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Boccaccio and the Ladies

The essential gist of the ghost’s message is soon delivered, but he doesn’t stop. He offers us an exhaustive account of the wiles women use for trapping men. “About this I need say no more,” he tells us. And then does. And just when we feel the tirade is at last over, he switches from the general to the particular. He tells the story of his marriage, his wealth plundered to pay for his wife’s lovers, her physical awfulness beneath a cosmetic veneer. “About this I need say no more,” he declares. And then does. She is garrulous, gluttonous, credulous, bossy, phobic, insatiable, lascivious.

The list is interminable, the excess obsessive. A note of grotesque comedy creeps in. “If she says she’s seen a donkey fly…you’d do well in the end to agree with her.” Irritated by a mosquito, she wakes the whole household chasing the insect around the house with a broom. There are pages and pages on how she dresses, how she does her hair, how she studies herself in the mirror, how she makes eyes at men in church. Until at last it is clear to us that whatever the dead husband, or the narrator, or Boccaccio himself may really think of women, the idea of a man ever tearing himself away from them is unimaginable. Even in Purgatory the dead husband gets all his energy from thinking about women. Perhaps Paradise will be the release from this slavery.

Any reader of the Decameron will soon be aware of the very high value that Boccaccio affords to a ready intelligence and a lucid mind. Whatever his or her morals, it is the character whose astuteness and wit can defuse a potentially catastrophic situation whom we most admire. “What is interesting,” writes McWilliam, “about Boccaccio’s treatment of the theme is his elevation of intelligence to a position in the scale of human values which places it on a par with the highest of the traditional virtues.” But this is hardly surprising. What was the humanist project, in its early stages, but an attempt to reclaim the lucid mind of Cicero and Livy and Ovid, the reasoning power of a world that predated Christian mysticism?

And what was the main enemy of this lucid mind? Woman or, at least, woman insofar as she affects man. “You’re out of your mind,” the dead husband repeats over and over to the unhappy lover in the Corbaccio. Speaking of the pains of love that he suffered prior to writing the Decameron, Boccaccio’s narrator says that it wasn’t any “cruelty of my lady love” that upset him, but “the immoderate passion engendered within my mind.” “Do not think,” he tells us in the explicit first person in his Life of Dante, “that I want to stop men marrying; on the contrary I praise marriage, but not for everyone. Philosophers should leave marrying to the rich and stupid, to gentlemen and workers, while they take their delight in philosophy, a much better bride than any other.”

So the scholar, who more than anyone else must cultivate the lucid mind, should steer clear of marriage, as Boccaccio did. But steering clear of women altogether was beyond him. Nature, as the Decameron abundantly demonstrates, won’t allow it. Scholars will keep falling in love. And the problem then is that in the Christian version of the world, sex outside marriage is a sin, and the unshriven sinner goes to Hell.

Here we have to acknowledge the existence of a second but only cautiously mentioned enemy of the lucid mind: the fear of death and eternal damnation, a fear that not unnaturally prevents the humanist from turning his analytical intellect on the doctrine of the Church. The very first story of the Decameron is fascinating in this regard. While traveling in a foreign country, the most wicked wheeler-dealer, Ser Ciapelletto, falls ill and his moneylender hosts are concerned that if he confesses his appalling sins, no priest will accept him for burial and the local population will turn against them for having had so evil a fellow as their guest. The atheist Ciapelletto, however, gives such a splendidly mendacious account of himself that his confessor is convinced that he is a holy man and has him buried inside the local monastery, where the faithful are invited to pray at his tomb as if he were a saint.

While there is no question of Boccaccio’s endorsing Ciapelletto’s behavior, nevertheless the story conveys an awed admiration for the mind that can remain so lucid, fearless, and artful on the very brink of death. It also by implication reminds us that for the faithful such a thing is impossible. If we believe in eternal damnation, if we have sinned, it is time to get nervous. What then, is the Christian scholar to do about the problem of women? The answer, perhaps, if only partially satisfactory, is to write about them. In this regard, Boccaccio offers a foretaste of what will be a secret pact between artist and moral orthodoxies for many centuries to come: one can always revel in the depiction of what one is not supposed to do.

