#26 – Boccaccio Part Two
September 14, 2018
#28 Ghiberti & The Doors I
October 6, 2018

#27 – Boccaccio Part Three

  • So let’s talk about The Decameron.
  • The book’s primary title exemplifies Boccaccio’s fondness for Greek philology:
  • Decameron combines two Greek words, δέκα, déka (“ten”) and ἡμέρα, hēméra (“day”), to form a term that means “ten-day [event]”.
  • Ten days is the period in which the characters of the frame story tell their tales.
  • It was set during the Black Death hit Florence in 1348.
  • Boccaccio wasn’t there at the time, he was back in Naples.
  • According to Machiavelli, Florence lost 96,000 people.
  • Modern estimates are the population of Florence was reduced from 110,000–120,000 inhabitants in 1338 down to 50,000 in 1351.
  • 45–50% of the European population died during a four-year period.
  • It killed some 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia.
  • The most widely accepted estimate for the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, during this time, is for a death rate of about a third.
  • about 40% of Egypt’s population.
  • Half of Paris’s population of 100,000 people died.
  • At least 60% of the population of Hamburg and Bremen perished,  and a similar percentage of Londoners may have died from the disease as well.
  • Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of the Black Death.
  • Some Europeans targeted “various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims”,  lepers,   and Romani, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis.
  • Lepers, and other individuals with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe.
  • Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence.
  • The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread.
  • The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was little understood in the 14th century; many people believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins.
  • This belief led to the idea that the cure to the disease was to win God’s forgiveness.
  • There were many attacks against Jewish communities.
  • In February 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews.
  • In August 1349, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne were annihilated.
  • By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed.
  • These massacres eventually died out in Western Europe, only to continue on in Eastern Europe.
  • During this period many Jews relocated to Poland, where they received a warm welcome from King Casimir the Great.
  • But the stories the Decameron were probably written from 1344 – 1350.
  • He might have been writing them before the Black Death.
  • And then he retrofitted them into Florence and the Black Death.
  • It was finally published in 1353.
  • The book is about seven young women and three young men who run from Florence during the plague to escape infection.
  • They hide out in the countryside for a two weeks, of which ten days are spent storytelling, making one hundred tales in all.
  • Each story ends with a canzione, or song.
  • So it’s a compendium of stories and verse.
  • It was hugely popular immediately and people would ransack it for inspiration over the next two centuries.
  • The church and the stiffer element of society did not like it, for it represents the more liberal approach to lifestyles and opinion of the younger generation, contrasted to the formalities and stuffiness of the past.
  • The rest liked it for precisely this reason.
  • It was a “progressive” book, the harbinger of a growing Renaissance trend.
  • Apparently it was written in an Italian prose – the Florentine dialect actually – that was new and exciting and magical at the time, for which he’s known as the “Father of Italian Prose”.
  • A bit like Cicero was considered the master of Latin.
  • The other important thing about it is that the characters are from the lower classes.
  • And it was unusual to write about the lives of the lower classes.
  • This is humanism.
  • Each of the ten characters is charged as King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn.
  • The king or queen gets to choose the theme of the stories for that day.
  • And the stories are all over the place.
  • It’s like reading 1001 Arabian nights.
  • The first story, for example, is about an evil cunt, murderer, thief, womaniser, etc, who goes to a strange land to recover some debts, gets sick, and tricks a priest into giving him absolution by pretending he’s a saintly Christian, then he dies, is buried in the grounds of this priest’s church, where he is considered a saint and people believe he has magical powers.
  • So it’s a story about how religious people are easily fooled.
  • Other stories talk about the power of fortune, there are love stories that end tragically or happily, devious tricks that women play on men and examples of virtue.
  • There’s a story about a guy who kills slays his wife’s lover, then gives her his heart to eat. When she finds out what he’s done, she throws herself from a high window to the ground, and dies, and is buried with her lover.
  • Another story is about a guy who gives in to his mother and goes to Paris to study; when he returns he finds out his girlfriends has married someone else; he enters her house by stealth, lays himself by her side, and dies; he is borne to the church, where his ex girlfriend lays herself by his side, and dies.
  • There’s a story about Three young men who love three sisters, and run away with them to Crete. The eldest of the sisters slays her lover for jealousy. The second saves the life of the first by fucking the Duke of Crete. Her lover slays her, and makes off with the first: the third sister and her lover are charged with the murder, are arrested and confess the crime. They escape death by bribing the guards, flee to Rhodes, and die poor and destitute.
  • Another story is about a friar, like a monk, who starts banging a married woman. When her husband arrives home early one day, she tells him that their young son was dying from worms around his heart, and luckily the friar just happened to be passing by and came in, said a prayer over him, and he miraculously came back to life. And the husband was so happy he had a statue erected in honour of the friar.
