100 Days of Decameron

Ready for the the Tenth Day? Click here to go to the introduction to the July 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. You can join us at any time. The introduction for the current set of stories always will appear under this general introduction, with the others following in descending order to the beginning.

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:


JULY 1-10

Giovanni Boccaccio by Odoardo Fantacchiotti, 1845, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

I am writing my final Decameron introduction with profound sadness and terrific elation. It has been a long and wild journey since April 1 when we set out on this quarantine adventure! After 90 days of stories that ranged from the heart-wrenchingly tragic to oddly bizarre, we can conclude with some certainty that human beings are complicated and that our wild and incomprehensible afflictions have not changed much since the times of Boccaccio.

 

At the end of Day 10, our fabulous narrators will return to Florence after a fifteen-day quarantine in the Tuscan countryside and will once again visit the church where they met at the very beginning of the book, Santa Maria Novella. The Decameron seems to end quite abruptly at that point, but Boccaccio offers an author’s epilogue that is addressed once again, just like his introduction to Day 4, to his intended readers, “most noble damsels.” Boccaccio defends the book against his critics and states “well assured I am that these stories have no especial privilege above any others, nay, I forget not that at the beginning of the Fourth Day I have made the same plain—I shall have answered certain trifling objections that one of you, maybe, or some other, might advance.” These “trifling objections” were leveled against the author because of the explicit nature of some of the stories that were not deemed appropriate for “virtuous women” – “The which I deny, for that there is none of these stories so unseemly, but that it may without offence be told by any one, if but seemly words be used; which rule, methinks, has here been very well observed.” Boccaccio reiterates that his narrative was intended for “none but leisured ladies” who would appreciate his verbal artistry, and not for “precious prudes.”

As you may recall, in his introduction to Day 4, which is dedicated to “dearest ladies,” Boccaccio relates a story of a young man who has never seen women and became immediately obsessed with them after encountering them for the first time in Florence.

Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743), Brother Philippe’s Geese, Day Four Introduction of The Decameron by Boccaccio (1736), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Boccaccio makes it abundantly clear that his tales are inspired by and written for women whose “debonair demeanour,” “bewitching beauty” and “exquisite grace” are intoxicating. At the same time, he writes “in the vulgar Florentine, and in prose, and without dedicatory flourish,” in a “homely and simple” style precisely because women are not sent to “Athens, or to Bologna, or to Paris to study,” and the style of writing that is meant for them “should be more diffuse than what is to be read by those whose minds have been refined by scholarly pursuits.” Boccaccio writes the Day 4 introduction and the final epilogue to address his critics who “have said that it ill befits my time of life to ensue such matters, to wit, the discoursing of women, or endeavouring to pleasure them” and who suggested that he should stick with “the Muses on Parnassus” rather than “forgather” women “in such vain dalliance.” Boccaccio concludes, “Such then, noble ladies, are the blasts, such the sharp and cruel fangs, by which, while I champion your cause, I am assailed, harassed and well-nigh pierced through and through.”

Harassed by the critics for championing women’s causes, Boccaccio states – “Whereto I may add that, having to address me to young and unlearned ladies, as you for the most part are, I should have done foolishly, had I gone about searching and swinking to find matters very exquisite, and been sedulous to speak with great precision. However, whoso goes a reading among these stories, let him pass over those that vex him, and read those that please him.” In other words, critics can go to hell! Boccaccio did not compose these tales to please the critics, but, in his own words, to “banish women’s dumps.” And for that Boccaccio’s readers have been profoundly grateful for almost 700 years!

I would like to conclude my preface to Day 10 with Boccaccio’s own words: “So, then, be every lady at liberty to say and believe whatever she may think fit: but ’tis now time for me to bring these remarks to a close, with humble thanks to Him, by whose help and guidance I, after so long travail, have been brought to the desired goal. And may you, sweet my ladies, rest ever in His grace and peace; and be not unmindful of me, if, peradventure, any of you may, in any measure, have been profited by reading these stories.”

-Anna Barker

July 1-10 Reading
TENTH DAY

July 1: NOVEL I. – A knight in the service of the King of Spain deems himself ill requited. Wherefore the King, by most cogent proof, shews him that the blame rests not with him, but with the knight’s own evil fortune; after which, he bestows upon him a noble gift.
July 2: NOVEL II. – Ghino di Tacco, captures the Abbot of Cluny, cures him of a disorder of the stomach, and releases him. The abbot, on his return to the court of Rome, reconciles Ghino with Pope Boniface, and makes him prior of the Hospital.
July 3: NOVEL III. – Mitridanes, holding Nathan in despite by reason of his courtesy, journey with intent to kill him, and falling in with him unawares, is advised by him how to compass his end. Following his advice, he finds him in a copse, and recognizing him, is shame-stricken, and becomes his friend.
July 4: NOVEL IV. – Messer Gentile de’ Carisendi, being come from Modena, disinters a lady that he loves, who has been buried for dead. She, being reanimated, gives birth to a male child; and Messer Gentile restores her, with her son, to Niccoluccio Caccianimico, her husband.
July 5: NOVEL V. – Madonna Dianora craves of Messer Ansaldo a garden that shall be as fair in January as in May. Messer Ansaldo binds himself to a necromancer, and thereby gives her the garden. Her husband gives her leave to do Messer Ansaldo’s pleasure: he, being apprised of her husband’s liberality, releases her from her promise; and the necromancer releases Messer Ansaldo from his bond, and will tale nought of his.
July 6: NOVEL VI. – King Charles the Old, being conqueror, falls in love with a young maiden, and afterward growing ashamed of his folly bestows her and her sister honourably in marriage.
July 7: NOVEL VII. – King Pedro, being apprised of the fervent love borne him by Lisa, who thereof is sick, comforts her, and forthwith gives her in marriage to a young gentleman, and having kissed her on the brow, ever after professes himself her knight.
July 8: NOVEL VIII. – Sophronia, albeit she deems herself wife to Gisippus, is wife to Titus Quintius Fulvus, and goes with him to Rome, where Gisippus arrives in indigence, and deeming himself scorned by Titus, to compass his own death, avers that he has slain a man. Titus recognizes him, and to save his life, alleges that ’twas he that slew the man: whereof he that did the deed being witness, he discovers himself as the murderer. Whereby it comes to pass that they are all three liberated by Octavianus; and Titus gives Gisippus his sister to wife, and shares with him all his substance.
July 9: NOVEL IX. – Saladin, in guise of a merchant, is honourably entreated by Messer Torello. The Crusade ensuing, Messer Torello appoints a date, after which his wife may marry again: he is taken prisoner, and by training hawks comes under the Soldan’s notice. The Soldan recognizes him, makes himself known to him, and entreats him with all honour. Messer Torello falls sick, and by magic arts is transported in a single night to Pavia, where his wife’s second marriage is then to be solemnized, and being present thereat, is recognized by her, and returns with her to his house.
July 10: NOVEL X. – The Marquis of Saluzzo, overborne by the entreaties of his vassals, consents to take a wife, but, being minded to please himself in the choice of her, takes a husbandman’s daughter. He has two children by her, both of whom he makes her believe that he has put to death. Afterward, feigning to be tired of her, and to have taken another wife, he turns her out of doors in her shift, and brings his daughter into the house in guise of his bride; but, finding her patient under it all, he brings her home again, and shews her her children, now grown up, and honours her, and causes her to be honoured, as Marchioness.

