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The Decameron

The Decameron (Italian title: "Decameron" [deˈkaːmeron; dekameˈrɔn; dekameˈron] or "Decamerone" [dekameˈroːne]), subtitled "Prince Galehaut" (Old Italian: Prencipe Galeotto [ˈprentʃipe ɡaleˈɔtto; ˈprɛntʃipe] and sometimes nicknamed "Umana commedia", "Human comedy"), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.

Title

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.

Boccaccio's subtitle, Prencipe Galeotto (Prince Galehaut), refers to Galehaut, a fictional king portrayed in the Lancelot-Grail who was sometimes called by the title haut prince ("high prince"). Galehaut was a close friend of Lancelot and an enemy of King Arthur. When Galehaut learned that Lancelot loved Arthur's wife, Guinevere, he set aside his own ardor for Lancelot in order to arrange a meeting between his friend and Guinevere. At this meeting the Queen first kisses Lancelot, and so begins their love affair.

In Canto V of Inferno, Dante compares these fictional lovers with the real-life paramours Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, whose relationship he fictionalises. In Inferno, Francesca and Paolo read of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the story impassions them to lovemaking.

Dante's description of Galehaut's munificence and savoir-faire amidst this intrigue impressed Boccaccio. By invoking the name Prencipe Galeotto in the alternative title to Decameron, Boccaccio alludes to a sentiment he expresses in the text: his compassion for women deprived of free speech and social liberty, confined to their homes and, at times, lovesick. He contrasts this life with that of the menfolk, who enjoy respite in sport, such as hunting, fishing, riding, and falconry.

Frame story

In Italy during the time of the Black Death, a group of seven young women and three young men flee from plague-ridden Florence to a deserted villa in the countryside of Fiesole for two weeks. To pass the evenings, every member of the party tells a 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 storytelling over the course of two weeks. Thus, by the end of the fortnight they have told 100 stories.

Each of the ten characters is charged as King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This charge extends to choosing the theme of the stories for that day, and all but two days have topics assigned: 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 in general; examples of virtue. Only Dioneo, who usually tells the tenth tale each day, has the right to tell a tale on any topic he wishes, due to his wit. Many authors have argued that Dioneo expresses the views of Boccaccio himself. Each day also includes a short introduction and conclusion to continue the frame of the tales by describing other daily activities besides story-telling. These frame tale interludes frequently include transcriptions of Italian folk songs. 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. The basic plots of the stories include mocking the lust and greed of the clergy; tensions in Italian society between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families; and the perils and adventures of traveling merchants.

Analysis

Throughout the Decameron 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 cured, or punished. While these traits and values may seem obvious to 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 placed greater value on piety and loyalty.

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 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, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa. The men, in order, are Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo.

Boccaccio focused on the naturalness of sex by combining and interlacing sexual experiences with nature.

Literary sources

Boccaccio borrowed the plots of almost all his stories (just as later writers borrowed from him). Although he consulted only French, Italian and Latin sources, some of the tales have their origin in such far-off lands as India, Persia, Spain, and other places. Some were already centuries old. For example, part of the tale of Andreuccio of Perugia (II, 5) originated in 2nd-century Ephesus (in the Ephesian Tale). The frame narrative structure (though not the characters or plot) originates from the Panchatantra, which was written in Sanskrit before AD 500 and came to Boccaccio through a chain of translations that includes Old Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. Even the description of the central current event of the narrative, the Black Plague (which Boccaccio surely witnessed), is not original, but based on the Historia gentis Langobardorum of Paul the Deacon, who lived in the 8th century.

Some scholars have suggested that some of the tales for which there is no prior source may still not have been invented by Boccaccio, but may have been circulating in the local oral tradition, with Boccaccio simply the first person known to have recorded them. Boccaccio himself says that he heard some of the tales orally. In VII, 1, for example, he claims to have heard the tale from an old woman who heard it as a child.

The fact that Boccaccio borrowed the storylines that make up most of the Decameron does not mean he mechanically reproduced them. Most of the stories take place in the 14th century and have been sufficiently updated to the author's time that a reader may not know that they had been written centuries earlier or in a foreign culture. Also, Boccaccio often combined two or more unrelated tales into one (such as in II, 2 and VII, 7).

