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From A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, by Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908; pp. 142-200.

A Teacher of Dante and
Other Studies in Italian Literature
Nathan Haskell Dole.




NOTHING can be more unsatisfactory as a means of conversation than an afternoon tea as it is usually disposed. Interruption is the certain concomitant of every attempt to carry on any serious train of thought. One’s best anecdote is broken off just as the point begins to appear; the use of one’s liveliest epigram is nipped in the bud before it has an opportunity to explode. The unnatural sound of high-pitched voices commingling may indeed remind the observer of nature — for there is a curious and subtle relationship between this most artificial and hot-house product of civilisation and that wild unchained creature of life — a mountain-brook. As you stand at the door of a modern drawing-room, you hear gargles and musical intonations: shut your eyes and you may transport yourself in imagination to the mossy bank of your favourite stream. You can see the foamy little cascades and the bell-like 143 voices of the waters as they hurry down over glittering stones and fallen logs. Or stand by that same brook, and shut your eyes and you can imagine yourself in the full swing of a well-attended reception. But however much talk there may be at such a function there is no conversation. That fine art has not died, but it is rare to meet with it in these hurried days. Perhaps enjoyment may be just as great, but it is of a different kind. It is of a piece with predigested foods and predigested journals and predigested “libraries of literature.”

The Italians of the fourteenth century had a more dignified code of society entertainment. The ladies and gentlemen that gathered in the salon of the court or in the shady garden organised what they called una lieta brigata — a happy, jolly, merry, jocund band — and appointed a captain or it might be, a queen who should give them a theme and call upon one after another of the company to illustrate it with stories. Such themes as “The magnanimity of princes,” “Concerning those that have been fortunate in love,” “Sudden changes from prosperity to misfortune,” “The guiles that women have practised on their husbands” and the like were common.


This was the origin of the so-called novella. Symonds says:

“The novella is invariably brief and sketchy. It does not aim at presenting a detailed picture of human life within certain artistically chosen limitations, but confines itself to a striking situation or tells an anecdote illustrative of some moral quality.”

He goes on to show how the fact that these novelle were either read aloud or improvised on the spur of the occasion “determined the length and ruled the mechanism” of them. “It was impossible,” he says, “within the short space of a spoken tale to attempt any minute analysis of character or to weave the meshes of a complicated plot. The narrator went straight to his object, which was to arrest the attention, gratify the sensual instincts or stir the tender emotions of his audience by some fantastic, extraordinary, voluptuous, comic or pathetic incident. He sketches his personages with a few swift touches, set forth with pungent brevity and expends his force upon the painting of their central motive.”

All of this is set forth with much care in the second chapter of his “Renaissance in Italy,” 145 where he explains further that the sole object of the novella was entertainment and where he illustrates how its success was obtained in new strange incidents, in obscenity veiled or repulsively naked, in gross or graceful jests, in practical jokes and delicate pathos, often by “elaborate rhetorical development of the main emotions, placing carefully studied speeches in the mouth of heroine or hero and using every artifice for appealing directly to the feelings of his hearers.”

Human nature seems not to have changed since the first known calendar was computed, that is to say in July 4241 B. C. The coarse and animal, which is to a certain extent inseparable from man as a featherless biped, still has its more or less powerful attraction. It is found in all literatures and has to be reckoned with. The tales of the Thousand and One Nights have to be expurgated for ordinary reading and there are few of the Cento Novelle that would do now to present to a mixed company. In studying any past literature we must expect shocks to our conventionalities. Our great-grandmothers were brought up on “The Pleasing Instructor,” which admitted into its supposedly 146 educational pages several stories that Mr. Comstock would be likely to confiscate. We are told that Queen Elizabeth’s conversation was garnished with very round oaths and glided over topics that would make her presence in a modern drawing-room a scandal and reproach. It is curious, however, that while the English drama and novel of the two centuries before our own era are quite too frank in speech, our own laxity of spectacular performance would have been regarded with horror by our worthy ancestors.

Human nature remains the same though conventionalities change. And when we remember the expurgations required in Dean Swift and the Reverend Laurence Sterne, it may not seem so strange to us to find Italian bishops in the fourteenth century writing for the daughters of princes novelle so salacious that not even the subjects may be mentioned, or to read at the beginning of these filthy records of monstrous vice a prayer such as the following which occurs at the beginning of one of Lasca’s least presentable novelle:

“Before a beginning is made of the story-telling of this evening I turn to Thee Dio ottimo 147 e grandissimo, who alone knowest all things and art all powerful, beseeching Thee with humble devotion from my heart, they by Thy infinite goodness and mercy Thou wilt grant to me and to all the others that shall follow me in speaking as much of Thine aid and of Thy grace that my tongue and theirs shall say nothing that shall not redound to Thy praise and their consolation.”

Mixed companies of ladies and gentlemen, married and single, listened without a blush to innuendo and double entendre, to the frankest exposition of unmentionable things. And, again, it was in accordance with this queer quality of convention that boys and girls used to be and probably still are in many pious families set to reading the whole Bible through in course, though perhaps fortunately they do not always grasp the intense meaning of some of Saint Paul’s savage jests or the subtleties of the Old Testament which are rendered in such veiled language that the full meaning is hidden from the exoteric reader.

It must not be supposed that the Italian novellieri always invented their stories. The genealogy of popular fiction is as much a science as heraldry. Just as all human beings have a 148 certain set of features: a nose hawk-like or straight or retroussé, between two eyes of some colour, above a mouth large, small or medium and established at some angle upon a head crowned with red, black, brown or yellow hair, or like Chaucer’s monk whose “heed was balled and schon like eny glasse,” so there are features common to all stories whether they be traced to Arabian, Indian, Scandinavian, Slavonic or British sources. There are great families of legends, such as those that cluster about the person of King Arthur and his Table Round, or those derived from the equally mythical Charlemagne, or that have come down to us from the indented shores of Hellas, or those that arose in what the Germans poetically call the Morning-land.

Many a story that now does service in the nursery has a long and regal ancestry, perhaps finding its origin in a sun-myth told and believed in the misty ages thousands of years before Moses. Often the character of the nation amongst which such stories had their birth is plainly stamped upon them. How many of the Arabian Nights stories hint at the despotic government that crushed the people! See how the 149 poetic and lofty nature of the Greeks is betrayed in the stories of Jason and Perseus and Odysseus! Notice the masterful qualities of the Romans in their popular tales, how feudal chivalry decked the legends of Europe with details of fire-breathing dragons and innocent maidens rescued by gallant knights! All these sources seem to contribute to the Nile stream from which these novelists so plenteously drew.

One single genealogical tree will perhaps give some idea of the distribution of these folk-stories. It is taken from a chart in Dr. Landau’s “Die Quellen des Dekameron.”

Somewhere between 200 B. C. and 600 A. D. there was composed in the Sanskrit tongue a work consisting of thirteen books or parts. The original title is lost and of the work itself only five chapters, under the title “Kalila we Dimna” or “Panchatantra,” are known. The first is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”; the second “The Acquisition of Friends”, the third ‘the War between the Cranes and the Owls”; the fourth, “Loss of Former Possessions”, and the fifth, “Action without Careful Investigation.”

