem Amorosa Vision (Loving Vision, 1342), and the prose work Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta, who was Boccacio’s lover, 1343-44). The pastoral piece Ninfale Fiesolano (Nymphs from Fiesolano) also probably dates from this time.
Although the themes of chivalry and love in these early works had long been familiar in courtly circles during the Middle Ages, Boccaccio enriched them with his own style as a writer, which was becoming evident in his mix of medieval courtly love literature, pithy and acute observations on contemporary life in Italy, and his bold and imaginative use of the Tuscan dialect. He wanted to make his Italian works worthy of comparison with the monuments of Greek and Latin literature. In developing his own literary style, he also elevated ottava rima, the verse meter of the popular medieval minstrels, to literary dignity. It eventually became the characteristic vehicle for Italian verse, (becoming known in Italy as the “Sicilian octave”) because of the work of Boccaccio, and he thus had an important influence on Petrarch who began to use this literary form in his own works. These early works also had an immediate effect outside Italy: Geoffrey Chaucer drew inspiration from Il Filostrato for his own Troilus and Criseyde (as William Shakespeare was later to do for his own play Troilus and Cressida) and from Boccaccio’s Teseida for his “Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.
Boccaccio’s personal dealings are largely unknown in the middle of his life, except that he seems to have struggled constantly and unsuccessfully to put his financial affairs in order. He spent 1345-47 in Ravenna seeking patronage, and then in Forli in 1347 before returning to Florence. It is not certain if he was in Florence in 1348 when the city was hit by the Black Death, which killed some three-quarters of the city’s population. (He would use this event as the backdrop for his literary masterpiece, the Decameron).
Beginning in 1350, Boccaccio became closely involved with Italian Humanism and also with the Florentine government. In late 1350, he was appointed Florentine ambassador to the court of the lords of Romagna. The next year he served outside Italy as ambassador to Louis, Duke of Bavaria, in the Tirol, and in 1354 he performed the same role as ambassador to Pope Innocent VI at the Vatican. He was also sent by Florence on missions to Brandenburg, Milan and Avignon. (He was to serve Florentine diplomacy once again in 1365, when he was sent to the papal court of Pope Urban the Fifth. The papacy returned to Rome from its exile in Avignon in 1367, and Boccaccio was again sent to Urban, offering congratulations).
Throughout the 1350s he also kept writing, and he produced numerous works of prose and poetry. He also promoted the study of Greek, and encouraged distribution of his tentative translations of works by Homer, Euripides, and Aristotle.
In October 1350, Boccaccio was delegated to greet Petrarch as he entered Florence and to have him stay as a guest at his home while he was there. He had written a biography of Petrarch shortly before the visit De Vita et Moribus, F.P.(On the Life and Morals, Francesco Petrarch). The meeting between the two was extremely fruitful and they became close friends from then on, Boccaccio calling Petrarch his teacher and magister. The friendship is attested by an abundant correspondence between the two. The discussions with Petrarch also formalized Boccaccio’s poetic ideas; Petrarch had considerable influence in orienting Boccaccio toward the moral austerity and philological discipline that characterized Renaissance Humanism.
Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio to study classical Greek and Latin literature. They met again in Padua in 1351; Boccaccio was on an official mission to invite Petrarch to take a chair at the university in Florence. Although unsuccessful, the discussions between the two were instrumental in Boccaccio writing the Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (The Genealogy of the Gentile Gods). The first edition of this work, 728 entries in 15 volumes, constituted the first encyclopedia of classical mythology. It was completed in 1360, and it remained one of the key reference works on the subject for over 400 years. It also served as an extended defense for the studies of ancient literature and thought. Despite the pagan beliefs at its core, Boccaccio believed that much could be learned from antiquity. Thus, he challenged the arguments of clerical intellectuals who wanted to limit access to classical sources in order to prevent any moral harm to Christian readers. The revival of classical antiquity became a foundation of the Renaissance, and Boccaccio’s defense of the importance of ancient literature was an essential requirement for its development.
(N.B. Having just experienced in our own lives the tremendous chaos caused by the pandemic of Covid-19, and the quarantine strictures that have been used to quell its spread, a look at the Middle Ages and Renaissance gives us new understanding of what was happening to societies in Europe at that time. The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. It was the most fatal pandemic in human history, causing the death of millions upon millions of people. It is this plague that Boccaccio uses as the backdrop for his Decameron. What was different in that period from our own was that there was no understanding about what caused it or how it could be controlled and eradicated. Often the only recourse was prayer and seeking the seclusion of quarantine that only the wealthy could fully achieve).
