1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boccaccio, Giovanni
BOCCACCIO, GIOVANNI (1313–1375), Italian author, whose Decameron is one of the classics of literature, was born in 1313, as we know from a letter of Petrarch, in which that poet, who was born in 1304, calls himself the senior of his friend by nine years. The place of his birth is somewhat doubtful—Florence, Paris and Certaldo being all mentioned by various writers as his native city. Boccaccio undoubtedly calls himself a Florentine, but this may refer merely to the Florentine citizenship acquired by his grandfather. The claim of Paris has been supported by Baldelli and Tiraboschi, mainly on the ground that his mother was a lady of good family in that city, where she met Boccaccio's father. There is a good deal in favour of Certaldo, a small town or castle in the valley of the Elsa, 20 m. from Florence, where the family had some property, and where the poet spent much of the latter part of his life. He always signed his name Boccaccio da Certaldo, and named that town as his birthplace in his own epitaph. Petrarch calls his friend Certaldese; and Filippo Villani, a contemporary, distinctly says that Boccaccio was born in Certaldo.
Boccaccio, an illegitimate son, as is put beyond dispute by the fact that a special licence had to be obtained when he desired to become a priest, was brought up with tender care by his father, who seems to have been a merchant of respectable rank. His elementary education he received from Giovanni da Strada, an esteemed teacher of grammar in Florence. But at an early age he was apprenticed to an eminent merchant, with whom he remained for six years, a time entirely lost to him, if we may believe his own statement. For from his tenderest years his soul was attached to that “alma poesis,” which, on his tombstone, he names as the task and study of his life. In one of his works he relates that, in his seventh year, before he had ever seen a book of poetry or learned the rules of metrical composition, he began to write verse in his childish fashion, and earned for himself amongst his friends the name of “the poet.” It is uncertain where Boccaccio passed these six years of bondage; most likely he followed his master to various centres of commerce in Italy and France. We know at least that he was in Naples and Paris for some time, and the youthful impressions received in the latter city, as well as the knowledge of the French language acquired there, were of considerable influence on his later career. Yielding at last to his son's immutable aversion to commerce, the elder Boccaccio permitted him to adopt a course of study somewhat more congenial to the literary tastes of the young man. He was sent to a celebrated professor of canon law, at that time an important field of action both to the student and the practical jurist. According to some accounts—far from authentic, it is true—this professor was Cino da Pistoia, the friend of Dante, and himself a celebrated poet and scholar. But, whoever he may have been, Boccaccio's master was unable to inspire his pupil with scientific ardour. “Again,” Boccaccio says, “I lost nearly six years. And so nauseous was this study to my mind, that neither the teaching of my master, nor the authority and command of my father, nor yet the exertions and reproof of my friends, could make me take to it, for my love of poetry was invincible.”
About 1333 Boccaccio settled for some years at Naples, apparently sent there by his father to resume his mercantile pursuits, the canon law being finally abandoned. The place, it must be confessed, was little adapted to lead to a practical view of life one in whose heart the love of poetry was firmly rooted. The court of King Robert of Anjou at Naples was frequented by many Italian and French men of letters, the great Petrarch amongst the number. At the latter's public examination in the noble science of poetry by the king, previous to his receiving the laurel crown at Rome, Boccaccio was present,—without, however, making his personal acquaintance at this period. In the atmosphere of this gay court, enlivened and adorned by the wit of men and the beauty of women, Boccaccio lived for several years. We can imagine how the tedious duties of the market and the counting-house became more and more distasteful to his aspiring nature. We are told that, finding himself by chance on the supposed grave of Virgil, near Naples, Boccaccio on that sacred spot took the firm resolution of devoting himself for ever to poetry. But perhaps another event, which happened some time after, led quite as much as the first-mentioned occurrence to this decisive turning-point in his