Admirers of the amoral tone of much of the Decameron forget the austerity of the frame that surrounds the hundred tales. Withdrawing from the terrors of a plague-stricken Florence, telling each other stories to keep the horrors of death at bay, ten youngsters of exemplary virtue live together for ten days in decorous and unimpeachable celibacy. How different this is from Chaucer’s earthy rabble on their road to Canterbury! It is as though Boccaccio can only permit himself the indulgence of a vision of the sensuous and pragmatic world he knows when the latter is presented as a fiction told from within a reality at once Christian and utopian.

In short, there is a play of forces at work in all Boccaccio’s writing such that whatever position he seems to endorse, the tension of an attraction to its opposite is always present. In 1360, obese and disheartened, obliged to retire from Florence after some of his friends had been arrested (and one executed) for an attempted coup against the city’s government (hence not unmindful of the last things), Boccaccio once more found himself attracted to women, but was now quite determined to be virtuous. Solution: De mulieribus claris, a serious, scholarly attempt to give the best examples of virtuous womanhood their due; for, as we are told in the opening sentence of the author’s Life of Dante, only a society that rewards virtuous achievement and punishes wrongdoing has any chance of survival.

If this sounds like an irretrievably dull formula, not to worry: two bold gestures announced in the preface guarantee entertainment. First we hear that our author is not going to interpret the Latin word claris in its stricter sense of “famous because virtuous,” but in the wider sense of “famous and perhaps even infamous.” This will allow him to introduce any number of evil women into his book along with their rather more interesting stories, none of which Boccaccio can be criticized for telling because, unlike the stories of the Decameron, they are, he believes, historically true.

Second, he is not going to talk to us about Christian women, who, as he sensibly says, have been sufficiently praised elsewhere, and whose virtue is anyway less remarkable because undertaken with the promise of everlasting life. This is the humanist gesture par excellence: Christianity is acknowledged, so that then, at least for the length of the work, it can gratefully be forgotten.

There are a hundred and six mini-biographies in Famous Women, the first forty of mythical figures, the next sixty of women of the classical world, the last six taken from medieval times. All are treated on the same “historical” level, the supernatural elements of the myths being rapidly dismissed as merest metaphor. Circe’s ability, for example, to turn men into animals is just a poetic way of explaining how her lust and vice could corrupt the unprepared. In this view, Ulysses is the wise, well-educated man who is not easily ensnared: “He lived with Circe for a year, fathered her son Telegonus, and then, full of wisdom, left her.”

But to say “historical” for Boccaccio is only to say that something really happened. He makes no attempt to distinguish between the circumstances and attitudes of the different periods his stories cover. Each woman plays out her destiny on a human stage that is forever the same. Only one major change is noted, the decadence of modern times. Praising Queen Dido, who, in this version of events, kills herself after her husband’s death rather than be forced by the invading enemy to take another man, Boccaccio contrasts this noble gesture with the contemporary habit of remarrying and concludes: “That pagan woman, for the sake of empty glory, was able to master her ardor and subject herself to principle; but a Christian woman cannot practice such control in order to acquire eternal glory!” Christianity, for all its advantages, has not, according to our author, enhanced people’s sense of personal dignity, which actually seems more important to him than any metaphysical formulation. Suicide, of course, in Christendom was considered a terrible sin.

Attacks on remarriage are incessant throughout Famous Women and lead us to the heart of Boccaccio’s vision. Each story in the book seeks to capture character in a single, almost always extreme gesture. Defeated in battle, corrupt Cleopatra always attempts to seduce her victor. The admirable Leaena bites off her tongue rather than betray her friends. Dour Queen Tamyris of Scythia cuts off an invading king’s head and, having filled a leather bag with the blood of her slain troops, plunges his head in it and says: “Take your fill of the blood for which you have thirsted.” Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, shuns all luxury, learns the martial arts, kills lions and bears, becomes an army commander, and only gives her body to her husband for the express purpose of procreation. For good or evil, as wife, mother, or whore, these women have the splendor of clarity; their individual destinies are sharply defined. Whereas the modern woman who merely remarries, who constantly and passively adapts to circumstances, more mindful of sexual pleasure and domestic convenience than the overall trajectory of her life, sins against this ideal, at once aesthetic and moral. Not unfamiliar with vacillation, Boccaccio yearns for the inflexible. How can he not shiver with admiration before Portia, wife of Brutus, who, determined to commit suicide after her husband’s death and finding no blade available, seized live coals from the fire and forced them down her throat?