The Great Pestilence of 1348 (a.k.a. the Black Death) afforded Boccaccio the opportunity to write what ultimately became his masterpiece, Il Decameron (Ten Days). It provides the framework for this collection of 100 stories in the Tuscan dialect, written c.1348-c.1353. In the work, ten young upper-class people are trying to escape the plague which has caused such chaos and disaster in their home city of Florence. (Boccaccio gives a famous and lengthy description of the plague that had claimed the lives of his father, stepmother and many friends. The description provides valuable contemporary information on the symptoms of the plague and the general social consequences of a pandemic that devastated many European cities, towns and villages).
The group of characters in the Decameron, made up of seven young ladies and three young men, meet by chance in Santa Maria Novella and agree to flee from Florence to a deserted villa in the countryside of Fiesole for two weeks. Against the somber background of death and desolation, which is portrayed in vivid detail, the group lives a carefree yet well-ordered life in the pleasant countryside for the fortnight, avoiding all thoughts of death. To pass the evenings, each member of the party tells one story each night, except for one day per week for chores, and the holy days during which they do no work at all, resulting in ten nights of ten stories each over the course of two weeks. Thus, by the end of the fortnight they have told 100 stories.
Each member of the group is allowed to become king or queen of the company for a day and dictate how the others will spend their leisure time that day. Thus, each day also includes a short introduction and conclusion to continue the framework of the tales by describing other daily activities that take place besides storytelling. These framing interludes frequently include transcriptions of Italian folk songs.
The king or queen also decides the theme of the ten, often comic, stories each member must tell the others that evening. These include examples of the power of fortune; examples of the power of human will; love tales that end tragically; love tales that end happily; clever replies that save the speaker; tricks that women play on men; tricks that people play on each other; and finally, examples of virtue. (It is only Dioneo, the most ribald of all the participants, who usually tells the tenth tale each day, and who has the right to tell a tale on any topic he wishes, due to his wit). As Boccaccio spins variations and reversals of previous material, the interactions among tales in a day, or across days, forms a whole and not just a collection of stories. Recurring plots of the stories enable Boccaccio to analyze and criticize contemporary society, including mocking the lust and greed of the clergy; female lust and ambition on a par with male lust and ambition; tensions in Italian society between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families; and the perils and adventures of traveling merchants.
Analysis of the Decameron
The grouping around a particular daily theme organizes the stories into a unified structure. In the multitude of characters, from ridiculous fools to noble and resolute figures, from all times and social conditions, Boccaccio depicts human nature in its weakness and heroic virtue, particularly as revealed in comic or dramatic situations. Throughout the work, the mercantile ethic prevails and predominates. The commercial and urban values of quick wit, sophistication, and intelligence are treasured, while the vices of stupidity and dullness are either cured or punished. There is praise of a kind of worldly prudence with which characters overcome difficult situations, be they noble or ignoble. While these traits and values may seem obvious to us, the modern reader, they were an emerging feature in Europe with the rise of urban centers and a monetized economic system beyond the traditional rural feudal and monastery systems which had placed greater value on piety and loyalty. Boccaccio presents life from an earthly point of view, with a complete absence of moral intentions. If nothing is sacred, if a corrupt clergy is shown in all its greed and vanity, this offers stuff for amusement but never satire. And so, though the Decameron is not licentious, it is not moral either.
Beyond the unity provided by the frame narrative, the Decameron provides a unity in philosophical outlook. Throughout runs the common medieval theme of Lady Fortune, and how quickly one can rise and fall through the external influences of the “Wheel of Fortune.” Boccaccio had been educated in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which used various levels of allegory to show the connections between the literal events of the story and the Christian message. However, the Decameron uses Dante’s model not to educate the reader but to satirize this method of learning. The Roman Catholic Church, priests, and religious belief become the satirical source of comedy throughout. This was part of a wider historical trend in the aftermath of the Black Death, which saw widespread discontent with the church.