life. On Easter-eve, 1341, in the church of San Lorenzo, Boccaccio saw for the first time the natural daughter of King Robert, Maria, whom he immortalized as Fiammetta in the noblest creations of his muse. Boccaccio's passion on seeing her was instantaneous, and (if we may accept as genuine the confessions contained in one of her lover's works) was returned with equal ardour on the part of the lady. But not till after much delay did she yield to the amorous demands of the poet, in spite of her honour and her duty as the wife of another. All the information we have with regard to Maria or Fiammetta is derived from the works of Boccaccio himself, and owing to several apparently contradictory statements occurring in these works, the very existence of the lady has been doubted by commentators, who seem to forget that, surrounded by the chattering tongues of a court, and watched perhaps by a jealous husband, Boccaccio had all possible reason to give the appearance of fictitious incongruity to the effusions of his real passion. But there seems no more reason to call into question the main features of the story, or even the identity of the person, than there would be in the case of Petrarch's Laura or of Dante's Beatrice. It has been ingeniously pointed out by Baldelli, that the fact of her descent from King Robert being known only to Maria herself, and through her to Boccaccio, the latter was the more at liberty to refer to this circumstance,—the bold expression of the truth serving in this case to increase the mystery with which the poets of the middle ages loved, or were obliged, to surround the objects of their praise. From Boccaccio's Ameto we learn that Maria's mother was, like his own, a French lady, whose husband, according to Baldelli's ingenious conjecture, was of the noble house of Aquino, and therefore of the same family with the celebrated Thomas Aquinas. Maria died, according to his account, long before her lover, who cherished her memory to the end of his life, as we see from a sonnet written shortly before his death.
The first work of Boccaccio, composed by him at Fiammetta's command, was the prose tale, Filocopo, describing the romantic love and adventures of Florio and Biancafiore, a favourite subject with the knightly minstrels of France, Italy and Germany. The treatment of the story by Boccaccio is not remarkable for originality or beauty, and the narrative is encumbered by classical allusions and allegorical conceits. The style also cannot be held worthy of the future great master of Italian prose. Considering, however, that this prose was in its infancy, and that this was Boccaccio's first attempt at remoulding the unwieldy material at his disposal, it would be unjust to deny that Filocopo is a highly interesting work, full of promise and all but articulate power. Another work, written about the same time by Fiammetta's desire and dedicated to her, is the Teseide, an epic poem, and indeed the first heroic epic in the Italian language. The name is chosen somewhat inappropriately, as King Theseus plays a secondary part, and the interest of the story centres in the two noble knights, Palemone and Arcito, and their wooing of the beautiful Emelia. The Teseide is of particular interest to the student of poetry, because it exhibits the first example of the ottava rima, a metre which was adopted by Tasso and Ariosto, and in English by Byron in Don Juan. Another link between Boccaccio's epic and English literature is formed by the fact of Chaucer having in the Knight's Tale adopted its main features.
Boccaccio's poetry has been severely criticized by his countrymen, and most severely by the author himself. On reading Petrarch's sonnets, Boccaccio resolved in a fit of despair to burn his own attempts, and only the kindly encouragement of his great friend prevented the holocaust. Posterity has justly differed from the author's sweeping self-criticism. It is true, that compared with Dante's grandeur and passion, and with Petrarch's absolute mastership of metre and language, Boccaccio's poetry seems to be somewhat thrown into shade. His verse is occasionally slip-shod, and particularly his epic poetry lacks what in modern parlance is called poetic diction,—the quality, that is, which distinguishes the elevated pathos of the recorder of heroic deeds from the easy grace of the mere conteur. This latter feature, so charmingly displayed in Boccaccio's prose, has to some extent proved fatal to his verse. At the same time, his narrative is always fluent and interesting, and his lyrical pieces, particularly the poetic interludes in the Decameron, abound with charming gallantry, and frequently rise to lyrical pathos.