The original work was written by Buddhists, 150 but when Buddhism was expelled from India all traces of Buddhistic influences were eliminated. The Brahman revision remained as one of the treasures of India for hundreds of years, till it was discovered and published in Germany in 1848 and translated into Berman by Benfly. That is a direct short-cut from ancient times to ours. But meantime the stream had been coming in a more round about fashion.

The original work did not immediately perish. About 600 A. D. the King of Persia, Khosru Nu-shir-wan, caused his Court Physician Berzujah to translate it into the polite language, the Pahlavi. This version, like the original, is supposed to have perished; but a translation of it into Syrian was made at some time unknown and was published with a German translation under the title “Kalilag und Damnag,” in 1876. It was so called from the names of the two jackals — Karataka and Damanaka — that play a leading part in the story.

An Arab, by the name of Abd-allah ibn al Mokaffa, who died in 762, after becoming a convert to Islamism, translated the Persian version into Arabic at the instigation of the Khalif Al-Mansor. It is said to be less literal, 151 as the translator was influenced by his religious beliefs; but the manuscripts are believed to be more or less incorrect. The same Pahlavi, or Persian, version was used about a hundred years later by the son of the Khalif Mamun, and this again was translated back into Persian by Kiaja Belgemi at the command of the ruler of Khorasan, Nasr ben Ahmed, and this one again served as a basis for a poetical version by Rudegi, in the tenth century.

There are a number of other Arabic translations; and when we remember the connection that came about between the East and the West by means of the Crusades, and, moreover, the splendid civilisation that characterised Sicily and Spain under Saracenic rule, it will not surprise us to know how widely this Oriental wisdom and anecdote was spread through the world.

From one Arabic version a Hebrew one was made by the Rabbi Joel, supposedly before the middle of the thirteenth century; from the Hebrew Giovanni of Capua in the middle of the thirteenth century made the Latin translation prized in 1480 under the title Directorium humanæ vitæ; from this at second or third or 152 even fourth hand are derived German, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Bohemian, French and English versions. From the Greek translation, entitled “Stephanites kai Ichnalities,” which dates from the eleventh century and is believed to be the work of a Greek physician, Symeon Seth, came two more Latin versions, one in Germany, the other in Rome, an old Slav version, and one in Italian.

There are other versions, dozens of them, including a Spanish translation which goes back to the thirteenth century: they are found in Turkish and Hindustani — such was the vogue of the so-called Fables of Bidpah or Pilpai.* There is no know Italian version before 1548: only one of the anecdotes of the Panchatantra appears in Boccaccio, though there are three others that bear certain resemblances, and it is thought that these must have come to him by oral tradition.

Another work of Oriental origin which was very widely spread by means of translations and leaking off into folk-stories was the “Book of the 153 Seven Wise Men,” — a work which in popularity and wide-reaching influence is thought to excel anything that has come down to us from antiquity. Under the various titles: “The History of the Forty Viziers” in Turkish, “Syntipas” in Greek; “Sandabar” in Hebrew, “Sindibad Nameh,” in Persian, “Sindbar” in Syrian, “Sindban or the Seven Mages,” “The History of the King, his Son, and the Seven Viziers” in other translations, is found the same general collection of tales and the same plot.

In this a king has a son, by a deceased wife, educated away from the court. Just as the young prince is about to return to his father he is warned by his tutor that, according to the stars, he will run great danger and must for a time, say seven days, pretend that he is deaf and dumb. He follows his tutor’s advice and various attempts are made to cure him of his supposed affliction. The Queen, his step-mother, falls in love with him, but when she fails, like Potiphar’s wife in the story of Joseph — also a favorite story in the East — to draw him from the path of virtue, she accuses him to the king, who condemns him to death. Then appear the prince’s instructor and his seven other 154 teachers — the seven Wise Men — who, by their entertaining tales, manage to postpone the execution till the astrological time is fulfilled and then the prince, breaking his silence, declares his innocence and the wicked queen, being convicted of her own guilt is punished.

A similar outline is found in the great collection of the Thousand Nights and the One Night, which, by the way, includes a variant of the story of the Seven Wise Men.

Under the tile “Historia Septem Sapientium Romæ” it was circulated in many editions in the Middle Ages and was early translated into Italian, both prose and poetic, with dozens of different names for the Sages, with different scenes of action: China, Persia, India, Constantinople, Sicily, Rome.

The eighth Novel of the second Day of the Decameron is a partial variation of this story, but Boccaccio also makes use of several stories told by the Wise Men.

The “Sukasapati,” or “Seventy Stories of a Parrot,” is another collection of Oriental origin, where a parrot, in order to save his mistress from punishment in consequence of the visits of her lover during her husband’s absences, tells this 155 string of stories. Echoes of these are found in Chaucer as well as in Boccaccio. Who first began to make collections of stories for the amusement of the Italians it is impossible to determine. There must have been many that were never committed to writing. The representative collection dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century is entitled, Libro di Novelle e di el parlar gentile: cento novelle antiche, or summed up in one word, Il Novellino.

Professor D’Ancona argues that this collection was the work of one author who, he believes, was a Florentine merchant, but the tradition attributing it to several authors and collectors seems to be still well grounded and sustained. There is no manuscript of them in existence and no author rises from the tomb to claim them as his. Some of them have been ascribed to Dante, others to Brunetto Latini, others to Francesco Barberini. They seem to belong to different periods. The first edition that bore the title of “The Hundred Ancient Novels” was published in Bologna in 1525. It has been a moot question whether an undated copy which was sold some years ago for £60 was an example of this edition. It has been frequently. 156 printed since, and the best edition is that of Biagi of 1880.

These novels throw a curious light on the men and women and scholarship of the Italians of the fourteenth century. Most of them are cast in Italy, though in some the scenes are laid in other parts of Europe, in the Orient, and the semi-mythical realms of King Arthur and Miliardus.

Antiquity plays a solemn part: Aristotle, Cato, Diogenes, Seneca, King Priam and other celebrities are introduced. In the fifty-eighth Socrates appears as a Roman senator and is shown in consultation with an embassy from the Greek Sultan. The same curious disregard of historical accuracy is found in the “Gesta Romanorum.” As in mediæval paintings Bible characters are represented as dressed in the costume of the painter’s epoch, so in these stories all sorts of delightful anachronisms occur. Greeks and Romans and Orientals are alike seen delineated in the fashion of feudal knights. Many of them are so simple and unsophisticated and childlike that they are as delightful as a picture by Botticelli. Such for instance is the story of the prince brought up in 157 absolute seclusion and ignorance of the world, who is so charmed with the demons. He had heard of demons but his guardian’s description of the inhabitants of the Pit did not seem to tally with the beings that he saw so gaily dressed in the street.

Boccaccio has the same idea in the introduction to the Fourth Day. He tells of a fellow-citizen named Felippo Balducci, gifted with wealth and other good things, who, inconsolable on the death of his buono donna, took his only son and went with him to Monte Asinajo — the Mountain of Pure Air — to serve God and bring the boy up to a similar pursuit. This valente uomo used sometimes to go down to Florence and when his son was eighteen and he himself grown old the youth begged his father to take him to the city. After some cavil the old man accedes to his request.