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


JUNE 21-30

The marble façade of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, Italy, completed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470. The narrators of Boccaccio’s Decameron first meet here after a church service.

Congratulations, readers! We reached the end of Day 8 of The Decameron! 20 tales to go!

As we move closer to the end of the book, let us revisit the space where we first encountered our narrators, the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Constructed between 1276 and 1470, the church was consecrated in 1420 and is considered the first great basilica in Florence and is the city’s principal Dominican church. Today it is known for the artwork by Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi, Masaccio and other artists. The famous white marble façade of the church was completed by Leon Battista Alberti between 1456 and 1470, a century after Boccaccio’s Decameron. By Boccaccio’s time, Santa Maria Novella was already a revered Florentine institution and it is not accidental the ten narrators of The Decameron meet precisely here at the end of a church service and discuss their plans for a fourteen-day quarantine in the Tuscan countryside.

Boccaccio describes the initial meeting of the seven young women and the three young men: “[O]n a Tuesday morning after Divine Service the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella was almost deserted save for the presence of seven young ladies habited sadly in keeping with the season.” The location of their meeting is a “venerable church,” Santa Maria Novella, but the circumstances of the encounter are not coincidental: “’Twas not of set purpose but by mere chance that these ladies met in the same part of the church; but at length grouping themselves into a sort of circle, after heaving a few sighs, they gave up saying paternosters, and began to converse (among other topics) on the times.” Pampinea comments on the horrors that surround the young people in Florence: “And if we quit the church, we see dead or sick folk carried about, or we see those, who for their crimes were of late condemned to exile by the outraged majesty of the public laws, but who now, in contempt of those laws, well knowing that their ministers are a prey to death or disease, have returned, and traverse the city in packs, making it hideous with their riotous antics.” Death and lawlessness have taken over the streets of Florence and the only conversations that can be heard are about the total devastation of life: “Nor hear we aught but:—Such and such are dead; or, Such and such art dying; and should hear dolorous wailing on every hand, were there but any to wail.” The church setting provides the young women with an orderly and spiritual space where they can escape the horrors of the city. And it is in this safe and calm space that Pampinea first proposes a plan of escape: “we were to quit this place, and, shunning like death the evil example of others, betake ourselves to the country, and there live as honourable women on one of the estates, of which none of us has any lack, with all cheer of festal gathering and other delights, so long as in no particular we overstep the bounds of reason. There we shall hear the chant of birds, have sight of verdant hills and plains, of cornfields undulating like the sea, of trees of a thousand sorts; there also we shall have a larger view of the heavens, which, however harsh to usward yet deny not their eternal beauty.”

While conversing with friends in the church of Santa Maria Novella at the end of a service, Pampinea suggests an escape to the countryside would help them see “a larger view of the heavens” where they would be closer to “eternal beauty.” From the starting point of their journey, they leave a Florentine church in order to find a place more heavenly than their destroyed city. And it is not by accident that at the end of Day 10 of The Decameron, the narrators will once again gather in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Here is how the Brown University Decameron Web interprets this narrative framing:

“Why does Boccaccio have the members of his brigata meet in the church of Santa Maria Novella instead of another location in the city of Florence? It is perhaps because the Church represents a refuge from the plague and the new and strange environment that has developed with it. In the church there is order and calm. It is also the first step of withdrawal from the chaos of Florence, but it is a place that is not in the “wilderness” of Nature, which because of the lack of human influence and control, could be a dangerous place.

When the brigata returns to Florence after their ten days in the countryside, they return first to Santa Maria Novella, the spot from which they departed. It seems that they need to find an environment that will not immediately toss them back into what was still at that time a chaotic city. After the relative freedom they have enjoyed, it would perhaps be traumatic to return directly to the city. The church is once again the mid-way point between Nature and the city. It functions as a sort of “decompression chamber” that allows the brigata some time to adapt before returning to reality.”

I am looking forward to the next 20 tales – and another visit to the church of Santa Maria Novella at the end of The Decameron!