Many details of the Decameron are infused with a medieval sense of numerological and mystical significance. For example, it is widely believed that the seven young women are meant to represent the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude) and the Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity). It is further supposed that the three men represent the classical Greek tripartite division of the soul (Reason, Spirit, and Appetite, see Book IV of Plato’s Republic). Boccaccio himself notes that the names he gives for these ten characters are in fact pseudonyms chosen as “appropriate to the qualities of each.” The Italian names of the seven women, in the same (most likely significant) order as given in the text, are Pampinea (literally, vine leaf; figuratively blooming or flourishing one); Fiammetta (literally, little flame; name Boccaccio gave to his lover, Maria d’Aquino); Filomena (lover of song or beloved); Emilia (she who allures; she is very self-confident in the Decameron); Lauretta (name in homage to Petrarch, whose ideal love was Laura; literally, laurel tree or sweet bay tree, which are symbols of honor and victory); Neifile(blushing, young new lover); and Elissa (satisfaction of God; it is also a variant of the name for Dido, who was abandoned by her lover Aeneas). The men, in order, are Panfilo (all-loving or full of love); Filostrato (one crushed or shot down by love); and finally, Dioneo (sometimes interpreted allegorically as the appetite or lustful part of the soul; the most fun-loving and most ribald character of the story).
The Decameron was extremely popular and this, along with other works by Boccaccio, influenced such writers as Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340s-1400) in his Canterbury Tales (written 1387-1400). The Decameron’s prose, with its balanced and rhythmic cadences, became the standard against which all subsequent prose literature in Italy and abroad was judged. There were critics, of course, such as those who thought some of the stories too ribald and vulgar, and it was put on the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books in the mid-16th century. (This, of course, only whetted the appetites of readers to take a look at the book!!) By the time Boccaccio in his old age repented having written the work, it was already being read and enjoyed all over Europe.
Scholarship After the Decameron
After the Decameron, of which Petrarch remained in ignorance until the last years of his own life, Boccaccio wrote very little in the Tuscan dialect. Exceptions to this were: Il Corbaccio (The Crow, 1354-55), a bitterly misogynistic satire on a widow who had jilted him; Vita di Dante Alighieri (Life of Dante Alighieri, 1355, revised 1364), a biography of Dante; and Trattatello in Laude di Dante (Little Tract in Praise of Dante, 1374), a commentary on Dante’s DivineComedy.
Turning instead to Latin, he devoted himself to humanist scholarship rather than to imaginative or poetic creations. It was at this time that he published the aforementioned Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (The Genealogy of the Gentile Gods). His Bucolicum Carmen (Bucolic Poems, 1351-66) were a series of allegorical eclogues (short pastoral poems) on contemporary events that followed classical models such as those already indicated by Dante and Petrarch. His other Latin works include De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women, 1360-74), a collection of biographies of famous women; and De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men,1355-74), that deals with the inevitable catastrophe awaiting all who are too fortunate.
All these studies were pursued in poverty, sometimes almost in destitution, and Boccaccio had to earn most of his income by transcribing his own works or those of others. In 1363 poverty compelled him to retire to his home village of Certaldo. However, beginning in 1373, he returned to public life and, at the bidding of the Florentine government, enthusiastically gave a series of almost daily lectures on the work of Dante for the general public in the Church of San Stefano di Badia. But weakened by illness and criticized for expounding the divine poem before an ignorant populace, he had to discontinue them in early 1374. His Commento all’ Inferno (Commentary on the Inferno) is based on these lectures. The death of his close friend and mentor, Petrarch, in July 1374 was another blow that burdened him.
Beyond his extreme poverty, his final year was also troubled by illnesses, some relating to obesity and to what was then called “dropsy” (today called edema). Although it is not certain what the actual cause of his death was, some scholars speculate it was congestive heart failure.
Giovanni Boccaccio died on December 21, 1375 in Certaldo, where he is buried in the Church of Santi Michele e Jacopo. Following his death, his literary manuscripts and library holdings were handed over to the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence.
Boccaccio’s literary works, as well as his searching out of Latin manuscripts “lost” in obscure monastic libraries, his interest in human affairs as expressed in the Decameron, his innovation in using ottava rima and raising it to literary dignity as a vehicle for Italian verse, and his promotion of the Tuscan dialect in prose and poetry, were all reasons why Boccaccio came to be regarded as one of the founders of Renaissance Humanism, and one of the “Three Crowns” of Italian Literature.
*Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
“Biography: Giovanni Boccaccio.” YourDictionary website;
Bosco, Umberto. “Giovanni Boccaccio: Italian poet and scholar.” Encyclopedia Britannica website, 1999;
Cartwright, Mark. “Giovanni Boccaccio.” World History Encyclopedia website, October 29, 2020;
“Decameron Study Guide: Characters.” Shmoop website;
“Giovanni Boccaccio Biography.” TheFamousPeople website;