Here the youth, seeing the palaces, the mansions, the churches, and all the other things of which the whole city was so full, began to marvel and many times asked his father what they were and what they were called. The father told 158 him and when he heard he was satisfied and began to ask about something else. And as thus the son was asking and the father was replying, by chance they met a brigata of handsome young ladies beautifully dressed who were returning from a wedding festival. And when the young man saw them he demanded of his father what manner of thing they were. And the father replied:

“My son, fix your eyes upon the ground; look not upon them; they are evil things.”

Then the son said: “But father, what are they called?”

The father not wishing to call them by their real names, that is, women, said, “They are called papere — green geese.”

And wonderful to relate, he who had never seen one before, not caring now for the palaces or the oxen or the horses or the asses or the monkeys or anything that he had seen, suddenly said: “My father, I beg you to give me one of these green geese.”

Oimè — alas! my son,” said the father, “hush, they are evil — mala cosa!

Whereupon the son asked, saying: “Are evil things made?”


“Yes,” replied the father, and the lad rejoined:

“I don’t know what you mean nor why they are mala cosa; as for me, I never saw anything so beautiful or so delightful, as they are. They are more beautiful than the painted lambs that you have sometimes showed me. Ah! If you have any love for me, do let us take home with us one of those green goslings and I will feed it” — io le darò beccare.

And the father replied: “I will not; you do not know what they put into their beaks.” And he repented that he had brought his son to Florence.

In the Novellino a maiden educated in a convent, knowing nothing of the outside world sees a goat climbing on the wall and asks a nun what it is. “One of the women of the world,” she replies. “When they grow old they have a beard and horns.” And the maiden is delighted to have learned this much of the great world.


The author or authors of the Novellino are hidden behind the veil of anonymity; but not far distant from them in time stands a figure 160 which is the type and representative of the gay, pleasure-loving, pleasure-conferring novelliero of the Renascence. Giovanni Boccaccio — John Big-mouth — was born in the year 1313. His father, Boccaccio di Chellino, of a plebeian family of Certalda, a castello of the Val D’Elsa was a merchant whose business apparently kept him vibrating between Florence and Paris. It is known that he was in Paris from 1310 until the year of his son’s birth. There is a legend to the effect that he was engaged in some service under the King of France, Philip the Fair, and that from his intimate relations with a young lady of high rank, possibly a princess of the blood, was born the illegitimate son. Körting and some of the Italian biographers of Boccaccio argue with considerable ingenuity that, as he certainly inherited property from his father and enjoyed the right of citizenship in Florence and held public office, he must have been a legitimate son and hence they do not hesitate to assert that Boccaccio di Chellino married a French lady, brought her to Florence and there the boy was born.

Vencenzo Crescini combats this opinion and to support his views, which coincide with the 161 legend, he adduces three of Boccaccio’s novelle, in which he finds autobiographical data veiled under the disguise of fiction and anagram. According to him Boccaccio’s mother was a Parisian lady, her name being Jeanne, the anagram of which is Giannai. Boccaccio’s father abandoned the mother of his son and afterward in Florence took to wife Margherita di Gian Donato de’ Martoli, whose name appears in one of the novelle as Gharemita.

In the same way, reading between the lines, it seems probable that his presence in the paternal house was not grateful to the new Signora Boccaccio and that he was therefore brought up away from his home. His father destined him for his own vocation and sent him to Naples, probably when he was about sixteen years old.

He was evidently a boy of precocious intellect and in Naples there was everything to stimulate his ambition. Under the patronage and protection of King Roberto, who under Petrarca’s instruction had learned to like poetry, bards and learned men found their works and studies liberally rewarded. Villani, Boccaccio’s earliest biographer tells a pretty story of the youth: how he stood at the entrance of the tomb of Vergil at 162 Posilipo and looking forth on one of the most beautiful prospects in the whole wide world — the sea lying at his feet like a vast living sapphire set with diamonds, the vine-clad mountains and the villa-dotted shores — then and there vowed to devote himself to Poesy.

In his leisure moments he studied. Paolo Perugino, King Robert’s learned librarian, gave him his first lesson in that classic mythology which he introduces into his works with such brilliant effect. It is known that he learned eagerly about the motions of the heavenly bodies from the famous Genoese astronomer Andalone del Negro, of whom he speaks with the greatest reverence in his later works. In comparison with such lofty themes what a dry and tedious drudgery was the study of mercantile law — the Decretale — and how low and degrading the details of trade! He begged his grudging father to allow him to abandon the profession which he so thoroughly detested. He studied canonical law and other subjects then regarded as essential to a liberal education but undoubtedly the Latin poets offered more attractions to him than the dryer books of the Jurists. The letters that he wrote at this time are couched 163 in very barbarous Latin and are sprinkled with Greek terms just as a boy nowadays learning French or German likes to show off his new attainment by introducing it at every opportunity.

Probaly Boccaccio then spent most of his young-manhood at Naples: whether he had the advantage of travel, as Villani asserts, is problematical, but we have Boccaccio’s own somewhat allegorical description of the most important episode of his life. Just as Dante worshipped Beatrice, just as Petrarca made Laura the ideal of his life, so Boccaccio found his inspiration in a love that is hardly less celebrated.

On the Saturday preceding Easter, 1338, in the church of San Lorenzo, Boccaccio saw for the first time Madonna Maria, the natural daughter of King Roberto. She was married to a personage of high rank attached to her father’s court. She was a vision of radiant beauty: bellissima nell’ aspetto, graziosa e leggiadra e di verdi vestimenti vestita, e ornata secondo che la sua età e l’ antico costume della città richiedono. This lady whom he so beautifully describes in her beauty and grace, in her green gown as the fashion of the city prescribed, 164 kindled in Boccaccio’s heart the flames of love, and he celebrated his passion for her under the name of Fiametta.

At first she welcomed the adoration of the handsome young poet, who, like herself, had to bear the bar sinister of illegitimate birth — a disgrace perhaps, but not so seriously regarded in those days of decaying feudal customs, especially where the one side or the other had royal blood. She shared the common conception that “a poet’s worship is each woman’s secret goal.”

But to the joyous days of reciprocated passion succeeded, as usual in such cases, the dark hours when it begins to dawn on the poet that he is only a toy of the beautiful woman for whom he would be willing to die.

He, then, like Petrarca, though even more bitterly — because he had once tasted the enchanted Circean cup — bewails his wasted days and his love-lorn case; but not in the form of a canzoniero. Boccaccio, to be sure, wrote poetry, but he is not remembered as a poet, rather as a story-teller. Here and there in the course of these multitudinous tales we may see the traces of his once reciprocated but afterwards unrequited devotion.


Through the influence of Fiametta he first tried his hand at the art which he so perfected. One time, while the sun of favour was shining upon him, he and Fiametta were together at a brigata and when the conversation turned upon the famous old French romance of Florio and Blanchefleur, the fair lady bade her lover tell the story in the Italian tongue. Instead of the piccolo libretto which she expected he expanded it into a long volume. Before it was finished he had left Napoli and was at his father’s house at either Florence or Certaldo.