-Anna Barker

June 21-20 Reading

NINTH DAY
June 21: NOVEL I. – Madonna Francesca, having two lovers, the one Rinuccio, the other Alessandro, by name, and loving neither of them, induces the one to simulate a corpse in a tomb, and the other to enter the tomb to fetch him out: whereby, neither satisfying her demands, she artfully rids herself of both.
June 22: NOVEL II. – An abbess rises in haste and in the dark, with intent to surprise an accused nun abed with her lover: thinking to put on her veil, she puts on instead the breeches of a priest that she has with her: the nun, espying her headgear, and doing her to wit thereof, is acquitted, and thenceforth finds it easier to forgather with her lover.
June 23: NOVEL III. – Master Simone, at the instance of Bruno and Buffalmacco and Nello, makes Calandrino believe that he is with child. Calandrino, accordingly, gives them capons and money for medicines, and is cured without being delivered.
June 24: NOVEL IV. – Cecco, son of Messer Fortarrigo, loses his all at play at Buonconvento, besides the money of Cecco, son of Messer Angiulieri, whom, running after him in his shirt and crying out that he has robbed him, he causes to be taken by peasants: he then puts on his clothes, mounts his palfrey, and leaves him to follow in his shirt.
June 25: NOVEL V. – Calandrino being enamoured of a damsel, Bruno gives him a scroll, averring that, if he but touch her therewith, she will go with him: he is found with her by his wife, who subjects him to a most severe and vexatious examination.
June 26: NOVEL VI. – Two young men lodge at an inn, of whom the one lies with the host’s daughter, his wife by inadvertence lying with the other. He that lay with the daughter afterwards gets into her father’s bed and tells him all, taking him to be his comrade. They bandy words: whereupon the good woman, apprehending the circumstances, gets her to bed with her daughter, and by divers apt words re-establishes perfect accord.
June 27: NOVEL VII. – Talano di Molese dreams that a wolf tears and rends all the neck and face of his wife: he gives her warning thereof, which she heeds not, and the dream comes true.
June 28: NOVEL VIII. – Biondello gulls Ciacco in the matter of a breakfast: for which prank Ciacco is cunningly avenged on Biondello, causing him to be shamefully beaten.
June 29: NOVEL IX. – Two young men ask counsel of Solomon; the one, how he is to make himself beloved, the other, how he is to reduce an unruly wife to order. The King bids the one to love, and the other to go to the Bridge of Geese.
June 30: NOVEL X. – Dom Gianni at the instance of his gossip Pietro uses an enchantment to transform Pietro’s wife into a mare; but, when he comes to attach the tail, Gossip Pietro, by saying that he will have none of the tail, makes the enchantment of no effect.

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


JUNE 11-20

Traditional plague doctor mask, gloves, and coat. Note the hour glass at the top of his stick.

In his introduction to Day 1 of The Decameron, while describing the impact of the Great Plague, Boccaccio wrote: “It is believed without any manner of doubt, that between March and the ensuing July upwards of a hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of the city of Florence.” As we begin Day 8 of our reading in the age of coronavirus distancing, the numbers are eerily similar now that the U.S. death toll is approaching 115,000 since March. Families mourning the deaths of loved ones, friends and neighbors, heath care workers heroically battling a new and little understood disease – these are the realities of our lives and the events described by Boccaccio: “As consecrated ground there was not in extent sufficient to provide tombs for the vast multitude of corpses which day and night, and almost every hour, were brought in eager haste to the churches for interment, least of all, if ancient custom were to be observed and a separate resting-place assigned to each, they dug, for each graveyard, as soon as it was full, a huge trench, in which they laid the corpses as they arrived by hundreds at a time.” These grim images come from the pen of the same author who has entertained us with tale after tale of amusing love triangles and clever and witty remarks. In these tales he found solace and escape from the devastating reality of his life where up to 50 percent of the citizens of Florence perished in the course of five years, 1348-1353.

Boccaccio described four ways in which his fellow Florentines approached the unimaginable consequences of a disease that spared no one. Some decided “to shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them, thinking thereby to make each his own health secure. Among whom there were those who thought that to live temperately and avoid all excess would count for much as a preservative against seizures of this kind. Wherefore they banded together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking very moderately… holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them, and diverting their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise.” A remarkably precise description of quarantine practices of the 21st century!

“Others,” Boccaccio continued, “the bias of whose minds was in the opposite direction, maintained, that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil… In this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved, for lack of those who should have administered and enforced them, most of whom, like the rest of the citizens, were either dead or sick, or so hard bested for servants that they were unable to execute any office; whereby every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes.

“Not a few there were who belonged to neither of the two said parties, but kept a middle course between them, neither laying the same restraint upon their diet as the former, nor allowing themselves the same license in drinking and other dissipations as the latter, but living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetites, and not as recluses. They therefore walked abroad, carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or divers sorts of spices, which they frequently raised to their noses, deeming it an excellent thing thus to comfort the brain with such perfumes, because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and the dying and the odors of drugs.

“Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they we also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estate, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath, wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.”

What a stunningly accurate description of the range of coronavirus reactions we are experiencing today. As we continue our Decameron journey into Day 8, I would like to express a deep sadness over the loss of so many lives around the world and a hope that the plague of our days begins to loosen its hold on our lives in the nearest future.

