It was in Florence that Italian literature achieved its first and greatest triumphs. There Guinizelli and Cavalcanti, in the late thirteenth century, gave the sonnet its finished form; not there, but longing for it, Dante the Florentine struck the first and last true note of Italian epic poetry; there Boccaccio composed the supreme work of Italian prose, and Giovanni Villani wrote the most modern of medieval chronicles. Visiting Rome for the jubilee of 1300, and moved like Gibbon by the ruins of a mighty past, Villani thought for a while of recording its history; then, judging that Rome had been sufficiently commemorated, he turned back to his native haunts, and resolved “to bring into this volume… all the events of the city of Florence… and give in full the deeds of the Florentines, and briefly the notable affairs of the rest of the world.”36
He began with the Tower of Babel and ended on the verge of the Black Death, in which he died; his brother Matteo and his nephew Filippo continued the story to 1365. Giovanni was well prepared; he came of a prosperous mercantile family, commanded a pure Tuscan speech, traveled in Italy, Flanders, and France, served thrice as prior and once as master of the mint. He had for those times an uncommon sense of the economic bases and influences of history; and he was the first to salt his narrative with statistics of social conditions. The first three books of his Croniche Fiorentine are mostly legend; but in later books we learn that in 1338 Florence and its hinterland had 105,000 inhabitants, of whom seventeen thousand were beggars and four thousand were on public relief; that there were six primary schools, teaching ten thousand boys and girls, and four high schools, in which six hundred boys and a few girls studied “grammar” (literature) and “logic” (philosophy). Unlike most historians Villani included notices of new books, paintings, buildings; seldom has a city been so directly described in all the departments of its life. Had Villani brought all these phases and details into one united narrative of causes, phenomena, personalities, and effects he would have transformed his chronicle into history.
Settling down in Florence in 1340, Boccaccio continued to pursue woman in life and verse and prose. The Amorosa Visione was dedicated to Fiammetta, and recalled in 4400 lines of terza rima the happier days of their liaison. In a psychological novel,Fiammetta, the bastard princess is made to tell the story of her deviation with Boccaccio; she analyzes the emotions of love, the torments of desire and jealousy and desertion, in Richardsonian detail; and when her conscience rebukes her infidelity she imagines Aphrodite chiding her for cowardice: “Make not thyself so timorous in saying, ‘I have a husband, and holy laws and promised faith forbid me these things.’ These are but vain conceits and frivolous objections against the power of Eros. For like a strong and mighty prince he plants his eternal laws; not caring for other laws of lower state, he accounts them base and servile rules.”37 Boccaccio, abusing the power of the pen, ends the book by having Fiammetta proclaim, to his glory, that it was he who deserted her, not she who deserted him. Returning to poetry, he sang in the Ninfale Fiesolano the love of a shepherd for a priestess of Diana; his triumph is described in fond detail, with some enthusiasm spared for natural scenery. This is almost the working formula of The Decameron.
It was shortly after the plague of 1348 that Boccaccio began to write this renowned concatenation of seductive tales. He was now thirty-five; the temperature of desire had fallen from poetry to prose; he could begin to see the humor of the mad pursuit. Fiammetta herself seems to have died in the plague, and Boccaccio was calm enough to use the name that he had given her for one of the least finicky raconteuses of his book. Though the whole was not published till 1353, some of it must have been issued in installments, for in the introduction to the Fourth Day the author replies to the criticism that had reproved the earlier narratives. As we have the book now it is a “century” of stories—a full hundred; they were not meant to be read in any great number at one time; published seriatim, they must have provided topics for many a Florentine evening.
The prelude describes the effects, in Florence, of the Black Death that struck all Europe in 1348 and afterward. Born apparently of the fertility and filth of Asiatic populations impoverished by war and weakened by famine, the infection crossed Arabia into Egypt, and the Black Sea into Russia and Byzantium. From Constantinople, Alexandria, and other ports of the Near East the merchants and vessels of Venice, Syracuse, Pisa, Genoa, and Marseille, aided by fleas and rats, brought it to Italy and France.38 A succession of famine years in western Europe—1333–4, 1337–42, 1345–7—probably sapped the resistance of the poor, who then communicated the disease to all classes.39 It took two forms: pulmonary, with high fever and spitting of blood, bringing death in three days; or bubonic, with fever, abscesses, and carbuncles, leading to death in five days. Half the population of Italy was carried off in the successive visitations of the plague from 1348 to 1365.40 A Sienese chronicler wrote, about 1354:
Neither relatives nor friends nor priests nor friars accompanied the corpses to the grave, nor was the office of the dead recited…. In many places of the city trenches were dug, very broad and deep, and into these the bodies were thrown, and covered with a little earth; and thus layer after layer until the trench was full; and then another trench was begun. And I, Agniolo di Tura… with my own hands buried five of my children in a single trench; and many others did the like. And many dead were so ill covered that the dogs dug them up and ate them, dispersing their limbs throughout the city. And no bells rang, and nobody wept no matter what his loss, because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, “This is the end of the world.”41
In Florence, according to Matteo Villani, three out of five of the population died between April and September of 1348. Boccaccio estimated the Florentine dead at 100,000, Machiavelli at 96,000;42 these are transparent exaggerations, since the total population hardly exceeded 100,000. Boccaccio opens The Decameron with a frightful description of the plague:
Not only did converse and consorting with the sick give the infection to the sound, but the mere touching of the clothes, or of whatsoever had been touched or used by the sick, appeared of itself to communicate the malady…. A thing which had belonged to a man sick or dead of the sickness, being touched by an animal… in a brief time killed it… of this mine own eyes had experience. This tribulation struck such terror to the hearts of all… that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew… oftentimes wife husband; nay (what is yet more extraordinary and well nigh incredible), some fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children, as though they had not been theirs…. The common people, being altogether untended and unsuccored, sickened by the thousand daily, and died well nigh without recourse. Many breathed their last in the open street, whilst other many, for all they died in their houses, made it known to the neighbors that they were dead rather by the stench of their rotting bodies than otherwise; and of these and others who died the whole city was full. The neighbors, moved more by fear lest the corruption of the dead bodies should imperil themselves than by any charity for the departed… brought the bodies forth from the houses and laid them before the doors, where, especially in the morning, those who went about might see corpses without number. Then they fetched biers, and some, in default thereof, they laid upon a board; nor was it only one bier that carried two or three corpses, nor did this happen but once; nay, many might have been counted which contained husband and wife, two or three brothers, father and son, and the like…. The thing was come to such a pass that folk reckoned no more of men that died than nowadays they would of goats.43
Out of this scene of desolation Boccaccio pictures his Decameron as taking form. The plan for the pagan outing is made in “the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella” by “seven young ladies, all knit one to another by friendship or neighborhood or kinship,” who had just heard Mass. They ranged between eighteen and twenty-eight years of age. “Each was discreet and of noble blood, fair of favor and well-mannered, and full of honest sprightliness.” One proposes that they should lessen their chances of infection by retiring to their country houses, not separately but together, with their servants, moving from one villa to another, “taking such pleasance and diversion as the season may afford…. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts; and there is the face of heaven more open to the view, the which, angered against us though it be, denieth not unto us its eternal beauties.”44 The suggestion is accepted, but Filomena improves upon it: since “we women are fickle, willful, suspicious, and timorous,” it might be well to have some men in the party. Providentially at that moment “there entered the church three young men… in whom neither the perversity of the time, nor loss of friends and kinsfolk… had availed to cool… the fire of love…. All were agreeable, well-bred, and they went seeking their supreme solace… to see their mistresses, who, as it chanced, were all three among the seven ladies aforesaid.” Pampinia recommends that the young gentlemen be invited to join the outing. Neifile fears that this will lead to scandal. Filomena answers: “So but I live honestly, and conscience prick me not of aught, let who will speak to the contrary.”
So, on the Wednesday following, they set out, preceded by servants and victuals, to a villa two miles from Florence, “with a goodly and great courtyard in its midst, and galleries and saloons and bedchambers, each in itself most fair, and adorned with jocund paintings; with lawns and grassplots round about, and wondrous-goodly gardens, and wells of very cold water, and cellars full of wines of price.”45 The ladies and gentlemen sleep late, breakfast leisurely, walk in the gardens, dine at length, and amuse themselves by matching stories. It is agreed that each of the ten shall tell a story on each day of the outing. They stay in the country ten days (whence the title of the book, from the Greek deka hemerai, ten days); and the result is that Boccaccio’s commedia umana counters each of Dante’s gloomy cantos with a merry tale. Meanwhile a rule forbids any member of the group to “bring in from without any news other than joyous.”
The narratives, averaging six pages in length, were seldom original with Boccaccio; they were collected from classical sources, Oriental writers, medieval gesta, French contes and fabliaux, or the folklore of Italy itself. The last and most famous story in the book is that of the patient Griselda, which Chaucer adopted for one of the best and most absurd of The Canterbury Tales. The finest of Boccaccio’s novelle is the ninth of the fifth day—of Federigo, his falcon, and his love, almost as self-sacrificing as Griselda’s. The most philosophical is the legend of the three rings (I, 3). Saladin, “Soldan of Babylon,” needing money, invites the rich Jew Melchisedek to dinner, and asks him which of the three religions is the best—the Jewish, the Christian, or the Mohammedan. The wise old moneylender, fearing to speak his mind directly, answers with a parable:
There was once a great man and a rich, who, among other very precious jewels in his treasury, had a goodly and costly ring…. Wishing to leave it in perpetuity to his descendants, he declared that whichever of his sons should, at his death, be found in possession thereof, by his bequest unto him, should be recognized as his heir, and be held by all the others in honor and reverence as chief and head. He to whom the ring was left held a like course with his own descendants, and did even as his father had done. In brief, the ring passed from hand to hand, through many generations, and came at last into the possession of a man who had three goodly and virtuous sons all very obedient to their father, whereof he loved all three alike. The young men knowing the usance of the ring, each desiring to be the most honored among his folk… besought his father, who was now an old man, to leave him the ring…. The worthy man, who knew not himself how to choose to which he had liefer leave the ring, bethought himself… to satisfy all three, and privily let make by a good craftsman other two rings which were so like unto the first that he himself scarce knew which was the true. When he came to die he secretly gave each one of his sons his ring, wherefore each of them, seeking, after their father’s death, to occupy the inheritance and the honor and denying it to the others, produced his ring in witness of his right, and the three rings being found so like one another that the true might not be known, the question which was the father’s very heir abode pending and yet pendeth. And so I say to you, my lord: of the three Laws given by God the Father to the three peoples, each people deemeth itself to have His inheritance, His true Law and His commandments; but of which in very deed hath them, even as of the rings, the question yet pendeth.
Such a story suggests that in his thirty-seventh year Boccaccio was not a dogmatic Christian. Contrast his tolerance with the bitter bigotry of Dante, who condemns Mohammed to perpetually repeated vivisections in hell.46 In the second story of The Decameronthe Jew Jehannat is converted to Christianity by the argument (adapted by Voltaire) that Christianity must be divine, since it has survived so much clerical immorality and simony. Boccaccio makes fun of asceticism, purity, the confessional, relics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, even the canonization of saints. He thinks most monks are hypocrites, and laughs at the “simpletons” who give them alms (VI, 10). One of his most hilarious stories tells how the friar Cipolla, to raise a good collection, promised his audience to display “a very holy relic, one of the angel Gabriel’s feathers, which remained in the Virgin Mary’s chamber after the Annunciation” (VI, 10). The most obscene of the stories tells how the virile youth Masetto satisfied an entire nunnery (III, ). In another tale Friar Rinaldo cuckolds a husband; whereupon the narrator asks, “What monks are there that do not do thus?” (VII, 3)
The ladies in The Decameron blush a bit at such stories, but enjoy the Rabelaisian-Chaucerian humor; Filomena, a girl of especially nice manners, tells the tale of Rinaldo; and sometimes, says Boccaccio’s least happy image, “the ladies kept up such a laughing that you might have drawn all their teeth.”47 Boccaccio had been reared in the loose gaiety of Naples, and most often thought of love in sensual terms; he smiled at chivalric romance, and played Sancho Panza to Dante’s Don Quixote. Though twice married he seems to have believed in free love.48 After recounting a score of stories that would today be unfit for a male gathering, he makes one of the men say to the ladies: “I have noted no act, no word, in fine nothing blameworthy, either on your part or on that of us men.” In concluding his book the author acknowledges some criticism of the license he has used, and especially because “I have in sundry places written the truth about the friars.” At the same time he congratulates himself on his “long labor, thoroughly accomplished with the aid of the Divine favor.”
The Decameron remains one of the masterpieces of world literature. Its fame may be due more to its morals than to its art, but even if immaculate it would have merited preservation. It is perfectly constructed—superior in this respect to The Canterbury Tales. Its prose set a standard that Italian literature has never surpassed, a prose sometimes involved or flowery, but for the most part eloquent and vigorous, pungent and vivacious, and clear as a mountain stream. It is a book of the love of life. In the greatest disaster that had befallen Italy in a thousand years Boccaccio could find in his vitals the courage to see beauty, humor, goodness, and joy still walking the earth. At times he was cynical, as in his unmanly satire on women in the Corbaccio; but in The Decameron he was a hearty Rabelais, relishing the give and take, the rough and tumble, of life and love. Despite caricature and exaggeration the world recognized itself in the book; every European language translated it; Hans Sachs and Lessing, Molière and La Fontaine, Chaucer and Shakespeare, took leaves from it admiringly. It will be enjoyed when all of Petrarch’s poetry has entered the twilight realm of the praised unread.