As we have remarked before, the autobiography of his youth is to be discovered in the various episodes of this first novello. It bears the name of Il Filocolo and in an affected and prolix style relates how Lelio, a noble Roman of the early Christian times, was with his wife Giulia travelling to San Giacomo in Galicia when, being attacked by Felice, King of Spain, he was slain. Giulia fell into the hand of the Pagans but was kindly received by the queen. The queen bears a son named Florio and on the same day to the captive woman is born a beautiful daughter to whom is given the romantic name of Biancofiore, or White Flower. The two 166 children are brought up together at Marmorina and of course learn to love each other. When the king learns of their passion he sends his son to study at Montario. These are the high-flown words with which the young prince takes his leave, sugaring the bitterness of their separation: “The transparency [chiarità;] of thy visage surpasses the light of Apollo, nor can the bellezza of Venus equal thine. And the sweetness of thy voice would do better things than the lyre of the Thracian or the Theban Amphion. Wherefore the lofty Emperor of Rome, castigator of the world, would be thy fittest consort or rather, in my opinion, if ’t were possible for Juno to die, none would be more suitable to be the consort of highest Jove.”

As the separation proves unavailing the girl is charged with plotting to poison the king. She is condemned to be burned at the stake but the gallant young lover rescues her just in time. She is then sold as a slave to some merchants who carry her off to Alexandria and dispose of her to the admiral of that noble city. Florio is informed that his White Flower is dead. Just as he is on the point of shuffling off this mortal coil in the dignified and leisurely way characteristic 167 of the ancients so as to join her in the world of ghosts his mother tells him the truth, and with a sigh of relief at being spared an unpleasant duty he hastens off with renewed ardour under the assumed name of Filocolo, which Boccaccio — unwittingly betraying his small knowledge of Greek — assures his readers comes from two Greek words philos, love, and kolos, fatigue — whereby he means simply that he would never rest till he should find his lost love.

After various adventures he reaches Alexandria and makes his way to the tower where Biancofiore is confined. Just as they are about to escape, happy at being reunited, they are caught again and condemned to be burned to death. But a magic ring, defends them from the flames. Venus herself descends to liberate them. Mars also takes their part and by putting himself at the head of the young man’s followers routs their enemies. Finally the admiral of Alexandria recognizes in Florio, alias Filocolo his own nephew, and unites him to his beloved Biancofiore. On their way home they find in Rome the beautiful bride’s most noble relatives. Under the able instruction of Sant’ 168 Ilario Florio becomes a convert to Christianity and returning to Marmorina causes his parents also to be baptised.

The principal charm of the work consists in the episodes. What to us mean such euphuisms as to speak of morning as the getting up of the Goddess Aurora or to speak of evening as the times when the horses of Phoebus bathe in the waves of the ocean? These periphrases, as one may easily see, are only the exaggerations of the peculiar style at first affected by Dante and based on the poetry of Vergil and Ovid. They are the natural effects of a classical education not as yet accommodating itself to the genius of a man’s own vernacular and time.

Florio on his way to Alexandria is driven by a tempest to Naples and there, or at least just outside the city, he meets — by a delightful anachronism — a lieta brigata, with the beautiful Fiametta as the lady of honour. He is received most graciously and made umpire to decide thirteen subtle questions of love. These are excellent samples of the absurd subtleties that exercised those gay and fashionable ladies and cavaliers:

A girl wooed by two lovers at a festival takes a garland from one of them and puts it on her 169 own head but at the same time she removes her own garland and with it adorns the head of the other. Which is the favoured suitor, which has the preference?

We might almost expect to meet the story of the Lady or the Tiger.

Here is another: Which of two women is the more unhappy: she that has a lover and loses him or she that is hopeless of having one?

Again: Which of three lovers deserves preference: the strongest, the most courteous or the wisest? Methinks we again go back to the earliest times and witness the three goddesses bringing their bribes to Paris, son of Priam — whence the rape of Helen, the Trojan War, the voyages of Odysseus and the splendid cycle of hero-stories which grow like branches from a cedar of Lebanon.

Still another of these problematical cases propounds whether it is better to love a maid, a wife, or a widow; and illustrative of the tenzone or discussion are stories which in several cases are still further elaborated in the Decameron. In the last book of “Il Filocolo,” which was written after Fiametta had withdrawn her favour from Boccaccio, occurs the episode wherein he 170 apparently, under allegorical figures, depicts his life and love.

Florio is represented as on his way back to his father’s palace with the bride whom he had won in spite of all obstacles. But it pleases him first to revisit Napoli and let his beloved gaze at those enchanting landscapes. He takes her to the tepid baths of Baja, to the time-honoured tomb of Misenus, to the cave of Cumae. They look down on the glittering waves of the Myrtoan sea and the glories of Pozzuoli. He enjoys the pleasures of fishing and he hunts the red deer in the shady woods.

One day he hurls his javelin at a noble stag but misses his aim and the weapon is imbedded in the foot of a very lofty pine. After the example of the story of Polydorus, in Vergil, a stream of blood gushes forth from the spot where the bark was torn and a dolorosa voce tells the story of Idalogos. I will condense it.

In fruitful Italy, says the voice, lies a small tract of land which the ancients called Tuscany and in the midst of it rises a little hill (i.e., Certaldo) whereon Eucomos (in other words Boccaccio di Chellino) pastured his silly sheep, nor was it far from those waves which the horses 171 of Phoebus, having passed the meridian circle, eagerly yearn for, that they may quench their burning thirst and find repose: and thither he went and there the gentle flock of Franconarcos, King of the White Country (that is, Philip II.) found pasturage which he watched with the greatest solicitude.

This king had a large flock of daughters with beauty adorned and in splendid costumes and one day, sent by their sire, they came with a most notable array of companions, to offer up sweet-smelling incense in a sacred temple dedicated to Minerva, which stood in an ancient forest, still rich in store of beauteous leaves and fruit.

Having accomplished their sacrifice and the day being well spent, they began to indulge in festal pleasures amid the delicious wood.

Near this forest Eucomos, above all shepherds most crafty and endowed with wit, chanced to be watching his flock and having with his own hands made a sampogna, or rustic pipe, which gave greater delight to those that heard it than any other sound, unwitting that the daughters of his lord had come, the sun at that time being hotter than at any other period of the day, he 172 had gathered his flock under the shade of a lofty maple and leaning his arm on this mystic crook was playing his sampogna to his own exceeding joy.

This sound coming to the ears of the errant maidens, they without delay drew near and after they had listened with delight to the music and had rejoiced to see the gambols of the sheep, one of them, named Giannai, the most beautiful of them all, called to Eucomos and begged him to give them his music that they might dance, and promised him a reward. He complied. It pleased them and they came back many times to hear him. Eucomos compelled his genius to most noble sounds and tried his best to delight Giannai, who, coming nearer than any of the others, kept urging him to play on. And her beauty ran to the eyes of Eucomos with gracious delight. And to her also came sweet thoughts. He in his own heart greatly praised her beauty and felt that the man whom the gods should deem worthy of possessing her would be indeed blessed and he wished that it were possible he might be the one.

And at these thoughts Cupid, the disturber of unanchored minds, descended from Parnassus 173 and came to that place and furtively instilled his poison into the rustic’s veins, joining to desire sudden hope.