-Anna Barker

June 11-20 Reading

EIGHTH DAY
June 11: NOVEL I. – Gulfardo borrows moneys of Guasparruolo, which he has agreed to give Guasparruolo’s wife, that he may lie with her. He gives them to her, and in her presence tells Guasparruolo that he has done so, and she acknowledges that ’tis true.
June 12: NOVEL II. – The priest of Varlungo lies with Monna Belcolore: he leaves with her his cloak by way of pledge, and receives from her a mortar. He returns the mortar, and demands of her the cloak that he had left in pledge, which the good lady returns him with a gibe.
June 13: NOVEL III. – Calandrino, Bruno and Buffalmacco go in quest of the heliotrope beside the Mugnone. Thinking to have found it, Calandrino gets him home laden with stones. His wife chides him: whereat he waxes wroth, beats her, and tells his comrades what they know better than he.
June 14: NOVEL IV. – The rector of Fiesole loves a widow lady, by whom he is not loved, and thinking to lie with her, lies with her maid, with whom the lady’s brothers cause him to be found by his Bishop.
June 15: NOVEL V. – Three young men pull down the breeches of a judge from the Marches, while he is administering justice on the bench.
June 16: NOVEL VI. – Bruno and Buffalmacco steal a pig from Calandrino, and induce him to essay its recovery by means of pills of ginger and vernaccia. Of the said pills they give him two, one after the other, made of dog-ginger compounded with aloes; and it then appearing as if he had had the pig himself, they constrain him to buy them off, if he would not have them tell his wife.
June 17: NOVEL VII. – A scholar loves a widow lady, who, being enamoured of another, causes him to spend a winter’s night awaiting her in the snow. He afterwards by a stratagem causes her to stand for a whole day in July, naked upon a tower, exposed to the flies, the gadflies, and the sun.
June 18: NOVEL VIII. – Two men keep with one another: the one lies with the other’s wife: the other, being ware thereof, manages with the aid of his wife to have the one locked in a chest, upon which he then lies with the wife of him that is locked therein.
June 19: NOVEL IX. – Bruno and Buffalmacco prevail upon Master Simone, a physician, to betake him by night to a certain place, there to be enrolled in a company that go the course. Buffalmacco throws him into a foul ditch, and there they leave him.
June 20: NOVEL X. – A Sicilian woman cunningly conveys from a merchant that which he has brought to Palermo; he, making a shew of being come back thither with far greater store of goods than before, borrows money of her, and leaves her in lieu thereof water and tow.

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


JUNE 1-10

Raffaello Sorbi, The Decameron, 1876.

As we begin Day 7 of The Decameron under the rule of Dioneo, who selects a delightful and promising theme, tales in which wives play tricks on their husbands, I would like to invite the readers to seek a justification of this theme in Boccaccio’s own Proem or Introduction to Day 1 where he defines the goals of his composition. From the very beginning, Boccaccio decides to dedicate his book to “gentle ladies much rather than to men” because within their “soft bosoms, betwixt fear and shame, they harbor secret fires of love.” Boccaccio tells his readers that women have very little, if any, freedom in their lives since they exist under “the will, the caprice, the commandment of fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands, confined most part of their time within the narrow compass of their chambers.” Women spend their days “yearning and renouncing in the same moment” and dedicate their lives to service of others rather than the gratifications of their desires, which is easily accomplished by men. In this context the tales of Day 7 more than any of the previous tales fulfill Boccaccio’s overarching compositional goals. Boccaccio thanks God for liberating him from the fetters of Love so that he may dedicate his time to the gratification of ladies’ inner desires, since in women “the need is most apparent.” Below please find an excerpt from Boccaccio’s Proem to Day 1 which finds its most compelling fulfillment in the tales of Day 7.

“And though my support or comfort, so to say, may be of little avail to the needy, nevertheless it seems to me meet to offer it most readily where the need is most apparent, because it will there be most serviceable and also most kindly received. Who will deny, that it should be given, for all that it may be worth, to gentle ladies much rather than to men? Within their soft bosoms, betwixt fear and shame, they harbour secret fires of love, and how much of strength concealment adds to those fires, they know who have proved it. Moreover, restrained by the will, the caprice, the commandment of fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands, confined most part of their time within the narrow compass of their chambers, they live, so to say, a life of vacant ease, and, yearning and renouncing in the same moment, meditate divers matters which cannot all be cheerful. If thereby a melancholy bred of amorous desire make entrance into their minds, it is like to tarry there to their sore distress, unless it be dispelled by a change of ideas. Besides which they have much less power to support such a weight than men. For, when men are enamoured, their case is very different, as we may readily perceive. They, if they are afflicted by a melancholy and heaviness of mood, have many ways of relief and diversion; they may go where they will, may hear and see many things, may hawk, hunt, fish, ride, play or traffic. By which means all are able to compose their minds, either in whole or in part, and repair the ravage wrought by the dumpish mood, at least for some space of time; and shortly after, by one way or another, either solace ensues, or the dumps become less grievous. Wherefore, in some measure to compensate the injustice of Fortune, which to those whose strength is least, as we see it to be in the delicate frames of ladies, has been most niggard of support, I, for the succour and diversion of such of them as love (for others may find sufficient solace in the needle and the spindle and the reel), do intend to recount one hundred Novels or Fables or Parables or Stories, as we may please to call them, which were recounted in ten days by an honourable company of seven ladies and three young men in the time of the late mortal pestilence, as also some canzonets sung by the said ladies for their delectation. In which pleasant novels will be found some passages of love rudely crossed, with other courses of events of which the issues are felicitous, in times as well modern as ancient: from which stories the said ladies, who shall read them, may derive both pleasure from the entertaining matters set forth therein, and also good counsel, in that they may learn what to shun, and likewise what to pursue. Which cannot, I believe, come to pass unless the dumps be banished by diversion of mind. And if it so happen (as God grant it may) let them give thanks to Love, who, liberating me from his fetters, has given me the power to devote myself to their gratification.”