About the year 1341 Boccaccio returned to Florence by command of his father, who in his old age desired the assistance and company of his son. Florence, at that time disturbed by civil feuds, and the silent gloom of his father's house could not but appear in an unfavourable light to one accustomed to the gay life of the Neapolitan court. But more than all this, Boccaccio regretted the separation from his beloved Fiammetta. The thought of her at once embittered and consoled his loneliness. Three of his works owe their existence to this period. With all of them Fiammetta is connected; of one of them she alone is the subject. The first work, called Ameto, describes the civilizing influence of love, which subdues the ferocious manners of the savage with its gentle power. Fiammetta, although not the heroine of the story, is amongst the nymphs who with their tales of true love soften the mind of the huntsman. Ameto is written in prose alternating with verse, specimens of which form occur in old and middle Latin writings. It is more probable, however, that Boccaccio adopted it from that sweetest and purest blossom of medieval French literature, Aucassin et Nicolette, which dates from the 13th century, and was undoubtedly known to him. So pleased was Boccaccio with the idea embodied in the character of Ameto that he repeated its essential features in the Cimone of his Decameron (Day 5th, tale i.). The second work referred to is a poem in fifty chapters, called L'amorosa Visione. It describes a dream in which the poet, guided by a lady, sees the heroes and lovers of ancient and medieval times. Boccaccio evidently has tried to imitate the celebrated Trionfi of Petrarch, but without much success. There is little organic development in the poem, which reads like the catalogue raisonné of a picture gallery; but it is remarkable from another point of view. It is perhaps the most astounding instance in literature of ingenuity wasted on trifles; even Edgar Poe, had he known Boccaccio's puzzle, must have confessed himself surpassed. For the whole of the Amorosa Visione is nothing but an acrostic on a gigantic scale. The poem is written, like the Divina Commedia, in terza rima, and the initial letters of all the triplets throughout the work compose three poems of considerable length, in the first of which the whole is dedicated to Boccaccio's lady-love, this time under her real name of Maria. In addition to this, the initial letters of the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth lines of the dedicatory poem form the name of Maria; so that here we have the acrostic in the second degree. No wonder that thus entrammelled the poet's thought begins to flag and his language to halt. The third important work written by Boccaccio during his stay at Florence, or soon after his return to Naples, is called L'amorosa Fiammetta; and although written in prose, it contains more real poetry than the elaborate production just referred to. It purports to be Fiammetta's complaint after her lover, following the call of filial duty, had deserted her. Bitterly she deplores her fate, and upbraids her lover with coldness and want of devotion. Jealous fears add to her torture, not altogether unfounded, if we believe the commentators' assertion that the heroine of Ameto is in reality the beautiful Lucia, a Florentine lady loved by Boccaccio. Sadly Fiammetta recalls the moments of former bliss, the first meeting, the stolen embrace. Her narrative is indeed our chief source of information for the incidents of this strange love-story. It has been thought unlikely, and indeed impossible, that Boccaccio should thus have become the mouthpiece of a real lady's real passion for himself; but there seems nothing incongruous in the supposition that after a happy reunion the poet should have heard with satisfaction, and surrounded with the halo of ideal art, the story of his lady's sufferings. Moreover, the language is too full of individual intensity to make the conjecture of an entirely fictitious love affair intrinsically probable. L'amorosa Fiammetta is a monody of passion sustained even to the verge of dulness, but strikingly real, and therefore artistically valuable.
By the intercession of an influential friend, Boccaccio at last obtained (in 1344) his father's permission to return to Naples, where in the meantime Giovanna, grand-daughter of King Robert, had succeeded to the crown. Being young and beautiful, fond of poetry and of the praise of poets, she received Boccaccio with all the distinction due to his literary fame. For many years she remained his faithful friend, and the poet returned her favour with grateful devotion. Even when the charge of having instigated, or at least connived at, the murder of her husband was but too clearly proved against her, Boccaccio was amongst the few who stood by her, and undertook the hopeless task of clearing her name from the dreadful stain. It was by her desire, no less than by that of Fiammetta, that he composed (between 1344 and 1350) most of the stories of his Decameron, which afterwards were collected and placed in the mouths of the Florentine ladies and gentlemen. During this time he also composed the Filostrato, a narrative poem, the chief interest of which, for the English reader, lies in its connexion with Chaucer. With a boldness pardonable only in men of genius, Chaucer adopted the main features of the plot, and literally translated parts of Boccaccio's work, without so much as mentioning the name of his Italian source.