Three days later it chanced by Fate, who is the orderer of things mundane, conscious of the future, that Giannai alone of the sisters came with a small company of whom she felt no fear and begged him to play to her, and he obeyed. But soon he changed the sweet sounds of his music into the sweeter sounds of flattery and with deceitful promises he made her put full faith in him. “She bore him two sons,” continues the speaking pine, “of whom I was one, and my name is Idalagos. But no long time elapsed after our birth ere he abandoned the silly maiden and returned with his flock to his own pastures and transferred the troth which he had pledged to Giannai to another called Garamita by whom in short space he had new offspring.” Idalagos, whom we must understand to be the poet himself, says that he followed his father’s footsteps all the days of his youth, but as the lofty qualities of his genius which he had received from Nature kept increasing, he turned his feet from the base of the hill — that is to say he turned his back upon his 174 father who was of lowly origin though probably rich by reason of successful trade — and rested his claims on admittance into the splendid society of Naples on his mother’s noble birth — turned his feet from the basso colle and endeavoured by severer paths to attain to loftier things.

He relates how one day when wishing to enter the paternal roof two terrible and most ferocious bears — orsi ferocissimi e terribili — appeared before him with burning eye, desirous of his death, and how from that time forth he abandoned the paternali campi and came to these lovely woods near Naples where, dwelling with Calmeta, pastor solennissimo, who knew so much of all things, he was attaining the summit of his desires.

There seems to be a certain similarity between Dante prevented by the three wild beasts from the summit of his hill and Boccaccio attacked by the terrible and ferocious bears keeping him from his threshold.

He proceeds in his story: “One day as we were resting with our flocks he began to tell with his shepherd’s pipes the new changes and the unthinkable courses of the silvery moon and 175 what the reason might be that it should lose and then gain its light and the like.

“These things I attended with the greatest diligence and so much did they delight my unpolished mind that I determined to know them. . . . and having abandoned the pastoral life, I disposed myself to follow Pallas in all respects.”

Here we have again thinly disguised under the image of the two ferocious bears the guardians of the home to which as a bastard child he was not welcome and under the pseudonym of the astronomical shepherd Calmeta the learned Andalone del Negro whom he so often mentions as his master; and finally his abandonment of his trade. One more passage from this same story will show, also in allegorical language, how Boccaccio more than once loved before he saw Maria di Aquino and how his love for the young princess brought about his ruin:

“These woods,” continues the tale, “seemed favourable for the pursuits of Pallas, but at certain seasons and especially when the Delphic one reached Aries, they were often visited by ladies who walked about with slow and graceful steps and I slowly followed them 176 so that though mine eyes were delighted with their grace I continued to escape the darts of Cupid, for I feared lest if I were wounded by them, my days would increase to my hurt; and being disposed to avoid them I gave myself up first to the cittern of Orpheus and secondly to being a good marksman.”

And he goes on to tell how first of all from among the ladies, all of whom he came to know, a white dove led him through the young shrubbery, flitting on its quick wings while he followed with his bow and arrows. And when he was weary of this chase a nera merla — a black blackbird with red beak and full of delightful songs, occupied him; but in vain he sought to plant his arrows in her heart. And then a pappagallo — a parrot — still more enticingly urged him to the zeal of conquest, as it flew with its green winnowing wings through the shrubbery that hid it ever and anon from his eager eyes.

“But,” says he, “the clever archer Amore, who, by hidden ways makes entrance into guarded hearts, now that the sweet time had come again, when the meadows, the fields and the trees bring forth, as the ladies were going to their 177 accustomed delight, caused from amongst their delightsome choir — piacevole coro — a pheasant to arise and as I followed it with my eyes, flying over the tops of the highest trees the beauty of its variegated plumage so distracted my mind though bent on more useful things, that I made ready to follow it, sparing neither art nor bow nor genius to accomplish it. Feeling my heart wholly contaminated by the poison of love so long avoided, recognising that I was caught in the very gin which I had hitherto escaped by my great discretion, I turned about and beheld the number of those beauteous ladies diminished by one whom I had hitherto regarded as more than any of the others beauteous.

“Then I recognised the deception practised by Love, who, not being able to get me into his power, like other men, had caught me by interest in other forms, first disposing my heart by various desires, to take to this and when, sighing, I turned toward the pheasant, the lady who had vanished from the midst of the others changing back into her pristine shape appeared before my eyes and thus spake: ‘Why art thou ready to flee from me? None loves thee more than I do.’


“These words caused me more fear of deception than hope of future gain and I doubted because she was of a beauty far more splendid than the others and her origin was of lofty descent and she was full of the graces of Juno. Wherefore I declared that it was impossible that she should do aught else than make sport of me. And if I had been able I should have drawn back from what was begun. But the nobility of my heart, derived not from my father the shepherd but from my mother of royal birth, caused me to burn and I said; ‘I will follow her and find out if she prove true in fact as she has been forward in speaking.’ ”

He satisfies himself that she is telling the truth and he says he took her as the loftiest treasure of his heart, and, as she seemed to love him better than any one else, he lived for some time content.

But the inconstant faith of woman’s breast which brings her lover ever more delight caused her to prove false to him and she finally abandoned his miserable heart for another.

“To tell what was my anguish,” he cries, “at suddenly losing an object so much loved and so far above all, when I with mine own eyes saw it carried off elsewhere, would be a waste of 179 words, for I see you already know, but nevertheless the hope still remained that I might turn her back and therefore I spared neither tears nor entreaties nor fatigues. But she refused to listen or heed, nor would she even look; wherefore in desperation at my torment I sought death but could not obtain it, not being as yet at the fated end of my days.” But Venus had pity on him and changed him into a pine — in other words he pined away.

In another of Boccaccio’s stories, the “Ameto,” the same idea is repeated and the names of his Neapolitan loves are given as Pampinea and Abrotonia. Who they were in reality probably no one will ever know. But there can be no doubt that under the image of the royal pheasant with its brilliant plumage — he introduces the same bird again in the fourth book — he means Fiametta. Before Boccaccio finished “Il Filocolo” he wrote a long poem entitled “Filostrato” — “The Lover Subjected.” It is based upon an episode of the Trojan war and it was composed during Fiametta’s absence, as is proved by the dedicatory epistle. It is a story of intrigue, jealousy, deception; in spite of its classic names and affectations of antiquity it really 180 represents his own experiences in Naples. Another poem written in similar circumstances was “Teseide,” also in octave like “Don Juan,” and these two poems are the earliest known examples of that meter.

Dante wrote pastoral poetry in Latin, in imitation of the ancients, and so did Petrarca. Boccaccio had to follow their example. Petrarca’s “Bucolicum Carmen” is assigned to the year 1346. Boccaccio’s third eclogue is known to have been composed two years later and his sixteenth about 1363, while his idyll, “Ninfale d’Admeto,” is thought to have been written in 1341 or 1342, about the time when he was returning to his father’s house.