-Anna Barker

June 1-10 Reading

SEVENTH DAY
June 1: NOVEL I. – Gianni Lotteringhi hears a knocking at his door at night: he awakens his wife, who persuades him that ’tis the bogey, which they fall to exorcising with a prayer; whereupon the knocking ceases.
June 2: NOVEL II. – Her husband returning home, Peronella bestows her lover in a tun; which, being sold by her husband, she avers to have been already sold by herself to one that is inside examining it to set if it be sound. Whereupon the lover jumps out, and causes the husband to scour the tun for him, and afterwards to carry it to his house.
June 3: NOVEL III. – Fra Rinaldo lies with his gossip: her husband finds him in the room with her; and they make him believe that he was curing his godson of worms by a charm.
June 4: NOVEL IV. – Tofano one night locks his wife out of the house: she, finding that by no entreaties may she prevail upon him to let her in, feigns to throw herself into a well, throwing therein a great stone. Tofano hies him forth of the house, and runs to the spot: she goes into the house, and locks him out, and hurls abuse at him from within.
June 5: NOVEL V. – A jealous husband disguises himself as a priest, and hears his own wife’s confession: she tells him that she loves a priest, who comes to her every night. The husband posts himself at the door to watch for the priest, and meanwhile the lady brings her lover in by the roof, and tarries with him.
June 6: NOVEL VI. – Madonna Isabella has with her Leonetto, her accepted lover, when she is surprised by one Messer Lambertuccio, by whom she is beloved: her husband coming home about the same time, she sends Messer Lambertuccio forth of the house drawn sword in hand, and the husband afterwards escorts Leonetto home.
June 7: NOVEL VII. – Lodovico discovers to Madonna Beatrice the love that he bears her: she sends Egano, her husband, into a garden disguised as herself, and lies with Lodovico; who thereafter, being risen, hies him to the garden and cudgels Egano.
June 8: NOVEL VIII. – A husband grows jealous of his wife, and discovers that she has warning of her lover’s approach by a piece of pack-thread, which she ties to her great toe a nights. While he is pursuing her lover, she puts another woman in bed in her place. The husband, finding her there, beats her, and cuts off her hair. He then goes and calls his wife’s brothers, who, holding his accusation to be false, give him a rating.
June 9: NOVEL IX. – Lydia, wife of Nicostratus, loves Pyrrhus, who to assure himself thereof, asks three things of her, all of which she does, and therewithal enjoys him in presence of Nicostratus, and makes Nicostratus believe that what he saw was not real.
June 10: NOVEL X. – Two Sienese love a lady, one of them being her gossip: the gossip dies, having promised his comrade to return to him from the other world; which he does, and tells him what sort of life is led there.

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


MAY 21-30

Congratulations! We made it to Day Six of Boccaccio’s Decameron! It’s all down-hill from here because we have  reached the half-way point of the book. But before we read the Day Six tales, which focus on the importance of cleverness and wit, I would like to dedicate this note to several Day Five illustrations. The queen of the day Fiammetta has chosen a difficult theme – love stories complicated by trials and misfortunes. The first story of the day, told to Panfilo, follows the adventures of Cimon and Iphigenia who end up happily married at the end of several calamitous developments. This story – and one scene in particular, the initial meeting of the two lovers – has been depicted in art more often than any other tale from the Decameron. Below please find several paintings by artists from Peter Paul Rubens to Angelica Kauffman and John Everett Millais.

Cimone and Efigenia (c. 1617), Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Snyders and Jan Wildens, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (1698), Willem Van Mieris (1662-1747), Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (c 1766), Benjamin West (1738–1820), Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (1773), Benjamin West (1738–1820), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles, CA.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (c 1780), Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (1848), John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England.

 

Cymon and Iphigenia (1884), Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

The most terrifying tale of Day Five that follows the unfortunate courtship of Nastagio degli Onesti, told by Filomena, has been painted by several artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Davide Ghirlandaio. Considering the shocking nature of the tale that depicts a recurring brutal murder of a woman, the popularity of Tale Eight is remarkable. The four panels based on this tale painted by Botticelli were commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, ‘the Magnificent’, ruler of Florence and patron of Botticelli, as a wedding present on the occasion of the arranged marriage of Gianozzo Pucci and Lucretia Bini in 1483. A shocking wedding present for sure, even if painted by the creator of The Birth of Venus! Another Florentine master, Ghirlandaio, was commissioned two panels based on Day Five Tale Eight in the manner of Botticelli.

The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti I (date not known), Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

 

The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti II (1482-83), Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

 

The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti III (1482-83), Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

 

The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti IV (1482-83), Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Private collection.

 

Forest Scene from the Tale of Nastagio degli Onesti (after 1483), Davide Ghirlandaio (1452–1525), Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY.

 

Banquet Scene from the Tale of Nastagio degli Onesti (after 1483), Davide Ghirlandaio (1452–1525), The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

-Anna Barker

May 21-30 Reading

SIXTH DAY
May 21: NOVEL I. – A knight offers to carry Madonna Oretta a horseback with a story, but tells it so ill that she prays him to dismount her.
May 22: NOVEL II. – Cisti, a baker, by an apt speech gives Messer Geri Spina to know that he has by inadvertence asked that of him which he should not.
May 23: NOVEL III. – Monna Nonna de’ Pulci by a ready retort silences the scarce seemly jesting of the Bishop of Florence.
May 24: NOVEL IV. – Chichibio, cook to Currado Gianfigliazzi, owes his safety to a ready answer, whereby he converts Currado’s wrath into laughter, and evades the evil fate with which Currado had threatened him.
May 25: NOVEL V. – Messer Forese da Rabatta and Master Giotto, the painter, journeying together from Mugello, deride one another’s scurvy appearance.
May 26: NOVEL VI. – Michele Scalza proves to certain young men that the Baronci are the best gentlemen in the world and the Maremma, and wins a supper.
May 27: NOVEL VII. – Madonna Filippa, being found by her husband with her lover, is cited before the court, and by a ready and jocund answer acquits herself, and brings about an alteration of the statute.
May 28: NOVEL VIII. – Fresco admonishes his niece not to look at herself in the glass, if ’tis, as she says, grievous to her to see nasty folk.
May 29: NOVEL IX. – Guido Cavalcanti by a quip meetly rebukes certain Florentine gentlemen who had taken him at a disadvantage.
May 30: NOVEL X. – Fra Cipolla promises to shew certain country-folk a feather of the Angel Gabriel, in lieu of which he finds coals, which he avers to be of those with which St. Lawrence was roasted.

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


MAY 11-20

Plague and the Medieval Triumph of Death, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily.

As I was doing research for my Day 5 introduction, I came across this New York Times article from May 10, 2020, and would like to offer it to our Decameron readers instead, since it quotes Boccaccio! He is everywhere these days – and we are on the right track with our reading – almost half-way through!

In her piece, “How Pandemics End,” Gina Kolata writes of the three historic waves of plagues. The second, the Medieval, was in the 14th century. In describing it, she quotes The Decameron:

In Florence, wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, “No more respect was accorded to dead people than would nowadays be accorded to dead goats.” Some hid in their homes. Others refused to accept the threat. Their way of coping, Boccaccio wrote, was to “drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, and gratify all of one’s cravings when the opportunity emerged, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.”