In 1350 Boccaccio returned to Florence, owing to the death of his father, who had made him guardian to his younger brother Jacopo. He was received with great distinction, and entered the service of the Republic, being at various times sent on important missions to the margrave of Brandenburg, and to the courts of several popes, both in Avignon and Rome. Boccaccio boasts of the friendly terms on which he had been with the great potentates of Europe, the emperor and pope amongst the number. But he was never a politician in the sense that Dante and Petrarch were. As a man of the world he enjoyed the society of the great, but his interest in the internal commotions of the Florentine state seems to have been very slight. Besides, he never liked Florence, and the expressions used by him regarding his fellow-citizens betray anything but patriotic prejudice. In a Latin eclogue he applies to them the term “Batrachos” (frogs), by which, he adds parenthetically—Ego intelligo Florentinorum morem; loquacissimi enim sumus, verum in rebus bellicis nihil valemus. The only important result of Boccaccio's diplomatic career was his intimacy with Petrarch. The first acquaintance of these two great men dates from the year 1350, when Boccaccio, then just returned to Florence, did all in his power to make the great poet's short stay in that city agreeable. When in the following year the Florentines were anxious to draw men of great reputation to their newly-founded university, it was again Boccaccio who insisted on the claims of Petrarch to the most distinguished position. He himself accepted the mission of inviting his friend to Florence, and of announcing to Petrarch at the same time that the forfeited estates of his family had been restored to him. In this manner an intimate friendship grew up between them to be parted only by death. Common interests and common literary pursuits were the natural basis of their friendship, and both occupy prominent positions in the early history of that great intellectual revival commonly called the Renaissance.
During the 14th century the study of ancient literature was at a low ebb in Italy. The interest of the lay world was engrossed by political struggles, and the treasures of classical history and poetry were at the mercy of monks, too lazy or too ignorant to use, or even to preserve them. Boccaccio himself told that, on asking to see the library of the celebrated monastery of Monte Cassino, he was shown into a dusty room without a door to it. Many of the valuable manuscripts were mutilated; and his guide told him that the monks were in the habit of tearing leaves from the codices to turn them into psalters for children, or amulets for women at the price of four or five soldi apiece. Boccaccio did all in his power to remove by word and example this barbarous indifference. He bought or copied with his own hand numerous valuable manuscripts, and an old writer remarks that if Boccaccio had been a professional copyist, the amount of his work might astonish us. His zealous endeavours for the revival of the all but forgotten Greek language in western Europe are well known. The most celebrated Italian scholars about the beginning of the 15th century were unable to read the Greek characters. Boccaccio deplored the ignorance of his age. He took lessons from Leone Pilato, a learned adventurer of the period, who had lived a long time in Thessaly and, although born in Calabria, pretended to be a Greek. By Boccaccio's advice Leone Pilato was appointed professor of Greek language and literature in the university of Florence, a position which he held for several years, not without great and lasting benefit for the revival of classical learning. Boccaccio was justly proud of having been intimately connected with the foundation of the first chair of Greek in Italy. But he did not forget, in his admiration of classic literature, the great poets of his own country. He never tires in his praise of the sublime Dante, whose works he copied with his own hand. He conjures his friend Petrarch to study the great Florentine, and to defend himself against the charges of wilful ignorance and envy brought against him. A life of Dante, and the commentaries on the first sixteen cantos of the Inferno, bear witness to Boccaccio's learning and enthusiasm.