  • Then there’s the story of the Christian in Paris who is trying to convert his Jewish friend. His friend says he will travel to a Rome and check it out. His friend thinks, omg, if he goes to Rome, and sees what goes on there, he’ll never convert. Sure enough. …
  • The Jew mounted to horse and as quickliest he might betook himself to the court of Rome, he was honourably entertained of his brethren, and there abiding, without telling any the reason of his coming, he began diligently to enquire into the manners and fashions of the Pope and Cardinals and other prelates and of all the members of his court, and what with that which he himself noted, being a mighty quick-witted man, and that which he gathered from others, he found all, from the highest to the lowest, most shamefully given to the sin of lust, and that not only in the way of nature, but after the Sodomitical fashion, without any restraint of remorse or shamefastness, insomuch that the interest of courtezans and catamites was of no small avail there in obtaining any considerable thing. Moreover, he manifestly perceived them to be universally gluttons, wine-bibbers, drunkards and slaves to their bellies, brute-beast fashion, more than to aught else after lust. And looking farther, he saw them all covetous and greedy after money, insomuch that human, nay, Christian blood, no less than things sacred, whatsoever they might be, whether pertaining to the sacrifices of the altar or to the benefices of the church, they sold and bought indifferently for a price, making a greater traffic and having more brokers thereof than folk at Paris of silks and stuffs or what not else. Manifest simony they had christened ‘procuration’ and gluttony ‘sustentation,’ as if God apprehended not, let be the meaning of words but, the intention of depraved minds and would suffer Himself, after the fashion of men, to be duped by the names of things. All this, together with much else which must be left unsaid, was supremely displeasing to the Jew, who was a sober and modest man, and himseeming he had seen enough, he determined to return to Paris and did so.
  • But when he gets back he says to his friend, if that’s how the leaders of Christianity behave, and he religion still thrives, it MUST be true!
  • and he converts at once.
  • You get the idea.
  • The stories mock the lust and greed of the clergy, they explore the tensions in Italian society between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families and also talk about the perils and adventures of travelling merchants.
  • The interactions among tales in a day, or across days, as Boccaccio spins variations and reversals of previous material, forms a whole and not just a collection of stories.
  • Each daily collection of tales features a different tone.
  • The first day consists of a humorous discussion of human vices, while the second day concerns stories where fortune triumphs over its human playthings.
  • However, the tone shifts on day three when good fortune is vanquished by human will.
  • Stories on the fourth day are marked by tragic love stories, while the fifth day brings happy endings to love that at first did not run smoothly.
  • Wit and gaiety are in the ascendant again on the sixth day, followed by trickery and bawdy tales on Days Seven, Eight and Nine.
  • By the final tenth day the earlier themes are brought to a high pitch and the widely popular and anthologised story The Patient Griselda concludes the cycle of tales.
  • It is now generally agreed that Boccaccio borrowed many of the stories from folklore and myth, though the exquisite writing and refined structure of The Decameron ably demonstrate that Boccaccio was no mere repeater of tales.
  • His prose went on to influence many Renaissance writers and many of the stories featured in The Decameron have been borrowed for centuries from countless authors across the world.
  • Although some critics attacked the collection as crude and cynical, there’s an overall affirmation of moral values throughout even the naughtiest stories.
  • Boccaccio was incredibly prolific.
  • He produced as massive body of poetic and prose works which represent a huge variety of classical and medieval literary genres.
  • And he was extremely aware of his position as mediator between different cultures— he sat at the intersection of classical and medieval; Italian, French, and Latin; and Christian and pagan.
  • And that’s why he was one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance.
  • Although his Latin encyclopedic works were his most important and influential works for centuries, modern audiences, both scholarly and otherwise, have made the Decameron Boccaccio’s most read text.
  • Italian, German, and French scholars made the first critical editions of Boccaccio in the late 19th century.
  • His early works, the ones about Maria D’Aquino, weren’t appreciated until the late 20th century.
  • The 700th centenary of his birth in 2013 saw a number of publications in which a range of scholars considered Boccaccio’s influence across genre and period.
  • Besides his writings, Boccaccio was an important figure in the creation of an Italian literary tradition, promoting the poetic importance both of Dante and Petrarch.
  • Later in life, Boccaccio served as a municipal counselor and as an ambassador on numerous occasions, to the pope and in Germany;
  • he was a man of the world and courtier, but also a scholar as well as a writer.
  • As I think we’ve mentioned before, not many people in the West could read or speak Greek by the 1300s.
  • Between 1360 and 1362, Boccaccio let a Calabrian Greek scholar Leontius Pilato stay in one of his homes, and got him a job teaching Greek at the University of Florence.
  • Apparently Calabria still had a largely Greek Orthodox population.
  • It hadn’t been Latinized like the rest of Europe.
  • Leontius translated and commented upon works of Euripides & Aristotle.
  • He made an almost word for word translation of Homer, both the Odyssey and Iliad, into Latin prose for Boccaccio, which he then sent to Petrarch, and this was the first time any of them had ever been able to read Homer.
