Readerz.Net / Giovanni Boccaccio / 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Film and television
Wrongly considered to be adaptations
Collections emulating the Decameron
References to the Decameron
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.