The Times illustrates the article with the painting I was planning to use in my Day 5 introduction – note the 7 women and 3 men in the corner of the painting under the front hoofs of the pale horse of death – there are our Decameron narrators!

Read the full article here.

-Anna Barker

May 11-20 Reading

FIFTH DAY
May 11: NOVEL I. – Cimon, by loving, waxes wise, wins his wife Iphigenia by capture on the high seas, and is imprisoned at Rhodes. He is delivered by Lysimachus; and the twain capture Cassandra and recapture Iphigenia in the hour of their marriage. They flee with their ladies to Crete, and having there married them, are brought back to their homes.
May 12: NOVEL II. – Gostanza loves Martuccio Gomito, and hearing that he is dead, gives way to despair, and hies her alone aboard a boat, which is wafted by the wind to Susa. She finds him alive in Tunis, and makes herself known to him, who, having by his counsel gained high place in the king’s favour, marries her, and returns with her wealthy to Lipari.
May 13: NOVEL III. – Pietro Boccamazza runs away with Agnolella, and encounters a gang of robbers: the girl takes refuge in a wood, and is guided to a castle. Pietro is taken, but escapes out of the hands of the robbers, and after some adventures arrives at the castle where Agnolella is, marries her, and returns with her to Rome.
May 14: NOVEL IV. – Ricciardo Manardi is found by Messer Lizio da Valbona with his daughter, whom he marries, and remains at peace with her father.
>May 15: NOVEL V. – Guidotto da Cremona dies leaving a girl to Giacomino da Pavia. She has two lovers in Faenza, to wit, Giannole di Severino and Minghino di Mingole, who fight about her. She is discovered to be Giannole’s sister, and is given to Minghino to wife.
May 16: NOVEL VI. – Gianni di Procida, being found with a damsel that he loves, and who had been given to King Frederic, is bound with her to a stake, so to be burned. He is recognized by Ruggieri dell’ Oria, is delivered, and marries her.
May 17: NOVEL VII. – Teodoro, being enamoured of Violante, daughter of Messer Amerigo, his lord, gets her with child, and is sentenced to the gallows; but while he is being scourged thither, he is recognized by his father, and being set at large, takes Violante to wife.
>May 18: NOVEL VIII. – Nastagio degli Onesti, loving a damsel of the Traversari family, by lavish expenditure gains not her love. At the instance of his kinsfolk he hies him to Chiassi, where he sees a knight hunt a damsel and slay her and cause her to be devoured by two dogs. He bids his kinsfolk and the lady that he loves to breakfast. During the meal the said damsel is torn in pieces before the eyes of the lady, who, fearing a like fate, takes Nastagio to husband.
May 19: NOVEL IX. – Federigo degli Alberighi loves and is not loved in return: he wastes his substance by lavishness until nought is left but a single falcon, which, his lady being come to see him at his house, he gives her to eat: she, knowing his case, changes her mind, takes him to husband and makes him rich.
May 20: NOVEL X. – Pietro di Vinciolo goes from home to sup: his wife brings a boy into the house to bear her company: Pietro returns, and she hides her gallant under a hen-coop: Pietro explains that in the house of Ercolano, with whom he was to have supped, there was discovered a young man bestowed there by Ercolano’s wife: the lady thereupon censures Ercolano’s wife: but unluckily an ass treads on the fingers of the boy that is hidden under the hen-coop, so that he cries for pain: Pietro runs to the place, sees him, and apprehends the trick played on him by his wife, which nevertheless he finally condones, for that he is not himself free from blame.

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


MAY 1-10

As I was getting ready to start Day 4 of The Decameron, I took a closer look at the cover of my J. M. Rigg translation and realized it was a fragment of the John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) painting entitled The Enchanted Garden (1916-1917).

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), The Enchanted Garden (1916-1917).

It was one of the last paintings Waterhouse finished before his death from cancer in 1917. Dying young, at 67, in the middle of the unspeakable brutalities of WWI, Waterhouse painted a scene from The Decameron and depicted our festive and witty narrators at a moment of repose in a garden filled with flowers and fruit, strolling by a gentle fountain. Boccaccio moved our narrators into this enchanted garden at the beginning of Day Three of The Decameron.

“So, to the chant of, perhaps, a score of nightingales and other birds, the queen, her ladies and the three young men trooping beside or after her, paced leisurely westward by a path little frequented and overgrown with herbage and flowers, which, as they caught the sunlight, began one and all to unfold their petals.”

How very different from the reality of pestilence and stench Boccaccio was facing at the time of his composition of The Decameron, the time of the Black Death, which must have looked a lot more like one of the most terrifying painting ever created, The Triumph of Death (1562), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569).

The Triumph of Death (1562), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)

Bruegel’s army of roaming skeletons populating a barren and scorched landscape filled with corpses and scenes of murders and executions is a brutal and honest testimony to the times of wars and plagues that were all too familiar to our ancestors.

Both Boccaccio, who witnessed the deaths of half the population of Europe in the 14th century, and Waterhouse, who died during the “war to end all wars” that took the lives of 20 million people in the 20th century, were seeking to escape their brutal realities into the sanctuary of wit, elegance, chivalry, joy and art. As we rush headlong into the new adventures of Day 4, let us pause yet again and marvel at the continuity of our shared human narratives that never fail to find both beauty and hilarity in the midst of our darkest hours.

