100 Days of Decameron

Ready to start reading? Click here to go to the introduction to the April 1-10 stories!

 

A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse
In this painting pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse depicts a scene from the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Waterhouse picks up not only on the performative prowess of the young storytellers but also on their high cultural aspirations, as reflected in their attire and the presence of musical instruments. The opulence of their clothing and surroundings also bespeaks the aristocratic values that the emerging Florentine merchant class desired to emulate.
Source/Citation: John William Waterhouse: A Tale from the Decameron
Lady Lever Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England

As the Great Plague, known as Black Death, was devastating Europe in the middle of the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio was writing a book of unparalleled wit and imagination to help rally the sagging spirit of humanity. Written between 1348 and 1352, The Decameron takes place in a Tuscan villa where seven young women, Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, and Emilia, and three young men, Filostrato, Dioneo, and Panfilo, are self-quarantined while the plague is ravaging Florence. Being young and of active disposition, they stave off boredom by establishing a routine – every day they take walks, sing and tell stories.

This is not so different from the routines the world community finds itself developing today while dealing with yet another global plague, COVID-19. Each of Boccaccio’s characters tells 10 tales in the course of 10 days, thus the title, The Decameron. Written at the intersection of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the tales reveal a great deal about the values and aspirations of the times, but remain vital and relatable today because of their earthy humanity. In her 2013 New Yorker review of Wayne A. Rebhorn’s new translation, Joan Acocella states: “This is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon.” The tales of love range from romantic and erotic to the tragic and grotesque and offer a witty and honest glimpse into the complexity of human interactions. In addition to the tales of courtship and lust, the young story tellers indulge in a vast variety of topics that deal with cleverness and trickery, free will and virtue, reversals of fortune, lost and restored faith.

With hundreds of millions around the world homebound and attempting to establish quarantine routines, arts organizations from Berlin Philharmonic to Metropolitan Opera are stepping up and providing free online content. Please join us during these troubled times and read a book that celebrates the remarkable resilience of the human spirit at times of global catastrophes.

–Introduction by Anna Barker

Starting April 1, we will read one tale a day and finish the entire book in 100 days. Please read the Introduction by J.M.Rigg and Boccaccio’s Proem by April 1.

Please join the discussion on social media with #100DaysofDecameron, at our 100 Days of Decameron Facebook Group, or on our online Decameron Discussion Board.

April 1 – Tales 1-10
April 10 – Tales 11-20
April 20 – Tales 21-30
May 1 – Tales 31-40
May 10 – Tales 41-50
May 20 – Tales 51-60
June 1 – Tales 61-70
June 10 – Tales 71-80
June 20 – Tales 81-90
June 30 –  Tales 91-100

If you do not have the book, please use the following online source to download:


APRIL 1-10

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Decameron, 1837

It has fallen to our generation to witness desperate times. All great literary works—without exception—are birthed by human catastrophes. The biblical Job must come to terms with the realization that life is unpredictable and inexplicably cruel. Odysseus must accept a set of less than ideal survival options to complete his journey home. Aeneas is duty bound to rebuild his shattered civilization on distant and inhospitable shores. And Milton’s Adam and Eve awaken to the realization that being human comes with a list of catastrophic side effects that include illnesses and pandemics, old age and death.

Plagues are not new to humanity. The Old Testament makes frequent reference to them. The plague that visited Athens at the time of Pericles, described by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, killed 25 percent of the Athenian population. The 6th century pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian started around 541AD and paid the Byzantine Empire recurring visits until 750AD, wiping out up to 40 percent of the population of the city of Byzantium and almost a quarter of the population of the Mediterranean world. The worst of the plagues known to humanity, the Black Death, destroyed 30 to 50 percent of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1353 and was the backdrop to Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Great Plague of London wiped out 25 percent of the population of London in the course of 18 months between 1665 and 1666 and sent a young college student named Isaac Newton, the future giant of the scientific revolution, home after Cambridge closed because of the outbreak. And the 19th century pandemic known at the Modern Plague was spread by rats on steamships and lasted, off and on, between 1855 and 1960, causing the deaths of 10 million people in Asia and around the world.

Plagues of lesser severity visited humanity repeatedly century after century causing quarantines, college and theater closures and massive exoduses of city residents into the countryside. In 1625, John Milton, the future author of Paradise Lost, was sent home after Cambridge closed for yet another plague quarantine. The 1603 London plague brought about the deaths of 10 percent of its population, and between 1603 and 1613, when Shakespeare’s creative powers were at their peak, London theatres closed for plague quarantines for a total of 78 months, or 60 percent of the time. Yet these catastrophic events became the times of great creativity and artistic flourishing. And it is times like these that allow us to fully appreciate the wisdom of Nietzsche’s 1888 comment, “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish from truth.”

Shakespeare, who witnessed several plague recurrences from his infancy until his death, did not create a single character who died from the plague. The closest is the death of Romeo who does not receive Friar Laurence’s note because of a plague outbreak. One of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, King Lear, was written during a plague quarantine in 1606. And Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Pushkin wrote his most famous composition, ”Eugene Onegin,” while he was quarantined on his estate Boldino during the cholera epidemic of 1830.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s characters choose to escape the reality of death and destruction unfolding in Florence and, just like the residents of New York and Boston escaping to the Hamptons, sequester themselves in a country villa that becomes their safe space in catastrophic times. They choose not to dwell on the fact that 50 percent of the population of Florence succumbed to Black Death between 1347 and 1352. When faced with less-than-ideal life circumstances, Boccaccio follows his young, witty, and clever narrators to the idealized space of art and culture bathed in the glorious Tuscan sunlight and indulges in life: complex, absurd, irrational, and joyous. Let us follow his characters during these perilous times and allow them to convince us that our humanity, in all of its highest and lowest permutations, is precious and enduring.

Introduction by Anna Barker

April 1-10 reading:

Introduction by J.M. Rigg (found in the Gutenberg Project version)
Proem by Giovanni Boccaccio

FIRST DAY

April 1: NOVEL I. – Ser Ciappelletto cheats a holy friar by a false confession, and dies; and, having lived as a very bad man, is, on his death, reputed a saint, and called San Ciappelletto.
April 2: NOVEL II. – Abraham, a Jew, at the instance of Jehannot de Chevigny, goes to the court of Rome, and having marked the evil life of clergy, returns to Paris, and becomes a Christian.
April 3: NOVEL III. – Melchisedech, a Jew, by a story of three rings averts a danger with which he was menaced by Saladin.
April 4: NOVEL IV. – A monk lapses into a sin meriting the most severe punishment, justly censures the same fault in his abbot, and thus evades the penalty.
April 5: NOVEL V. – The Marchioness of Monferrato by a banquet of hens seasoned with wit checks the mad passion of the King of France.
April 6: NOVEL VI. – A worthy man by an apt saying puts to shame the wicked hypocrisy of the religious.
April 7: NOVEL VII. – Bergamino, with a story of Primasso and the Abbot of Cluny, finely censures a sudden access of avarice in Messer Cane della Scala.
April 8: NOVEL VIII. – Guglielmo Borsiere by a neat retort sharply censures avarice in Messer Ermino de’ Grimaldi.
April 9: NOVEL IX. – The censure of a Gascon lady converts the King of Cyprus from a churlish to an honourable temper.
April 10: NOVEL X. – Master Alberto da Bologna honourably puts to shame a lady who sought occasion to put him to shame in that he was in love with her.

Please join the discussion on social media with #100DaysofDecameron, at our 100 Days of Decameron Facebook Group, or on our online Decameron Discussion Board.