Moreover, many of the characters actually existed, such as Giotto di Bondone, Guido Cavalcanti, Saladin and King William II of Sicily. Scholars have even been able to verify the existence of less famous characters, such as the tricksters Bruno and Buffalmacco and their victim Calandrino. Still other fictional characters are based on real people, such as the Madonna Fiordaliso from tale II, 5, who is derived from a Madonna Flora who lived in the red light district of Naples. Boccaccio often intentionally muddled historical (II, 3) and geographical (V, 2) facts for his narrative purposes. Within the tales of The Decameron, the principal characters are usually developed through their dialogue and actions, so that by the end of the story they seem real and their actions logical given their context.

Another of Boccaccio's frequent techniques was to make already existing tales more complex. A clear example of this is in tale IX, 6, which was also used by Chaucer in his "The Reeve's Tale", which more closely follows the original French source than does Boccaccio's version. In the Italian version, the host's wife and the two young male visitors occupy all three beds and she also creates an explanation of the happenings of the evening. Both elements are Boccaccio's invention and make for a more complex version than either Chaucer's version or the French source (a fabliau by Jean de Boves).

Translations into English

The Decameron's individual tales were translated into English early on (such as poet William Walter's 1525 Here begynneth y[e] hystory of Tytus & Gesyppus translated out of Latyn into Englysshe by Wyllyam Walter, somtyme seruaunte to Syr Henry Marney, a translation of tale X.viii), or served as source material for English authors such as Chaucer to rework. The table below lists all attempts at a complete English translation of the book. The information on pre-1971 translations is compiled from the G.H. McWilliam's introduction to his own 1971 translation.

Table of cities and characters mentioned in the English text

Notable early translations

It can be generally said that Petrarch's version in Rerum senilium libri XVII, 3, included in a letter he wrote to his friend Boccaccio, was to serve as a source for all the many versions that circulated around Europe, including the translations of the very Decameron into French, Catalan – translated by Bernat Metge – and Spanish.

The famous first tale (I, 1) of the notorious Ser Ciappelletto was later translated into Latin by Olimpia Fulvia Morata and translated again by Voltaire.

Adaptations

Theatre

  • William Shakespeare's 1605 play All's Well That Ends Well is based on tale III, 9. Shakespeare probably first read a French translation of the tale in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure.
  • Posthumus's wager on Imogen's chastity in Cymbeline was taken by Shakespeare from an English translation of a 15th-century German tale, "Frederyke of Jennen", whose basic plot came from tale II, 9.
  • Lope de Vega adapted at least twelve stories from the Decameron for the theatre, including:
    • El ejemplo de casadas y prueba de la paciencia, based on tale X, 10, which was by far the most popular story of the Decameron during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries
    • Discreta enamorada, based on tale III, 3
    • El ruiseñor de Sevilla (They're Not All Nightingales), based on parts of V, 4
  • Molière's 1661 play L'école des maris is based on tale III, 3.
  • Molière borrowed from tale VII, 4 in his play George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (The Confounded Husband). In both stories the husband is convinced that he has accidentally caused his wife's suicide.
  • Thomas Middleton's play The Widow is based on tales II, 2 and III, 3.
  • The ring parable from tale I, 3 is at the heart of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 play Nathan the Wise.
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson used tale V, 9 for his 1879 play The Falcon.

Prose works

  • The tale of patient Griselda (X, 10) was the source of Chaucer's "The Clerk's Tale". However, there are some scholars who believe that Chaucer may not have been directly familiar with The Decameron, and instead derived it from a Latin translation/retelling of that tale by Petrarch.
  • Martin Luther retells tale I, 2, in which a Jew converts to Catholicism after visiting Rome and seeing the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy. However, in Luther's version (found in his "Table-talk #1899"), Luther and Philipp Melanchthon try to dissuade the Jew from visiting Rome.
  • The story of Griselda (X, 10) was also the basis for the 1694 verse novel Griseldis by Charles Perrault, later included in his 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé.
  • Jonathan Swift used tale I, 3 for his first major published work, A Tale of a Tub (1704).
  • Edgar Allan Poe's short horror story "The Masque of the Red Death" is said to be inspired by this work.

