Arguably the most famous prose narrative of the fourteenth century, Decameron was written as a partial response to the Black Death that devastated Florence in 1348 and 1349, and also as the natural continuation of a larger aesthetic literary agenda that spanned some fifteen years, Giovanni Boccaccio's masterpiece continues to fascinate readers and draw the attention of scholars. The work itself, a frame narrative that encloses the storytelling adventures of its brigata of narrators-comprised of seven young women and three young men-exploits the occasion of plague to flee from the city to a picturesque spot outside of Florence, complete with all the conventional trappings of the locus amoenus. The title, derived like many of his other works from the Greek, means “Ten Days.” The young aristocratic narrators plan to fill up some of the time of their sojourn with storytelling, each day appointing a king or queen to select a theme for the day, and men relating appropriate tales to illustrate the topic, a technique foreshadowed in Il Filocolo, under the deeply philosophical questione d'amore rubric.
The dissemination of the Decameron to its reading public was gradual; the first three days were circulated first, with other days to follow at various intervals. From the start, controversy surrounded the radical departure from convention that these stories represented. Therefore, included in the text of the Decameron are several intrusions by the author that attempt to explicate or clarify the purpose of the text. Nevertheless, the critics quickly reacted to the work; this criticism consisted predominantly of outrage about the explicitly sexual themes, action, and imagery contained in many of the tales. This reaction, very narrow and limited in its understanding of the text, was caused mainly by the fact that the narrative design or structural unity that is an integral part of the Decameron did not emerge until the entire text was revised and published toward the end of the 1360s. Even then, scholars disputed the value of such texts, trivial in topic and lacking in the high seriousness that was expected from intellectual figures.
The Decameron represents Boccaccio's theory and practice of vernacular literature as he understood it. As Giuseppe Mazzotta suggested, the Decameron, like the Divine Comedy before it, is an encyclopedic vernacular text, containing all relevant themes, genres, and metaphors that were central to humanist culture. It is a profound work, a culmination of Boccaccio's humanist imagination. Its impact on Western literary culture is immeasurable Castiglione, de Mezieres, Cervantes, Tasso, Ariosto, Bembo, and countless others were inspired to explore the possibilities of vernacular culture after its publication.
At the heart of Boccaccio's agenda in the Decameron is an exposition of the fundamental playfulness and ambivalence of the human condition, coupled with a sense of anxiety about the ability of human language to account adequately or even partially for the power of divine revelation. This agenda engages the polemics that surrounded the debates about the value of poetry that created such conflicts during the development of humanism in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The central difficulty in acquiring a firm grasp of the unity of the Decameron lies in its celebration of the fragmentary and ephemeral nature of transitory human experience, which Boccaccio evidently viewed as the only appropriate metaphor to contrast with divine stability. Logically, then, the central theme of the Decameron is that of the human imagination in all of its manifestations, from the base to the transcendent. Perhaps even more striking, the style is filled with joy and humor, exploiting the tcpos of laughter and the notion that literature, like love, has an intrinsic therapeutic value in human life.
A secondary theme of the Decameron is that of aesthetics, which Boccaccio privileged, according to Mazzotta, as “the source of knowledge for the play of illusion flowering in the imagination of his storytellers.” To Boccaccio and other humanists, aesthetics and literature were one and the same thing: the only mode that allowed for the encyclopedic vision that permitted the human imagination to escape the boundaries of other classic and liberal forms of learning. In the Decameron, then, Boccaccio explored the possibilities for unity within chaos, speculation within orthodoxy, and insisted that literature is the only vehicle that can cater to all of human need simultaneously. Using the occasion of plague, a metaphor for chaos, the stories of the Decameron engage in rhetorical and aesthetic solutions to human suffering and locate these solutions in love and compassion.
Further, scholars appreciate the Decameron for its pioneering exploration of what Branca called the mercantile epic. This is the first vernacular work to successfully meld the values of aristocratic and bourgeois classes, while simultaneously developing an appropriate prose style to accommodate the figures, metaphors, and tropes that gave Latin its literary power. The structure of the prose has been exhaustively studied by Branca; that scholar also forcefully acknowledged the power of Boccaccian style as influential on the development of modern fiction. Following his early experiments in Filostrato and Teseida, Boccaccio exploited the juxtaposition between historical allusion and idealized exempla in order to create his elaborate imaginary universe. As Branca pointed out: “Symbol and chronicle, example and legend thus can meet at last, can reconcile and illumine their different dimensions, previously opposed or rather alien to one another, in this new descriptive, figurative dimension; a dimension in which descriptions without losing any of their exemplary and eternal value are on the contrary set down with power and identified precisely within time and space.” It was a formidable accomplishment and exemplary model for the beginnings of modern fiction.
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