-Anna Barker

May 1-10 Reading

FOURTH DAY
May 1: NOVEL I. – Tancred, Prince of Salerno, slays his daughter’s lover, and sends her his heart in a golden cup: she pours upon it a poisonous distillation, which she drinks and dies.
May 2: NOVEL II. – Fra Alberto gives a lady to understand that she is beloved of the Angel Gabriel, in whose shape he lies with her sundry times; afterward, for fear of her kinsmen, he flings himself forth of her house, and finds shelter in the house of a poor man, who on the morrow leads him in the guise of a wild man into the piazza, where, being recognized, he is apprehended by his brethren and imprisoned.
May 3: NOVEL III. – Three young men love three sisters, and flee with them to Crete. The eldest of the sisters slays her lover for jealousy. The second saves the life of the first by yielding herself to the Duke of Crete. Her lover slays her, and makes off with the first: the third sister and her lover are charged with the murder, are arrested and confess the crime. They escape death by bribing the guards, flee destitute to Rhodes, and there in destitution die.
May 4: NOVEL IV. – Gerbino, in breach of the plighted faith of his grandfather, King Guglielmo, attacks a ship of the King of Tunis to rescue thence his daughter. She being slain by those aboard the ship, he slays them, and afterwards he is beheaded.
May 5: NOVEL V. – Lisabetta’s brothers slay her lover: he appears to her in a dream, and shews her where he is buried: she privily disinters the head, and sets it in a pot of basil, whereon she daily weeps a great while. The pot being taken from her by her brothers, she dies not long after.
>May 6: NOVEL VI. – Andreuola loves Gabriotto: she tells him a dream that she has had; he tells her a dream of his own, and dies suddenly in her arms. While she and her maid are carrying his corpse to his house, they are taken by the Signory. She tells how the matter stands, is threatened with violence by the Podesta, but will not brook it. Her father hears how she is bested, and, her innocence being established, causes her to be set at large; but she, being minded to tarry no longer in the world, becomes a nun.
May 7: NOVEL VII. – Simona loves Pasquino; they are together in a garden, Pasquino rubs a leaf of sage against his teeth, and dies; Simona is arrested, and, with intent to shew the judge how Pasquino died, rubs one of the leaves of the same plant against her teeth, and likewise dies.
May 8: NOVEL VIII. – Girolamo loves Salvestra: yielding to his mother’s prayers he goes to Paris; he returns to find Salvestra married; he enters her house by stealth, lays himself by her side, and dies; he is borne to the church, where Salvestra lays herself by his side, and dies.
May 9: NOVEL IX. – Sieur Guillaume de Roussillon slays his wife’s paramour, Sieur Guillaume de Cabestaing, and gives her his heart to eat. She, coming to wit thereof, throws herself from a high window to the ground, and dies, and is buried with her lover.
May 10: NOVEL X. – The wife of a leech, deeming her lover, who has taken an opiate, to be dead, puts him in a chest, which, with him therein, two usurers carry off to their house. He comes to himself, and is taken for a thief; but, the lady’s maid giving the Signory to understand that she had put him in the chest which the usurers stole, he escapes the gallows, and the usurers are mulcted in moneys for the theft of the chest.

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 21-30

Boccaccio interacting with his narrators Filostrato, Dioneo, Panfilo, Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, and Emilia.

Now that we have finished day two of The Decameron and acquired information about Boccaccio and his times, a few details about the book itself are in order. The 100 tales of The Decameron are told in 10 days over the course of two weeks because the narrators, seven women and three men, dedicate two days each week to personal and devotional activities. Each of the 10 characters serves as a king or a queen for one of the days which gives them a chance to set the schedule for the day and, in eight cases, choose the theme of the stories. Each day contains a foreword and a conclusion with a song performed at the end of the day.

Boccaccio, just like Chaucer and Shakespeare, borrowed his plots from many sources, including Italian, Latin and French, and through these languages, from Arabic and Hebrew. And, just like the English authors, Boccaccio made the borrowed plots his own, elaborating the themes and emphasizing the values essential to his world view. He sets in motion the structure of the book and, in the words of my undergraduate academic advisor, Stavros Deligiorgis, “populates his stage with ten… lively, throbbing images of himself who live because they tell.”

This tale-sharing nature of the book is reflected in its subtitle, Prince Galehaut, or Prencipe Galeotto in Italian, which refers to a character in Arthurian legends. Galehaut was a friend of Lancelot (not to be confused with his son Galahad) who facilitated his meeting and romance with Guinevere. Dante refers to them in Canto V of his Inferno when he depicts his star-crossed lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta reading a book entitled Galehaut. The romance of Lancelot and Guinevere proves inspirational and fatal for the young lovers. Galehaut was the intermediary who brought Guinevere and Lancelot together in the Arthurian legends and was the author of the book that brought about the romance and death of Paolo and Francesca in Dante. Boccaccio, who gave several lectures on Dante’s Divine Comedy at the end of his life, invited this Galehaut into the subtitle of The Decameron. As a facilitator of interactions between his own tales and us the readers, Boccaccio saw him as a kindred spirit who brought passionate souls together with both seductive and tragic results. And that’s the fate of all great authors – they burst open the doors of our perception and leave us gasping for more and despairing because we leaned too much.

-Anna Barker

April 21-30 Reading

THIRD DAY

April 21: NOVEL I. – Masetto da Lamporecchio feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him.
April 22: NOVEL II. – A groom lies with the wife of King Agilulf, who learns the fact, keeps his own counsel, finds out the groom and shears him. The shorn shears all his fellows, and so comes safe out of the scrape.
April 23: NOVEL III. – Under cloak of confession and a most spotless conscience, a lady, enamoured of a young man, induces a booby friar unwittingly to provide a means to the entire gratification of her passion.
April 24: NOVEL IV. – Dom Felice instructs Fra Puccio how to attain blessedness by doing a penance. Fra Puccio does the penance, and meanwhile Dom Felice has a good time with Fra Puccio’s wife.
April 25: NOVEL V. – Zima gives a palfrey to Messer Francesco Vergellesi, who in return suffers him to speak with his wife. She keeping silence, he answers in her stead, and the sequel is in accordance with his answer.
April 26: NOVEL VI. – Ricciardo Minutolo loves the wife of Filippello Fighinolfi, and knowing her to be jealous, makes her believe that his own wife is to meet Filippello at a bagnio on the ensuing day; whereby she is induced to go thither, where, thinking to have been with her husband, she discovers that she has tarried with Ricciardo.
April 27: NOVEL VII. – Tedaldo, being in disfavour with his lady, departs from Florence. He returns thither after a while in the guise of a pilgrim, has speech of his lady, and makes her sensible of her fault. Her husband, convicted of slaying him, he delivers from peril of death, reconciles him with his brothers, and thereafter discreetly enjoys his lady.
April 28: NOVEL VIII. Ÿ Ferondo, having taken a certain powder, is interred for dead; is disinterred by the abbot, who enjoys his wife; is put in prison and taught to believe that he is in purgatory; is then resuscitated, and rears as his own a boy begotten by the abbot upon his wife.
APRIL 29: NOVEL IX. – Gillette of Narbonne cures the King of France of a fistula, craves for spouse Bertrand de Roussillon, who marries her against his will, and hies him in despite to Florence, where, as he courts a young woman, Gillette lies with him in her stead, and has two sons by him; for which cause he afterwards takes her into favour and entreats her as his wife.
April 30: NOVEL X. – Alibech turns hermit, and is taught by Rustico, a monk, how the Devil is put in hell. She is afterwards conveyed thence, and becomes the wife of Neerbale.

