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 …