The story is in prose interspersed with sestine and perfectly simple. Ameto (Greek, Admetos), an uncouth and wandering huntsman, falls in love with Lia, a most beautiful nymph, and under the influence of the new passion he abandons his savage life and becomes civilised. On a day sacred to Venus he follows his fair one to a beautiful shaded meadow and sits with her by the side of a clear fountain. The temple of Venus is not far away — between the running waters of the Arno and the Mugnone — 181 whereby he is supposed to mean the church of San Giovanni Battista. Six other nymphs, Mopsa and Emilia, Adiona and Acrimonia, Agapes and Fiametta come along, two and two, and the usual lieta brigata is formed. Shepherd songs and tenzoni are sung and then Lia proposes that each one of them should narrate the story of their loves:

“You are all young,” she says, “and I and our forms give no sign that we have lived or are still living without having felt or even now feeling the flames of that revered goddess whose temples we have visited this day.”

Under the allegory of the seven nymphs each of whom at the end of her story sings a song in triolets to her special goddess: “Pallas, Prudence; Diana, Justice; Pomona, Temperance; Bellona, Bravery; Venus, Love; Vesta, Hope; and Cebele, faith, we have the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues typified both in idea and practise.

When the last of the nymphs has told her story and sung her triolet-song, their attention is attracted by a wonderful prodigy in the sky: seven swans and seven storks engage in a battle and the swans win the victory. Then suddenly 182 from on high flashes forth with dazzling brilliancy a pillar of fire like that which guided the Hebrews through the desert and a sweet voice is heard saying:

“I am the One and Triune Light of Heaven

Beginning and End of all things.”

Io son luce del cielo unica e trina,

Principio e fine di ciascuna cosa.

Ameto then learns that the Venus whom the nymphs have been celebrating is not that lustful goddess who inspires inordinate desires in human beings but rather the divinity from whom descend into men’s hearts genuine, true and holy passions — i veri e guisti e santi amori. In other words, she is the Holy Trinity, the God of Christianity. And when Ameto recovers his eyesight and looks at the seven nymphs — his seven Virtues, mind you — they appear to him more beautiful than ever and as they gaze up into the column of fire they also seem to be ablaze and he trembles lest they should be consumed — especially Agapes and Lia. And then once more he raises his eyes to the clear light; as one sees the coal burning in the fire so in this marvellous pillar of fire he perceives an effulgent body overmastering all other brightness, as 183 molten steel taken from the furnace flashes forth a multitude of sparks; but the form of the face and of the eyes divine he cannot distinguish and while he is still filled with wonder he again hears the goddess speaking in terza rima — as in the “Divina Commedia,” which it is plain he is imitating in all the machinery of the scene — as follows:

“Oh my dear sisters through whom are manifest the roads that lead into my realms for those that wish to mount and put on wings — your good works just and upright, straightforward, good, holy, and virtuous, worthy of praise, simple and modest, open the dark and nebulous eyes of Ameto that he may see the beauties of my joy.”

Before the divine words are fully uttered the nymphs run to Ameto; Lia frees him from his soiled habiliments, dips him into the clear fountain, just as Lucia baptises Dante in the waters of the Lethe stream in the “Purgatory;” then renders him purified into the hands of Fiametta. Mopsa dries his eyes and removes the scale that had blinded him; Emilia directs his gaze to the visage of the goddess; Acrimonia increases the strength of his eyes that they may endure the supernal splendour; Adiona clothes him anew 184 with most grateful raiment; Agapes, breathing into this mouth, kindles within him the holy fire. And Ameto, turning to the seraphic vision begins a long address:

O Diva pegasea, O alte Muse — O Pegasean Goddess, O lofty Muses — rule my feeble mind that it may endure such things and make my genius subtle to contemplate them in order that if it be possible for tongue of man to tell of the beauty of things mine may succeed in telling of them.”

Then, after further prayers and promises and after the apparition has returned to heaven, the nymphs sing angelically in a circle round him. And Ameto in joy lends his ear to their song and his heart to sweet thoughts. His old life seemed repulsive to him; hitherto he had mingled with fauns and satyrs; his ears had been delighted with only the primitive songs of the shepherds; hitherto the nymphs had pleased his eye rather than his intellect; now they appeal to his intellect rather than to the sensual vision: in other words, to sum up his long monologue, it seemed to him that he had grown from a brute animal into a man. Whereupon he sings a hymn to the goddess:


“O divine Light which in three persons and one essence governs the heavens and the earth with justice and love and eternal reason.”

O diva luce quale in tre persone

Ed una essenza il ciel govarni e ’l mondo,

Con giusto amore ed eterna ragione.

And when it is finished, the hour being late, the nymphs depart and Ameto returns to his home.

Most characteristic of the morals and notions of the Renascence is this grotesque, poetic, allegorical story of Boccaccio’s spiritual regeneration. The mixture of paganism and Christianity — just as in the “Divine Comedy” — seems to us absurd and almost repulsive, and what shall be said when we remember that each of these seven nymphs representing the highest virtues of the Church — in telling the story of her love begins first by speaking of her husband and then goes on to reveal a state of connubial irregularity such as could only be rectified by a Nebraska or Chicago divorce court!

In several of the narrations delivered by the seven nymphs we might find the omnipresent allegory of Boccaccio’s own experiences. He seemed never to tire of introducing it, and we find it again in his greatest poem, the “Amorosa 186 Visione” and in the book of sonnets which so closely follows in plan Petrarca’s example. The “Amorosa Visione” consists of fifty short poems in the meter which Dante liked so well, and one may get some idea of its artifice when one realises that it forms one vast acrostic. All the first verses of the terzine are joined together to form two tailed sonnets and a double-tailed sonnet which contains the dedication to Fiametta. He himself acknowledged his indebtedness to Dante and bids his book follow modestly the great Florentine poet, come piccolo servidore — like a little servant.

The admiration which Boccaccio felt for Dante was genuine and beautiful, but even in his imitation the contrast between the two men never fails to appear. We see Dante stern and almost forbidding, a master among prophets, striding alone with bent head and gloomy brow, viewing the earth as merely a halting-place of trial and sorrow; consequently his ideal of love is so lofty and distant from earth that it narrowly escapes being an abstraction; on the other hand, Boccaccio is filled with the worship of earthly beauty. Beauty is his religion and, consequently, love in his eyes in spite of his 187 endeavour to raise it to divine heights is ever clad in seductive palpitating flesh and blood. Between the two stands Petrarca! Is it not indeed a wonderful trio to be living in one land at one and the same time?

But to understand the contrast between Dante and Boccaccio one must understand the spirit of the times. One extreme invariably leads to another or even exists with it simultaneously. While we have on the one hand the lofty mysticism of Dante and the bigotry of Saint Francis and the extravagances of the flagellants; on the other we have the new school of Provençal poets who, even while taking part in Crusades wrote the obscenest of poems; we find the scandalous stories of Fra Salimbene. Boccaccio, as the favourite of a corrupt court, did not hesitate to be himself corrupt, even while he was singing the praises of an incorruptible Church!

It seems probable that Boccaccio’s step-mother had died and that the legitimate children had also left the father desolate: he speaks of the paternal mansion as being oscura, muta e molta triste — dark, silent and very sad. While Boccaccio di Chellino, now old, cold, harsh 188 and avaricious, desired his presence he returned to the home which he had so little reason to love and while dwelling with the father whom he had also little reason to reverence, he seemed to be in a melancholy prison made all the darker by contrast with those joyous fortunate days at Naples.

He found some consolation, however, in beautiful Florence, and his ever susceptible heart was soon on fire once more. He discovered a young widow and began to pay court to her: but while she pretended to accept his homage she really made sport of him and showed his letters to another of her lovers. Boccaccio learned of this treachery and by way of revenge wrote another allegoric vision entitled “Corbaccio” — A Nasty Crow.” He seemed to be following a delicious pathway but it led him into a savage mountainous forest and a shade appears — just as Vergil appears to Dante — ready to show him the way out. While Dante in the selva oscura understands the present life, to Boccaccio the ragged forest signifies love, from which he is liberated by human reason. But the apparition is not Vergil by any means: it is the deceptive widow’s dead husband, who 189 had been enjoying the torments of purgatory as a penance for his avarice and also for his unbecoming patience in enduring his wife’s wretched habits. Now he is dead and no longer tormented by jealousy, he feels nothing but the deepest pity for all those that fall into the toils of her who had been for a time his earthly cross.

At the intercession of the Celestial Virgin, for whom Messer Giovanni had always shown unusual devotion, God had sent him to save the poet and he accomplishes the grateful task by saying all manner of evil of women in general and of his own widow in particular.

The modern reader would not find great edification in this somewhat irreverent allegory, in this catalogue of woman’s frailties. The book would hardly be chosen as a text-book in a young ladies’ seminary. Many of the nettlish stings are borrowed boldly from the satires of Juvenal, but Boccaccio’s own experience furnished him with an abundant supply of new ones. The most harmless are those in which he depicts the vanity of women, as they practise their graces before the mirror or in church; while pretending to be counting their beads they are casting furtive glances at the men.



This savage satire seems to put an end to the most frivolous part of Boccaccio’s life. His father died in 1348 or 1349 and in spite of his irregular birth he inherited a large share of the old man’s wealth. Shortly afterward he entered into friendly relations with Petrarca and this friendship lasted until Petrarca’s death. Indeed, in a letter to Francesco da Brossano he claimed that he had belonged to him for forty years. His first actual acquaintance with “the greatest glory of Italy” began in 1350, when Petrarca passed through Florence on his way to receive the poet’s crown at Rome. The following year Boccaccio was sent by the commune to Padua to invite him to take the direction of the new University. They spent several days together in the famous garden in which Petrarca so delighted and if only there could have been present a shorthand reporter — a chiel amang ’em takin’ notes — what a precious legacy it would have been! We can have it only in the imaginative dialogue of Walter Savage Landor.


In the spring of 1359 they spent a few days together in Milan and from this time their friendship became most intimate. Boccaccio never let slip an occasion to praise and venerate him whom he called præceptor meus. Petrarca, as might be imagined, exerted a highly moral influence upon him, though Boccaccio confessed that it did not go to the extent of a complete regeneration — amores meos, etsi non plene satis tamen vertit in melius. So he confesses, and he commemorates in his fifteenth eclogue this exemplary influence where he describes the shepherd Filostrafo as chiding Tiflo.

What bound the two men together was their love for antiquity. Boccaccio knew some Greek and at Petrarca’s solicitation translated Homer into Latin prose. That he did not succeed better was due to the limited knowledge of his teacher, the Calabrian Leonzio Pilato, who at Boccaccio’s invitation taught in the University from 1360 until 1363.

Boccaccio, under the influence of the ideas of his time, came to look upon Italian poetry as a foolish juvenile occupation. Thenceforth his later works, with a few exceptions, are written in Latin. One, entitled “De Montibis, Sylvis,” 192 Lacubus, Fluminibus, Stagnis seu Paludibus, de Nominibus Maris Liber,” is regarded as the first modern dictionary of geography. A grave and almost ascetic book is his Latin treatise “De Claris Mulieribus,” “Concerning Famous Women” — and yet even in this he cannot refrain from piquant stories which contrast so curiously with the general spirit of the work.

Another, entitled “De Genealogiis Deorum Gentilium,” “Concerning the Genealogies of the Heathen Gods” — is a vast compilation written about 1366 at the suggestion of Ugo IV., King of Cyprus and Jerusalem. Of course his knowledge had its limitations and the critical spirit was wanting; but such books, full of superstitions and fables, such quaint and curious fallacious theories as they may be, were useful in their day.

Boccaccio was greatly honoured in his own city. Three times he was sent on important embassies. In 1365 he was at Avignon charged with the duty of calming the resentment of Urban V. against Florence. Two years later he bore to Rome the congratulations of the Commune on the return of the Papal Court to Italy.


At one time he almost became a citizen of Naples again. Niccolò Acciaiuoli, a Florentine, who had gone there many years before as a merchant and had risen to be Grand Seneschal to the Queen, made him splendid promises, and feeling that he might have leisure for his beloved studies he decided to go. But though he had dedicated his book “Concerning Famous Women” to Andrea, sister to Niccolò and his flattering mention of the queen had preceded him, he found himself subjected to the shabbiest treatment. The letter that describes his experiences is still in existence.

In 1367 he visited Petrarca’s daughter and her husband Francesco de Brossano and for a year or two he actually lived in Naples; Queen Giovanna’s third husband offered him gracious protection; but the year of Petrarca’s death the city of Florence began a course of public lectures on Dante’s “Divina Commedia” and Boccaccio was invited to fill the chair. Boccaccio was the first to write Dante’s life and his commentary on the works of the great poet, though it was left unfinished, contains many explanations which are invaluable. His salary was 100 golden florins. He began his lectures in the 194 church of San Stefano on October 18, 1373, and gave them every day until early in January, 1374, when an attack of scurvy, or possible leprosy, compelled him to resign.

One curious little episode in Boccaccio’s life seems to throw a light on his character. In 1362 a monk by the name of Gioacchino Ciani came to see him in Florence and told him that he was sent by a Saint Pietro Petroni, who on his death-bed had seen a vision of Christ and reading in his face the past, the present and the future, he had learned that unless Boccaccio should change his scandalous mode of life he would suffer eternal torment. Such a message from an earnest though misguided “crank” even now might well have an effect upon a man’s imagination. Boccaccio lived in a superstitious age and his alarm was aroused. He was on the point of following Ciani’s advice to sell his books, abandon his studies and burn his Italian writings. Fortunately he consulted Petrarca who wrote him that Ciani was probably an impostor and that he had better change his habits but not renounce his studies which had been the consolation of his past life. He came to his senses and kept on with his learned labours.


In the autumn of 1374 he returned to Certaldo, broken in health, and here he remained until his death December 21, 1375. His will is preserved: in it he left his books to Padre Fra Martino da Signa; to the convent of Santa Maria di San Sepolcro he bequeathed many sacred relics and other objects which he had picked up in the course of his life.1


Just as Petrarca is remembered chiefly by his canzoniere, so Boccaccio stands as the representative of the story-teller of the Renascence. And the “Decameron” is justly regarded as his masterpiece; though just as Petrarca repented having written and published his sonnets so Boccaccio declared in a letter written in 1373 that the perusal of the book was perilous and unedifying, especially for women.

Mention of this great work has been purposely left to the last. In 1348 the plague was ravaging Florence. Boccaccio’s description of its horrors at the beginning of the “Decameron” stands in the same category of vivid narration 196 as De Foe’s word-picture of the great London fire. The device employed for stringing the stories together is, as we have shown, as old as the hills. Seven young ladies and three young men meet in the church of Santa Maria Novella and agree to abandon the unfortunate city. They shut themselves up in a beautiful villa and spend their days in gay dalliance, singing, eating, drinking. And when the sun shines too fiercely they gather in the bosky shades of the garden and day after day under the direction of their duly chosen re or regina relate their gay, frivolous, often indecent stories.

The name “Decameron,” like that of the “Divina Commedia,” was a later invention. Boccaccio at first entitled the work “L’Opera di dieci giorni” but afterward in his quality as a Greek scholar added the Greek title, which means the same thing.

Boccaccio’s originality in this work consisted in its frame and in the manner in which he used materials already extant. If there is any moral in them, it is accidental; the value of true friendship may be illustrated; the power of a word rightly spoken is shown; it may teach young women to beware of the snares of men 197 and especially of scholars. But the sole object of the stories is amusement and the remarkable variety of the incidents is all bent to this same focus.

In Morley’s “Universal Library” are to be found forty of these novelle. There is, therefore, no need to go into any analysis of their style or of their contents. They are like “the Widow Cruse’s oil jar”; poets, playwrights, novelists for half a millennium have pillaged them and still they are as fresh and full of life as ever. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is the first contemporaneous imitation and there is certainly a great resemblance between the two men and their genius, though Chaucer is freer from the affectations of the pedant.

Of course, as the “Decameron” is not an original invention with Boccaccio, we can hardly say that all the collections of stories similarly conjoined are imitations of his work; nor should we have space to mention half of them. They string along through the ages, from “Il Pecorone” of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, which was composed three years after Boccaccio’s death, in 1378, to William Morris’s “Earthly Paradise.” Indeed, it is a mooted question whether the famous mediæval collection made by some unknown monk and 198 called the “Gesta Romanorum” was not subsequent to Boccaccio.

It may be interesting, however, to mention briefly one way in which these old stories come filtered down to us and it will be easily seen how inexhaustible a field it offers for study and research. Symonds says:

“In their material the novelle embraced the whole of Italian society, furnishing pictures of its life and manners from the palaces of princes to the cottages of contadini. Every class is represented — the man of books, the soldier, the parish priest, the cardinal, the counter-jumper, the confessor, the peasant, the duke, the merchant, the noble lady, the village maiden, the serving man, the artisan, the actor, the beggar, the courtesan, the cutthroat, the astrologer, the lawyer, the physician, the midwife, the thief, the preacher, the nun, the pander, the fop, the witch, the saint, the galley-slave, the friar — they move before us in a motley multitude like the masquerade figures of carnival time, jostling one another in a whirl of merriment and passion, mixing together in the frank democracy of vice. . . . It is only the surface of existence that the novelliere touches. He leaves its depths unanalysed except when he plunges a sinister glance into some horrible abyss of cruelty or lust, or stirred by gentler feeling paints an innocent, unhappy, youthful love. The student of cotemporary Italian customs will glean abundant information from these pages; the student of human nature gathers little except reflections on the morals of sixteenth century society. It was perhaps this prodigal superfluity of striking incident in combination with poverty of intellectual content which made the novelle so precious to our playwrights.


To trace all the plots of the English stage from Marlowe to Dryden, from Dryden to Sheridan, one would have to read the stories of Sercambi of Lucca and the 300 of Franco Sacchetti, and a century later those of Il Lasca and the “Disporti” of Giralamo Parabosco and the 214 novelle of Matteo Bandello, and Giraldi’s “Hecatomithi,” or Hundred Tales, and Francesco Straparola’s “Thirteen Pleasant Evenings” and thousands of others.

Just a few examples of the use that Shakespeare alone made of these treasure houses of dramatic plots must suffice.

From the last-mentioned — “Le Tredici piacevoli notti,” of Straparola — came several hints utilized in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — the plurality of loves and the ladies contributing to one another the addresses of the same gallant. “Much Ado About Nothing” is largely based on the twenty-second novella of Bandello in which Il Signore Scipione Attillano narrates how Il Signore de Cardona, being with King Piero di Aragone in Messina, falls in love with Fenicia Lionata. This was translated into French and it is supposed that an English version of Belleforest at one time existed. 200 “Measure for Measure” has curious parallelisms with Cinthio’s, the fifth novella of “Hecatomithi.”

“Romeo and Juliet” is partially based on a novel by Arthur Broke translated from another of Bandello’s great store. “The Merchant of Venice” is made up of several strands but that which relates the story of the pound of flesh is found in “Il Pecorone,” that is to say “The Dunce or Blockhead,” being the adventures of Gianetto. While the suggestion of the three caskets is found in the “Gesta Romanorum,” “Cymbeline” is based upon Boccaccio’s tale of “Bernabo da Genova.”

These are only hints. But they go to prove the proposition so carefully elaborated by Count Gozzi that there do not exist more than thirty-six tragic situations, or the still more scientific estimate of Signor Polti, who having analysed and classified some eight hundred dramas and two hundred novels, reduced them to the same, which number may indeed be still further reduced to the classic number seven. Probably all in last analysis go back to actual occurrences or grew out of actual occurrences. Truth is forever stranger than fiction.


 *  This is not a proper name but derives from an Arabic perversion of the Sanskrit vidya-pati, or master of sciences, which was applied to the Brahman philosopher or pandit who is fabled to have brought back to the paths of virtue King Dabshelim, the ruler of the Panjab after the fall of Alexander’s governor in the third century, B. C.

 †  The word Asinajo signifies an ass-driver, but is explained as a perversion of Asanaria, that is, sana aria; rather far-fetched it must be confessed.

Elf.Ed Notes

 1  This information about San Sepolcro and the relics is in no other resource available on the web for free viewing. I wrote Dr. Papio, the President of the American Boccaccio Association and he very kindly confirmed that the information is true. As an aside, I wondered aloud if Boccaccio fans had a nickname for him! Here is what he said (quoted with permission):

“I’m very happy to help. In fact, I just wrote an article on Boccaccio’s will that is coming out in a book in the spring. I'm sending it here in attachment. It addresses a couple of the questions you asked. The name of the convent is correct, but it’s a now a yuppie apartment building just south of Florence. Santo Spirito is still a church, on the southern side of the Arno, but his books are no longer there and have been widely dispersed. I hope that this is useful.

“Regarding a nickname for Boccaccio, there really isn’t a good one. Sometimes he is called the Certaldese (because that's where he came from), but that's more of an epithet than a nickname. We do know that one of his acquaintances called him the “man of glass” (apparently because he was easily offended), but he didn’t like it.”

The article is interesting and very detailed, so you can look forward to it when it comes out: “An Intimate Self-Portrait (Testamentum),” in Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works, Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg and Janet Smarr, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2013.

In a follow-up letter he says:

“You may find one of my web sites somewhat helpful as you dig into Boccaccio. (2013 is his 700th birthday, by the way.) it’s called the Decameron Web.”

He also added that this year is the seven hundredth year anniversary of Boccaccio's death. He also clarified that the spelling of Boccaccio's native city is Certaldo. Dole’s text has Certalda two times and Certaldo two times.

“Certalda (with an A at the end) is simply a misprint.”

What a great guy!


V.  The Rise of the Italian Drama

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