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Boccaccio and the Ladies

Famous Women

by Giovanni Boccaccio,edited and translated from the Latin by Virginia Brown
Harvard University Press, 530 pp., $29.95

Professional critics who have made the study of Boccaccio their life’s work often feel the need to apologize for the nature of his later writings. “Its heavy-handed moralizing,” writes Virginia Brown, the translator of a new edition of his Famous Women, “is as foreign to modern taste as it is possible to be.” “Its vehement antifeminist tirades,” writes the translator of the most recent English edition of his Il Corbaccio (“The Ugly Crow”), “its bewildering inconsistencies in moral outlook, and its unevenness of tone and style defy the critic to treat it as an organic unity.” The embarrassment betrays an underlying perplexity and regret. “It is a surprise to many modern readers,” remarks Virginia Brown, “to learn that Giovanni Boccaccio’s most popular work, the collection of one hundred stories known as the Decameron, is by no means typical of his writings. Why, she implies, didn’t Boccaccio write more of what we like and less of the rest?

Born in 1313, the illegitimate son of a Tuscan merchant, Boccaccio spent his adolescence and early twenties in Naples, training first in banking then in the law before finally persuading his father that his real vocation lay in writing. The early works, in halting verse, followed established genres and drew on traditional themes of chivalry and courtly love. But the Decameron, written in flowing Florentine prose when Boccaccio was in his late thirties, marks a huge shift of vision, presenting a world that the modern reader now finds entirely recognizable.

The hundred tales of the book seethe with apparently amoral comedy where the astuteness of a hardheaded bourgeoisie seems to have brushed aside the tedious codes of feudal practice and medieval clericalism. When the wonderful Madonna Filippa, on trial for her life, nevertheless proudly confirms her crime of adultery and, having got her husband to confess that she never denied him sex, declares, “if he always got as much as he wanted of me…what was I supposed to do with what’s left over? Chuck it to the dogs?” there are few who will not cheer. Where were the women when this ridiculous law about burning adulterous wives was drawn up? Madonna Filippa demands. To everybody’s relief the magistrate agrees that it’s time to rewrite the statute book. The pretty lady escapes the pyre and goes triumphantly back home, where we feel sure that her flair for domestic economy will leave nothing unconsumed. Oh, for such a sane outcome in contemporary Tehran or Riyadh, you think to yourself.

But this, of course, is why we know of Boccaccio at all, this extraordinary tour de force whose ebullience and narrative richness would inspire so many others from Chaucer to Shakespeare and beyond, and whose handling of the vernacular, at once vigorous and elegant, is immediately felt to be at the wellspring of the best Italian prose. The modern reader is at home with the Decameron. The old world has been laid to rest, our own ethos seductively established. Hence the growing unease as we turn to Boccaccio’s later works. Why has the man become so poisonously misogynist? Why does he moralize so tediously? Why did he feel it necessary to put together an encyclopedia of place names? Why, above all, has he chosen to write in Latin? It is not just that we are puzzled by the thought that a man might surface, as it were, into the fresh air of a modern view of things, only to decide it wasn’t for him and plunge back into the dogmatisms of the Dark Ages. There is also a deeper anxiety about the nature and consistency of character—who is Boccaccio?—and, together with that, about the exclusiveness or otherwise of what appear to us entirely alien mind frames: the exuberant vindication of natural wit and appetite in the Decameron; the stern prescriptions of repression and orthodoxy in Famous Women.

Explaining Boccaccio’s change in direction, critics point to two events, or conversions. In 1350, while still working on the Decameron, Boccaccio met Petrarch, the most influential literary figure of the time and the great idealist of early humanism. Over a number of meetings through the coming years Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio to pursue the humanist project of recovering the literature and learning of the pre-Christian classical world. So Boccaccio completes a Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, something he was already working on, and later undertakes similarly encyclopedic compilations such as Concerning the Fortunes of Illustrious Men; Concerning the Mountains, Woods, Springs, Lakes, Rivers, Swamps or Marshes, and Concerning the Names of the Sea; and finally Concerning Famous Women. Insofar as these projects were an attempt to record human achievements and establish the importance of individual human dignity outside, though never explicitly opposed to, the Christian framework, they are very much part of those forces of renewal that will lead to the Renaissance, the decision to write in Latin being a gesture of universalism, of making scholarship available to the international community, not a backward-looking monasticism. The burden of the critics’ explanation is thus that such projects needn’t seem in contradiction to the Decameron, even if the modern reader may have little desire to read them.

But the second influence is in uneasy relation to the first. Following a warning, or so the story goes, in 1362, from a dying and saintly monk, Boccaccio, now pushing fifty, begins to fear that he has been spending too much time on profane writings and perhaps not enough on his eternal soul. He engages in correspondence on the matter with Petrarch: of course profane writing is okay, they eventually decide, so long as it is instructive, educates the young to serve the polis, and turns the soul to beauty and truth.

But is this what the Decameron had done? Some critics, notably the American scholar Robert Hollander, have worked hard to convince us it had. The task is beyond them. The whole of Boccaccio’s work, Hollander insists, is the work of a great and systematic Christian moralist. Common sense rebels at this view. The writer himself feared it wasn’t true. Father of five illegitimate children, Boccaccio, in his fifties, began to hector readers about the values of chastity. “Passion has to be restrained with continual effort,” he urges. Having accepted holy orders sometime before, he now sought a license that would allow him to undertake the care of souls in church.

Yet at the same time, in 1370, now in the last years of his life, Boccaccio also copied out a definitive manuscript of the Decameron. This meant rediscovering such stories as that of the aging pederast who, on catching his wife in bed with a charming boy, resolves the problem of wounded pride by arranging that they all spend the night together. Compounding the unease that this apparent inconsistency generates in critics is the reflection that the whole of Boccaccio’s work, both as narrator and scholar, is intent on presenting the human being as a historical person largely responsible for his own destiny. Boccaccio is one of the fathers, that is, of the modern Western vision of character which leads us to set so much store by a quality like consistency. Always expressing themselves through some decisive narrative action, the people Boccaccio writes about, fictional and historical, possess a clarity entirely lacking in their ambiguous creator.

Women are at least part of the key to understanding what is going on here. Lots of women. Boccaccio’s first work, Diana’s Hunt, contained a list of all the women of the more well-to-do Neapolitan families. After his return to Florence in 1340, the Amorous Vision extended the list to include those he had met in the Tuscan city. The Filostrato, written in the 1330s, is the story of Troilus and the faithless Criseyde. The Filocolo (1336) features a Court of Love where questions of the heart can be debated. For example: A young woman is listening to one suitor while she plays footsie with a second and squeezes the hand of a third. Which does she like best? The Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta, written shortly after Boccaccio’s return to Florence, gives us the touching lament of a Neapolitan woman whose Florentine lover is leaving her to return to his father and his city.

The Decameron is dedicated to all women suffering from love, the writer claiming to have himself recently been released from such pains. The stories are told over ten days by seven women and three men. At the beginning of the fourth day, the writer remarks that his soul has been “pledged to women since childhood.” Those who don’t love women and desire their love, he tells us, are unworthy of our attention. The Life of Dante, written in the early 1350s, has a great deal to say about the beauty and purity of Beatrice, but then even more about the horrors of living with a vulgar wife, to wit Mrs. Alighieri. After which comes the Corbaccio, a book of unparalleled misogyny, comprising a hundred and fifty pages of venom and outrage directed at those very women the author has spent his life describing and, as he frequently boasts, entertaining. The Corbaccio is “the most enigmatic and least attractive of Boccaccio’s works,” remarks the eminent scholar and translator of the Decameron, G.H. McWilliam. Many readers, on the contrary, will find the book not only intensely enjoyable, but crucial for getting a sense of the relationship between the various parts of Boccaccio’s work, the distance traveled, in particular, between the Decameron and Famous Women.

Critics seem relieved not to be sure quite when the Corbaccio was written and pretend to have difficulty understanding the title. A lot of space is taken up discussing such matters, while the content may be largely passed over as essentially a literary topos, a stylized reprobatio of the position assumed in the Decameron. In general, Boccaccio is praised for breathing new life into old literary models where the results accord with modern tastes, and forgiven for having only been involved in a literary exercise when they do not.

Corbaccio “is almost an anagram of the author’s name,” remarks McWilliam, but then decides that “the title can hardly refer to Boccaccio himself.” In fact a host of internal references make it clear that the corbaccio is the woman who is the subject of the book and source of all the narrator’s woes: a widow, dressed in black with robes that “look like wings.” The crow of course has frequently been associated with evil and, in medieval times, with things demonic. Yet one can’t help feeling that Boccaccio is very aware of that near anagram. The corbaccio is a bird of ill omen from which he finds it difficult to separate himself. So it is in this work.

A scholar returns to his home town from Paris. Discussing women, their beauty and virtues, with a friend (what else do men do?), he hears of a certain widow who surpasses all others. Determined to see her, he falls in love and writes letters. She sends enigmatic replies and makes fun of him with her present lover and gossiping entourage. Humiliated, the scholar considers suicide, but is dissuaded by his friends. Falling asleep, he has a decidedly Dantesque vision. Alone in a dark valley—“the labyrinth of love” or “pigsty of Venus”—he is met by the widow’s recently dead husband, sent from Purgatory to show our narrator the error of his ways. Why on earth is he wasting his time on women when “no other creature is less clean than woman: the pig, even when he is most wallowed in mud, is not as foul as they.” Only someone out of his mind, the dead husband tells us, could behave as the scholar has, especially at his age, and with his studies.

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