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 11-20

A short Boccaccio biography

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Vision of Fiammetta, 1878, Collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber

 

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) succeeded in bridging the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in his numerous literary compositions. Born into a family of a Florentine merchant, he grew up in Florence and was educated in Naples, where he studied law at the Studium (University of Naples). It was during this time that he met and fell in love with Maria d’Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of the King of Naples, Robert the Wise. Maria inspired the character of Fiammetta (or “little flame”) who appeared in two of Boccaccio’s most famous works, The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta (1343-44) and The Decameron (1348-1353), as well as The Filocolo (1335-36), Il Filostrato (1337-39), and Tescida (1340-41), three literary works that inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As a well-educated writer of his time, Boccaccio wrote in Latin, but his most famous works, including The Decameron, were written in a Tuscan vernacular, making him, along with Dante and Petrarch, one of the founders of Italian literature. Throughout his life he pursued the study of Greek and Latin authors, including Homer, Aristotle and Virgil, often encouraged by Petrarch himself, whom he met in 1350. Their friendship lasted till Petrarch’s death in 1374. They met in Florence and renewed their friendship during trips to Padua and Venice.

While serving the Florentine government, Boccaccio travelled extensively throughout Italy and abroad (Milan, Avignon), and, after meeting Pope Innocent VI and Pope Urban V, he travelled with diplomatic missions to Rome, Venice and Naples in the 1360s.

In 1361-62 Boccaccio composed a remarkable book, Concerning Famous Women, which included the biographies of 106 women

Andrea del Castagno, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1450, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

from biblical (Eve) and Greek and Roman (Medea, Arachne, Medusa, Ceres, Minerva, Venus) sources, as well as historical figures (Artemisia, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Zenobia). This composition was truly unprecedented because Boccaccio glorified the accomplishments of women, both mythological and historical, and inspired future biographies of women, notably Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).

Boccaccio’s long and productive life ended in the same Tuscan town where he was born, Certaldo, where he died in 1375 at the age of 62. His extensive library is housed in the monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence.

Anna Barker

April 11-20 reading:

SECOND DAY

April 11: NOVEL I. – Martellino pretends to be a paralytic, and makes it appear as if he were cured by being placed upon the body of St. Arrigo. His trick is detected; he is beaten and arrested, and is in peril of hanging, but finally escapes.
April 12: NOVEL II. – Rinaldo d’Asti is robbed, arrives at Castel Guglielmo, and is entertained by a widow lady; his property is restored to him, and he returns home safe and sound.
April 13: NOVEL III. – Three young men squander their substance and are reduced to poverty. Their nephew, returning home a desperate man, falls in with an abbot, in whom he discovers the daughter of the King of England. She marries him, and he retrieves the losses and re-establishes the fortune of his uncles.
April 14: NOVEL IV. – Landolfo Ruffolo is reduced to poverty, turns corsair, is captured by Genoese, is shipwrecked, escapes on a chest full of jewels, and, being cast ashore at Corfu, is hospitably entertained by a woman, and returns home wealthy.
April 15: NOVEL V. – Andreuccio da Perugia comes to Naples to buy horses, meets with three serious adventures in one night, comes safe out of them all, and returns home with a ruby.
April 16: NOVEL VI. – Madam Beritola loses two sons, is found with two kids on an island, goes thence to Lunigiana, where one of her sons takes service with her master, and lies with his daughter, for which he is put in prison. Sicily rebels against King Charles, the son is recognized by the mother, marries the master’s daughter, and, his brother being discovered, is reinstated in great honour.
April 17: NOVEL VII. – The Soldan of Babylon sends one of his daughters overseas, designing to marry her to the King of Algarve. By divers adventures she comes in the space of four years into the hands of nine men in divers place. At last she is restored to her father, whom she quits again in the guise of a virgin, and, as was at first intended, is married to the King of Algarve.
April 18: NOVEL VIII. – The Count of Antwerp, labouring under a false accusation, goes into exile. He leaves his two children in different places in England, and takes service in Ireland. Returning to England an unknown man, he finds his sons prosperous. He serves as a groom in the army of the King of France; his innocence is established, and he is restored to his former honours.
April 19: NOVEL IX. – Bernabo of Genoa, deceived by Ambrogiuolo, loses his money and commands his innocent wife to be put to death. She escapes, habits herself as a man, and serves the Soldan. She discovers the deceiver, and brings Bernabo to Alexandria, where the deceiver is punished. She then resumes the garb of a woman, and with her husband returns wealthy to Genoa.
April 20: NOVEL X. – Paganino da Monaco carries off the wife of Messer Ricciardo di Chinzica, who, having learned where she is, goes to Paganino and in a friendly manner asks him to restore her. He consents, provided she be willing. She refuses to go back with her husband. Messer Ricciardo dies, and she marries Paganino.

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 1-10

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.

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