But to afford to a woman the dignity of the hero, to accept that she can express the virtues of the noble individual, creates a problem for Boccaccio. How does this sit with his strong sense of woman’s subordinate role in the social hierarchy? For if the author does not acknowledge the existence of different historical contexts, he nevertheless, in the first sentence of every biography, places each of his women in a family and remorselessly establishes the network of relationships surrounding her and the men to whom, as a member of the weaker sex, she owes allegiance. The result is that when he starts praising these women, it is often for being more masculine than the men around them. When Queen Artemisia goes into battle with her Persian allies, she is so determined and warlike that it is “as if she had changed sex with Xerxes.”

But shouldn’t a virtuous woman rather keep her place, be a woman? Boccaccio is torn. He deplores a situation where Symiamira is admitted to the Roman Senate. Of the noble Epicharis, who hanged herself rather than reveal the names of fellow conspirators, he says: “I am inclined to think that Nature sometimes errs when she unites souls with mortal bodies, namely, when she gives to a woman a soul which she intended to give to a man.” But the example of the poetess Cornificia obliges him to reflect that “if women are willing to apply themselves to study, they share with men the ability to do everything that makes men famous.” To have accepted this, however, is to see how what once was a hierarchical relationship—man in his place and woman in hers—can become conflict, where each sex will speak for itself and defend its own corner. Deploring the Senate’s ruinous decision, after Coriolanus’ mother, Veturia, saved Rome, to allow women to wear jewels, receive inheritances, and expect men to stand in their presence, Boccaccio nevertheless concludes:

Let women applaud Veturia, then, and honor her name and her worthy deed whenever they adorn themselves with precious jewels, with purple cloth, and with gold brooches; whenever men stand up as they go by; and whenever they calmly calculate the wealth of dying testators.

As the stories accumulate, as Boccaccio wrestles again and again with the same conundrums, two situations emerge in which, to the author’s relief, individual female fame and traditional hierarchy are not in conflict: in the first situation the wife makes a magnificent gesture on behalf of her husband, admirable as an individual but always accepting the overall hierarchical frame; in the second the woman becomes an artist, where she can shine as a man, but, as it were, in a zona franca outside public life. Both roles are still with us today. Even better, as far as Boccaccio is concerned, is Marcia, daughter of Varro, who not only became an excellent painter, but preserved her virginity all her life. Here is a woman who has entirely removed herself from both hierarchy and conflict. She’s on her own. To avoid the impropriety of using male models, the author remarks approvingly, Marcia only painted women.

But Boccaccio is not a man to shy away from contradiction and in his account of Pope Joan, one of only six women presented from the post-classical world, he allows all the ambiguities of his book to come to an appalling yet somehow comic climax. The English Joan, while still a maiden, becomes the lover of a young student and dresses as a man to be able to live with him. The student dies, but at this point Joan has been initiated into the world of learning and so continues dressing as a man to be able to pursue her studies. She moves to Rome, where “besides her erudition, [she] was esteemed for her outstanding virtue and holiness, and thus was believed by everyone to be a man.”

So far, so good. Boccaccio can deal with the chaste intellectual cross-dresser. But to study in these times inevitably meant being part of the Church, and this in turn meant that one might be drawn into public life. Cutting what must have been a very long story short, Boccaccio abruptly announces that on Pope Leo V’s death, Joan was elected pope. Equally abruptly, his story changes its tone. “In private life,” he announces, “Joan had been remarkably virtuous,” but now (why? at what age?) “she fell prey to burning lust.” Wily where she had been wise, she quickly “found someone who would secretly mount Peter’s successor and scratch her uncontrollable itch.” How improbable this is! The story finishes with the grotesque picture of the hapless Joan collapsing during a Rogation Day procession and giving premature birth “between the Coliseum and the church of Pope Clement.” “The cardinals then cast her out, and the wretched woman departed with her child.”