Poems

  • John Keats borrowed the tale of Lisabetta and her pot of basil (IV, 5) for his poem, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.
  • At his death Percy Bysshe Shelley had left a fragment of a poem entitled "Ginevra", which he took from the first volume of an Italian book called L'Osservatore Fiorentino. The plot of that book was in turn taken from tale X, 4.
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow adapted tale V, 9 for the poem "The Falcon of Ser Federigo", included in his 1863 collection Tales of a Wayside Inn.

Songs

  • Tale IV, 1 was the basis for Child ballad 269, "Lady Diamond".

Opera

  • The Venetian writer Apostolo Zeno wrote a libretto named Griselda in 1701, based in part on tale X, 10, and in part on Lope de Vega's theatrical adaptation of it, El ejemplo de casadas y prueba de la paciencia. Various composers wrote music for the libretto, including Carlo Francesco Pollarolo (Griselda, 1701), Tomaso Albinoni (Griselda, 1703), Antonio Maria Bononcini (Griselda, 1718), Alessandro Scarlatti (Griselda, 1721), Giovanni Bononcini (Griselda, 1722) and Antonio Vivaldi (Griselda, 1735).
  • Giuseppe Petrosinelli in his libretto for Domenico Cimarosa's comic opera The Italian Girl in London uses the story of the heliotrope (bloodstone) in tale VIII, 3.

Film and television

  • Decameron Nights (1924) was based on three of the tales.
  • Decameron Nights (1953) was based on three of the tales and starred Louis Jourdan as Boccaccio.
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Decameron (1971) is an anthology film which includes nine of the stories.
  • The 2007 film Virgin Territory is a romantic comedy based on the framing story of The Decameron.
  • The 2017 comedy The Little Hours adapted tales III, 1 and III, 2.

Wrongly considered to be adaptations

  • Chaucer's "The Franklin's Tale" shares its plot with tale X, 5, although this is not due to a direct borrowing from Boccaccio. Rather, both authors used a common French source.
  • The motif of the three trunks in The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare is found in tale X, 1. However, both Shakespeare and Boccaccio probably came upon the tale in Gesta Romanorum.

Collections emulating the Decameron

  • Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron is heavily based on The Decameron
  • Christoph Martin Wieland's set of six novellas, Das Hexameron von Rosenhain, is based on the structure of The Decameron.

References to the Decameron

  • Christine de Pizan refers to several of the stories from The Decameron in her work The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).
  • The title character in George Eliot's historical novel Romola emulates Gostanza in tale V, 2, by buying a small boat and drifting out to sea to die, after she realizes that she no longer has anyone on whom she can depend.
  • In the 1994 movie My Summer Story, Ralphie does a book report on The Decameron and gets in trouble with his teacher for doing so.
  • The tales are referenced in The Borgias in season 2, episode 7, when a fictional version of Niccolò Machiavelli mentions at a depiction of the Bonfire of the Vanities that he should have brought his friend "the Decameron" who would have told the "one-hundred and first" tale.
  • Season 1, episode 5 (2013) of the American TV series Da Vinci's Demons portrays a theatrical adaptation of stories from The Decameron.
  • Inspectors find a pocket edition of The Decameron on the body of a dead man in the Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.

Boccaccio's drawings

Since The Decameron was very popular among contemporaries, especially merchants, many manuscripts of it survive. The Italian philologist Vittore Branca did a comprehensive survey of them and identified a few copied under Boccaccio's supervision; some have notes written in Boccaccio's hand. Two in particular have elaborate drawings, probably done by Boccaccio himself. Since these manuscripts were widely circulated, Branca thought that they influenced all subsequent illustrations. In 1962 Branca identified Codex Hamilton 90, in Berlin's Staatsbibliothek, as an autograph belonging to Boccaccio's latter years.

See also

  • Cent Nouvelles nouvelles
  • One Thousand and One Nights

References

External links

  • Decameron Web, from Brown University
  • The Decameron – Introduction from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
  • The Enchanted Garden, a painting by John William Waterhouse
  • The Decameron, Volume I at Project Gutenberg (Rigg translation)
  • The Decameron, Volume II at Project Gutenberg (Rigg translation)
  • The Decameron at Project Gutenberg (Payne translation)
  • Decameron – English and Italian text for a direct comparison
  • (in Italian) Full text of the Decameron (PDF)
  • The Decameron public domain audiobook at LibriVox


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