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Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
Long considered one of the “three crowns” of Italian medieval writers (along with Dante and Petrarch), Giovanni Boccaccio left in his wake stories of all kinds. Born in 1313 as an illegitimate child of a merchant, Boccaccio first studied economics and trade in Naples before attempting a legal career. When he reached maturity he scorned his father’s wishes and pursued a career in literature. Unlike other authors of the day, Boccaccio strayed from emulating the poetics of Virgil and Homer and turned instead to the prose of Ovid, who was considered a more lowbrow author. An astute reader and noted scholar, Boccaccio famously performed public readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy on the steps of the Badia, the Benedictine Abbey that faces the Bargello, and historians believe his decision to write in vernacular Italian arose from Dante’s efforts to write poetry in the common tongue. He expanded directly on Dante’s compositions and became close friends with Petrarch despite their conflicting literary topics and styles.
The Decameron, Boccaccio’s best-known work, is a collection of one hundred tales told by ten people over ten days. Sequestered in a country palace after the outbreak of plague in 1348, seven women and three men entertain each other by telling instructive and often scandalous stories of love, religion, money, crime, and justice. As the Black Death destroys the city’s everyday rhythms, these elite men and women lampoon Florence’s social norms, politics, and church practices in a space both physically and mentally removed from the city itself. In writing both female and male narrators into The Decameron, Boccaccio creates a new kind of communal space distinct from normal Florentine contexts. The erotic nature of some of these stories – as well as the number of female narrators in his book – suggests that Boccaccio wrote mainly for a female audience. The book became an instant success for its commentary on human life in the face of tragedy. Yet Boccaccio’s parody of longstanding institutions did not go unnoticed. The Index of Prohibited Books, created in 1559 as a tool for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, listed The Decameron as one of its forbidden texts, and even into the twentieth century it was known as “The Dirty Stories.”
The Decameron and Boccaccio’s other works serve as some of the most valuable (and candid) primary sources about the average Florentine’s engagement with the city’s various civic, religious, and social spaces. Scholars, authors, and artists referred not only to ancient sources but also to contemporary texts from Italy and Europe. This mixing of traditions demonstrates a consistent transformation of Florentine writing rather than a linear evolution. Boccaccio’s pivotal work provided different ways to read and understand Florence as a medieval city, both through its narrators and its characters.
Boccaccio died in 1375 at the age of 62, but not without regrets. In his last years, the writer penned letters to his friend Francesco Petrarch in which he lamented the bawdiness of some of the themes in his Decameron. Those who have enjoyed his tales since their publication have not shared Boccaccio’s concerns.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
Kirkham, Victoria et al. Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.