  • Pilatus was killed when lightning struck a ship’s mast while he was standing against it, on a voyage from Constantinople.
  • Boccaccio also helped the process of recovering authentic texts of of a number of Roman classics, including Martial, Apuleius, Varro, Seneca, Ovid and Tacitus.
  • In fact the rediscovery of Tacitus was mainly his doing.
  • He translated Livy’s history of Rome into Italian.
  • He produced a number of reference works, including two massive classical encyclopedias.
  • One is a topography of the ancient world, listing all the places such as woods, springs, lakes and seas mentioned in Greek and Latin literature, arranged alphabetically.
  • To do this he used the elder Pliny, various Roman geographers, and the classical texts.
  • More important still was his great compilation The Genealogies of the Pagan Gods, which sorted out all the confusing deities referred to in the classics of antiquity.
  • Sometimes he misread or misunderstood texts, thus producing pure inventions, like the Demogorgon, who went on to pursue a vigorous life of his own, right down to Stranger Things.
  • But most people eager to understand the literature of the past found these volumes godsends.
  • They became mines of information and inspiration not just for scholars and writers but, perhaps even more so, for artists looking for subjects.
  • By writing at such length about the pagan deities, Boccaccio risked getting into the church’s bad books, and defended himself by saying that the men and women whom the pagans worshiped were not gods at all but merely exceptional humans whose exploits had been immortalized by endless recounting.
  • So they posed no threat to Christian theology.
  • In fact, like so much else of the material supplied by the Renaissance recovery of antiquity, Boccaccio’s work constituted a real challenge to the Christian monopoly of the incidents that artists portrayed.
  • Up to the second half of the fourteenth century, their subject matter was almost entirely Christian.
  • They continued, of course, to use episodes in the life of Christ and the saints and scenes from the Old Testament until the end of the seventeenth century and beyond.
  • But they now had an alternative, and in some ways a more attractive one, because classical mythology provided many more opportunities for the display of beauty—particularly female flesh—and of joie de vivre than the endless Christian stress on piety and the sufferings of the martyrs.
  • This was one way in which the church’s iron grip on the visual arts, and so on the minds of simple men and women who could not read, was gradually pried loose.
  • That was not Boccaccio’s intention, far from it.
  • The older he got, the more pious he became.
  • It is a fact we have to recognize that these masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even later, waxed and waned in the intensity of their religious passions.
  • As we’ve said before, it wasn’t like humanism just took over suddenly.
  • It was a gradual thing that took centuries.
  • From Petrarch onward, these men had one foot in the Renaissance present and the other firmly in the medieval past, with its superstitions and credal certitudes.
  • About 1360 Boccaccio seems to have retired from the turbulent scenes of Florence to his native Certaldo, the secluded charms of which he describes with rapture.
  • In the following year took place that strange turning-point in Boccaccio’s career which is generally described as his conversion.
  • It seems that a Carthusian monk came to him while at Certaldo charged with a posthumous message from another monk of the same order.
  • The message was that if Boccaccio did not at once abandon his godless ways in life and literature his death would ensue after a short time.
  • He would have been about 47.
  • It is also said that the dying monk passed on a secret known only to Boccaccio.
  • Which freaked him the fuck out.
  • His life had been far from virtuous; in his writings he had frequently sinned against the rules of morality,
  • and worse still, he had attacked the institutions and servants of the church.
  • Terrified by the approach of immediate death, he decided to sell his library, abandon literature, and devote the remainder of his life to penance and religious exercise.
  • All this he wrote to Petrarch.
  • We possess the poet’s answer; it is a masterpiece of writing, and what is more, a proof of tenderest friendship.
  • Petrarch said the message of the monk is evidently simply pious fraud
  • “No monk is required to tell thee of the shortness and precariousness of human life. Of the advice received accept what is good; abandon worldly cares, conquer thy passions, and reform thy soul and life of degraded habits. But do not give up the studies which are the true food of a healthy mind.”
  • Boccaccio seems to have acted on this valuable advice.
  • His later works, although written in Latin and scientific in character, are by no means of a religious kind.
  • It seems, however, that he entered the church in 1362.
  • During the next ten years Boccaccio led an unsettled life, residing chiefly at Florence or Certaldo, but frequently leaving his home on visits to Petrarch and other friends, and on various diplomatic errands in the service of the Republic.
  • He seems to have been poor, having spent large sums in the purchase of books, but his independent spirit rejected the numerous splendid offers of hospitality made to him by friends and admirers.
  • He died one year after Petrarch, in 1375.
  • After Petrarch’s death, he urged Petrarch’s son to posthumously publish Africa.
  • His tombstone carried the epitaph he wrote for himself:
  • “Beneath this stone dust and bones lie, John;
  • His mind rests in the sight of God, his toil was embellished by the merits of his mortal life.
  • The Father was Boccaccius; His Homeland Certaldo; They were his nourishing passion.”
  • No mention of raping Maria d’Aquino.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *