At Vaucluse Petrarch began the poem by which he aspired to rival Virgil —an epic, Africa, on the liberation of Italy through the victory of Scipio Africanus over Hannibal. Like the humanists of a century after him, he chose Latin as his medium, not, like Dante, Italian; he wished to be understood by the whole literate Western world. As the poem progressed he became more and more doubtful of its merit; he never completed it, never published it. While he was absorbed in Latin hexameters his Italian Canzoniere was spreading his fame through Italy, and a translation carried his name through France. In 1340—not without some sly manipulations on his part8—two invitations reached him, one from the Roman Senate, the other from the University of Paris, to come and receive at their hands the poet’s laurel crown. He accepted the Senate’s offer, and the suggestion of Robert the Wise that he should stop at Naples on the way.
After the overthrow of Frederick II and the Hohenstaufens by the arms and diplomacy of the popes, his Regno— Italy south of the Papal Stateshad been given to the house of Anjou in the person of Charles, Count of Provence. Charles ruled as King of Naples and Sicily; his son Charles II lost Sicily to the house of Aragon; his grandson Robert, though failing in his war to recapture Sicily, earned his cognomen by competent government, wise diplomacy, and a discriminating patronage of literature and art. The Kingdom was poor in industry, and its agriculture was dominated by myopic landowners who, as now, exploited the peasantry to the edge of revolution; but the commerce of Naples gave the court an income that made the royal Castel Nuovo ring with frequent festivities. The well-to-do imitated the court; marriages became ruinous ceremonies; periodic regattas animated the historic bay; and in the city square young blades jousted in perilous tournaments while their garlanded ladies smiled upon them from bannered balconies. Life was pleasant in Naples, and morals were comfortably loose; women were beautiful and accessible; and poets found in this atmosphere of amorous dalliance many a theme and stimulus for their verse. In Naples Boccaccio was formed.
Giovanni had begun life in Paris as the unpremeditated result of an entente cordiale between his father, a Florentine merchant, and a French lass of doubtful name and morals;9 perhaps his bastard birth and half-French origin shared in determining his character and history. He was brought in infancy to Certaldo, near Florence, and suffered an unhappy childhood under a stepmother. At the age of ten (1323) he was sent to Naples, where he was apprenticed to a career of finance and trade. He learned to hate business as Petrarch hated law; he announced his preference for poverty and poetry, lost his soul to Ovid, feasted on the Metamorphoses and the Heroides, and learned by heart most of the Ars amandi, wherein, he wrote, “the greatest of poets shows how the sacred fire of Venus may be made to burn in the coldest” breast.10 The father, unable to make him love money more than beauty, allowed him to quit business on condition that he study canon law. Boccaccio agreed, but he was ripe for romance.
The gayest lady in Naples was Maria d’Aquino. She was the natural daughter of King Robert the Wise,11 but her mother’s husband accepted her as his own child. She was educated in a convent, and was married at fifteen to the Count of Aquino, but found him inadequate to her needs. She encouraged a succession of lovers to supply his deficiencies, and to spend their substance upon her finery. Boccaccio first saw her at Mass on Holy Saturday (1331) four Easters after Petrarch’s discovery of Laura under similarly sacred auspices. She seemed to him fairer than Aphrodite; the world held nothing lovelier than her blonde hair, nothing more alluring than her roguish eyes. He called her Fiammetta—Little Flame—and longed to singe himself in her fire. He forgot canon law, forgot all the commandments he had ever learned; for months he thought only of how he might be near her. He went to church solely in the hope that she might appear; he paced the street before her window; he went to Baiae on hearing that she was there. For five years he pursued her; she let him wait until other purses were empty; then she allowed him to persuade her. A year of costly assignations dulled the edge of adultery; she complained that he looked at other women; besides, his funds ran out. The Little Flame sought other food, and Boccaccio retired to poetry.
Very probably he had read Petrarch’s Canzoniere and Dante’s Vita Nuova; his first poems were like theirs, sonnets of yearning, burning, churning love. Most of them were addressed to Fiammetta, some celebrated lesser flames. For her he wrote a long and dreary prose version—Filocopo—of a medieval romance, Fleur et Blancfleur. Finer was his Filostrato; here he told in glowing verse how Criseida vowed eternal fidelity to Troilus, was captured by the Greeks, and soon yielded herself to Diomed on the plea that he was so “tall and strong and beautiful,” and at hand. For his medium Boccaccio chose an eight-line stanza—ottava rima— that set a form for Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto. It is a frankly sensual story, whose 5400 lines reach their climax when Criseida, “throwing away her shift, sprang naked into her lover’s arms.”12 But it is also a remarkable psychological study of one type of woman—lightly false and gayly vain; and it ends with phrases now familiar in opera:
Giovane donna è mobile, e vogliosa
E negli amanti molti, e sua bellezza
Estima più ch’ allo specchio, e pomposa….
Virtù non sente ni conoscimento,
Volubil sempre come foglia al vento.*
Soon afterward, as if to break down resistance with sheer weight, Boccaccio presented to Fiammetta an epic poem, Teseide, precisely as long as the Aeneid. It told of the bloody rivalry of two brothers, Palemon and Arcite, for Emilia; the death of the victor in her loving arms; and her acceptance of the loser after a proper delay. But even heroic love palls after half the 9896 lines; and the English reader may content himself with Chaucer’s judicious abbreviation of the story in The Knight’s Tale.
Early in 1341 Boccaccio abandoned Naples for Florence. Two months later Petrarch arrived at King Robert’s court. He basked awhile in the royal shade, and then went on to seek a crown in Rome.