In the chronological enumeration of our author's writings we now come to his most important work, the Decameron, a collection of one hundred stories, published in their combined form in 1353, although mostly written at an earlier date. This work marks in a certain sense the rise of Italian prose. It is true that Dante's Vita Nuova was written before, but its involved sentences, founded essentially on Latin constructions, cannot be compared with the infinite suppleness and precision of Boccaccio's prose. The Cento Novelle Antiche, on the other hand, which also precedes the Decameron in date, can hardly be said to be written in artistic language according to definite rules of grammar and style. Boccaccio for the first time speaks a new idiom, flexible and tender, like the character of the nation, and capable of rendering all the shades of feeling, from the coarse laugh of cynicism to the sigh of hopeless love. It is by the name of “Father of Italian Prose” that Boccaccio ought to be chiefly remembered.
Like most progressive movements in art and literature, Boccaccio's remoulding of Italian prose may be described as a “return to nature.” It is indeed the nature of the Italian people itself which has become articulate in the Decameron; here we find southern grace and elegance, together with that unveiled naïveté of impulse which is so striking and so amiable a quality of the Italian character. The undesirable complement of the last-mentioned feature, a coarseness and indecency of conception and expression hardly comprehensible to the northern mind, also appears in the Decameron, particularly where the life and conversation of the lower classes are the subject of the story. At the same time, these descriptions of low life are so admirable, and the character of popular parlance rendered with such humour, as often to make the frown of moral disgust give way to a smile.
It is not surprising that a style so concise and yet so pliable so typical and yet so individual, as that of Boccaccio was of enormous influence on the further progress of a prose in a manner created by it. This influence has indeed prevailed down to the present time, to an extent beneficial upon the whole, although frequently fatal to the development of individual writers. Novelists like Giovanni Fiorentino or Franco Sacchetti are completely under the sway of their great model; and Boccaccio's influence may be discerned equally in the plastic fulness of Machiavelli and in the pointed satire of Aretino. Without touching upon the individual merits of Lasca, Bandello and other novelists of the cinque-cento, it may be asserted that none of them created a style independent of their great predecessor. One cannot indeed but acquiesce in the authoritative utterance of the Accademia della Crusca, which holds up the Decameron as the standard and model of Italian prose. Even the Della Cruscan writers themselves have been unable to deprive the language wholly of the fresh spontaneity of Boccaccio's manner, which in modern literature we again admire in Manzoni's Promessi sposi.
A detailed analysis of a work so well known as the Decameron would be unnecessary. The description of the plague of Florence preceding the stories is universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece of epic grandeur and vividness. It ranks with the paintings of similar calamities by Thucydides, Defoe and Manzoni. Like Defoe, Boccaccio had to draw largely on hearsay and his own imagination, it being almost certain that in 1348 he was at Naples, and therefore no eye-witness of the scenes he describes. The stories themselves, a hundred in number, range from the highest pathos to the coarsest licentiousness. A creation like the patient Griselda, which international literature owes to Boccaccio, ought to atone for much that is morally and artistically objectionable in the Decameron. It may be said on this head, that his age and his country were not only deeply immoral, but in addition exceedingly outspoken. Moreover, his sources were anything but pure. Most of his improper stories are either anecdotes from real life, or they are taken from the fabliaux of medieval French poets. On comparing the latter class of stories (about one-fifth of the whole Decameron) with their French originals, one finds that Boccaccio has never added to, but has sometimes toned down the revolting ingredients. Notwithstanding this, it cannot be denied that the artistic value of the Decameron is greatly impaired by descriptions and expressions, the intentional licentiousness of which is but imperfectly veiled by an attempt at humour.
Boccaccio has been accused of plagiarism, particularly by French critics, who correctly state that the subjects of many stories in the Decameron are borrowed from their literature. A similar objection might be raised against Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe (in Faust), and indeed most of the master minds of all nations. Power of invention is not the only nor even the chief criterion of a great poet. He takes his subjects indiscriminately from his own fancy, or from the consciousness of his and other nations. Stories float about in the air, known to all yet realized by few; the poet gathers their disjecta membra into an organic whole, and this he inspires and calls into life with the breath of his genius. It is in this sense that Boccaccio is the creator of those innumerable beautiful types and stories, which have since become household words amongst civilized nations. No author can equal him in these contributions to the store of international literature. There are indeed few great poets who have not in some way become indebted to the inexhaustible treasure of Boccaccio's creativeness. One of the greatest masterpieces of German literature, Lessing's Nathan the Wise, contains a story from Boccaccio (Decameron, Day 1st, tale iii.), and the list of English poets who have drawn from the same source comprises, among many others, the names of Chaucer, Lydgate, Dryden, Keats and Tennyson.
