“They boosted themselves with such nauseating self-praise as to make the stones jump out of the walls and flee.” -Giovanni Boccaccio, from ‘The Labyrinth of Love’
The Italian Renaissance was dominated by some of the greatest paintings ever created as well as some of the West’s most excellent literature. The Humanist movement was born in the minds of, and connections between, great writers who sought to craft epic works which would stand the test of time. These writers promoted use of the vernacular in their most famous works. The most prominent of these writers are known as the ‘Three Crowns of Italian Literature” — Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch, who popularized the sonnet and coined the term ‘dark ages’), Dante Alighieri (author of the Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest work in the history of Italian literature), and Giovanni Boccaccio (author of the Decameron and the one who first called Dante’s Commedia ‘divine’). Boccaccio (1313–1375) deserves his place aside Dante and Petrarch as a supreme example of human literary potential. His unique contributions to proto-Renaissance Italy deserve a greater place even in the surveys of great literature presented in the Anglophone world. English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was influenced by Boccaccio to the point of ripping him off. This article will look at Boccaccio’s achievements more generally. His Decameron is a work which will be looked at, but sadly only briefly. In fact, it will be the subject of a future article.
The Great Mortality
Giovanni Boccaccio may have been a key influence for future generations as the Renaissance approached but he lived in a clearly medieval world. Indeed, his life coincided with one of the worst pandemics in the history of the human species — the Black Death (1347–1351). In a few short years, bubonic plague spread across Europe from Asia and killed between a third and a half of the population.
Giovanni Boccaccio was in midlife during the time of the Black Death. The term ‘Black Death’ was applied much later as a term for this catastrophe. At the time, it would have been referred to as plague or pestilence. Boccaccio’s famous Decameron (written 1348–1353) is set against the backdrop of the plague. In the opening of this work, Boccaccio describes, in detail, the chaos created by the bubonic plague.
“I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.
In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous….. the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the cloth of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.” -Giovanni Boccacio, from the Proem of the ‘Decameron’ (1903 Rigg translation)
The Black Death was one of those watershed events in world history which changed the various societies forever. In the wake of plague, wages rose, new technology was developed, and there were food surpluses. Petrarch and Boccaccio both lived through the Black Death and both wrote about it. Two of the greatest Italian writers, two of the most important influences on the Renaissance, wrote their works in the midst of one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. For Boccaccio, the stories of the Decameron were a representation of a kind of order amidst the chaos of plague. The characters in the Decameron tell their stories over the course of ten days in the countryside, having fled Florence as the plague ravaged the city.
Boccaccio also wrote of the swiftness in which the plague killed, noting that those infected “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”
The Study of Greek
Francesco Petrarch loved the thought of reading the ancient Greek classics. He depicted himself in a most lugubrious fashion, in response to his inability to read the original Greek. Holding a Greek copy of Homer’s Iliad to his head, he lamented the fact that he had barely a smattering of knowledge of Greek (learned from his limited time with a tutor) and could not read the beautiful words of Homer in the original. Later humanists had greater opportunities to learn Greek as scholars fleeing the collapsing Byzantine Empire migrated to Italy. In the mid-fourteenth century, knowledge of Greek among intellectuals in Italy (and, indeed Western Europe) was quite rare.
There was a notable exception. While Petrarch was unable to read Greek, Giovanni Boccaccio was able to do so. He was the first humanist who quoted Greek writings directly. Boccaccio was raised in both Florence and Naples. In the large, cosmopolitan city of Naples, he had access to Greek literature and was able to learn the Greek language.
Genealogy of the Pagan Gods
Among Boccaccio’s most important contributions to early Italian humanism was his Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. This monumental work was created to serve as a kind of reference guide for those reading ancient classics. In it, Boccaccio explains the various pagan gods to familiarize readers with who these gods are and what they represent.
Unlike Petrarch, who sought his reputation in Latin then worked toward the vernacular, Giovanni Boccaccio’s early works were vernacular works. It was later in life that he tended to focus more on writing in Latin. His early vernacular works were influenced by ancient tales and French courtly romances. His Decameron was a work of his middle years — an experimental one. The book contains 100 novellas (with novel being a ‘new thing,’ antecedent to the rise of the novel as a literary genre). The Decameron was originally written in Italian, not Latin — a continuation from Boccaccio’s early period and prominent influence on later Italian writers.
Boccaccio and Dante
Giovanni Boccaccio, near the end of his life, began lecturing on Dante — the first Western intellectual to do so. His 1373 lectures and commentary which followed represent his last major contribution to literature before his death two years later. Boccaccio set the tone of future Dante studies by declaring the Comedy ‘divine.’ Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio (the ‘Three Crowns’) constitute the core of what would become the Italian Humanist intellectual/literary tradition.
“The nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than a dog, for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse.” -Giovanni Boccaccio, from the ‘Decameron’