For ten years Boccaccio continued to reside in Florence, leaving the city only occasionally on diplomatic missions or on visits to his friends. His fame in the meantime began to spread far and wide, and his Decameron, in particular, was devoured by the fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the age. About 1360 he 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, to the effect that if Boccaccio did not at once abandon his godless ways in life and literature his death would ensue after a short time. It is also mentioned that the revelation to the friar on his deathbed of a secret known only to Boccaccio gave additional import to this alarming information. Boccaccio's impressionable nature was deeply moved. 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 with bitter satire the institutions and servants of holy mother church. Terrified by the approach of immediate death, he resolved to sell his library, abandon literature, and devote the remainder of his life to penance and religious exercise. To this effect 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. The message of the monk Petrarch is evidently inclined to treat simply as pious fraud, without, however, actually committing himself to that opinion. “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 his entering the church in 1362 is connected with the events just related.
In 1363 Boccaccio went on a visit to Naples to the seneschal Acciajuoli (the same Florentine who had in 1344 persuaded the elder Boccaccio to permit his son's return to Naples), who commissioned him to write the story of his deeds of valour. On his arrival, however, the poet was treated with shameful neglect, and revenged himself by denying the possibility of relating any valorous deeds for want of their existence. This declaration, it must be confessed, came somewhat late, but it was provoked by a silly attack on the poet himself by one of the seneschal's indiscreet friends.
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. During this period he wrote four important Latin works—De Genealogia Deorum libri XV., a compendium of mythological knowledge full of deep learning; De Montium, Silvarum, Lacuum, et Marium nominibus liber, a treatise on ancient geography; and two historical books—De Casibus Virorum et Feminarum Illustrium libri IX., interesting to the English reader as the original of John Lydgate's Fall of Princes; and De Claris Mulieribus. To the list of his works ought to be added Il Ninfale Fiesolano, a beautiful love-story in verse, and Il Corbaccio ossia Il Laberinto d'Amore, a coarse satire on a Florentine widow who had jilted the poet, written about 1355, not to mention many eclogues in Latin and miscellaneous Rime in Italian (the latter collected by his biographer Count Baldelli in 1802).
In 1373 we find Boccaccio again settled at Certaldo. Here he was attacked by a terrible disease which brought him to the verge of death, and from the consequences of which he never quite recovered. But sickness could not subdue his intellectual vigour. When the Florentines established a chair for the explanation of the Divina Commedia in their university, and offered it to Boccaccio, the senescent poet at once undertook the arduous duty. He delivered his first lecture on the 23rd of October 1373. The commentary on part of the Inferno, already alluded to, bears witness of his unabated power of intellect. In 1374 the news of the loss of his dearest friend Petrarch reached Boccaccio, and from this blow he may be said to have never recovered. Almost his dying efforts were devoted to the memory of his friend; urgently he entreated Petrarch's son-in-law to arrange the publication of the deceased poet's Latin epic Africa, a work of which the author had been far more proud than of his immortal sonnets to Laura.
In his last will Boccaccio left his library to his father confessor, and after his decease to the convent of Santo Spirito in Florence. His small property he bequeathed to his brother Jacopo. His own natural children had died before him. He himself died on the 21st of December 1375 at Certaldo, and was buried in the church of SS. Jacopo e Filippo of that town. On his tombstone was engraved the epitaph composed by himself shortly before his death. It is calm and dignified, worthy indeed of a great life with a great purpose. These are the lines:—
“Hac sub mole jacent cineres ac ossa Joannis;
Mens sedet ante Deum, meritis ornata laborum
Mortalis vitae. Genitor Boccaccius illi;
Patria Certaldum; studium fuit alma poesis.”