Penning these two pages, which move so rapidly from sympathy for the devoted girl in love, to admiration for the woman intellectual, and then horror at the mere thought of this female usurper of man’s supremacy in matters sacred, it seems impossible that Boccaccio did not appreciate that many of his principles were at loggerheads. It had surely occurred to him, you feel, as again and again an inadequate moral is tagged onto a complex story, that the humanist vocation for an objective account of all human experience was at odds with its evangelical promotion of a rigid set of virtues. Yet what can one do in the end but seek to bring experience and reflection together? How is it, Boccaccio wonders, that Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony, widow of Drusus, mother of Clau- dius, managed to preserve her chastity in an imperial court that was “abandoned to every kind of infamy; with a thousand examples of lust all around her”? Boccaccio doesn’t know the answer, there are no texts available to explain how a woman was able to show such manly fortitude. In which case, “it is enough,” he concludes, “to have left to lofty intellects matter for thought and, after due thought, for praise.”

De mulieribus claris, or at least twenty-one chapters of it, was first translated into English in the 1440s. In the sixteenth century Henry Parker rather ominously dedicated his translation of forty-six lives to Henry VIII. The first complete translation was not made until 1963, but in this case the translator, Guido Guarino, was obliged to use a defective vulgate text of 1539. Since then, the scholar Vittorio Zaccaria has edited and published an autograph version of the original and Virginia Brown’s new translation is the first to make use of this.

In her introduction Brown rather discouragingly speaks of Boccaccio’s Latin writings as being “stilted and diffuse.” Certainly the danger of any translation of this material is that it might succumb to a long tradition of crabbed and scholastic translations from the Latin, a tradition more intent on conveying the idea of a dead language than that of a living mind. Brown manages to avoid this, though at times it’s a close call and certainly the English version never approaches the flow and vivacity of Zaccaria’s Italian version, which, however, has the immense advantage of being able to evoke the peculiar voice and syntactical structures of Boccaccio’s vernacular prose.

In particular Brown speaks of having broken up Boccaccio’s “lengthy and complicated Latin sentences” for the English translation “as seemed required by sense and syntax.” While this is no doubt a sensible decision overall, it does beg the question whether those sentences had a function or not in the deeper meaning of the text. In the very long chapter on Queen Dido Boccaccio launches into an extraordinary and breathless tirade on the vice of remarriage and the virtue of controlling the passions, at the end of which he pulls himself up thus:

But I shall speak of this another time, for I admit that I have greatly exceeded the limits of the task I have undertaken. Who, however, is so self-controlled that he is not occasionally diverted from his purpose by the force of his arguments?

Speaking of the need for control, Boccaccio comically loses control. This is the territory of the Corbaccio (and of Beckett and Bernhard for that matter). Here the long sentence, and even more the rolling rhetoric of the paragraphs, is tense with antithetical energies: the complex syntax is a determined demonstration of control, while the obsessive accumulative length of the period often suggests its loss. Again and again, particularly on reading the Italian, we feel our author’s high moral horse is about to be toppled into farce.

Out of favor in Florence, Boccaccio hurried to finish Famous Women so as to take it as a gift down to Naples where he hoped that his influential old friend Niccolò Acciaiuoli might get him back into Neapolitan society. He dedicated the book to Niccolò’s sister Andrea, wishing that it might “do as much to keep your name bright for posterity” as her three marriages. Was this wise, given the book’s content? Niccolò treated him appallingly.

Obsessed by fame himself, for it was clear that Paradise wasn’t enough without leaving an honored name on earth, Boccaccio reestablished his position in Florence, traveled wildly as an ambassador, negotiated exiled Pope Urban V’s return from Avignon to Rome, and constantly revised his encyclopedic works in Latin. But perhaps the conflict between humanist vocation and determined orthodoxy had at last brought him to an impasse, for he wrote nothing of substance over the next thirteen years. Only in 1373, two years before his death, did Boccaccio once again undertake a major work. Invited to expound the Divina commedia to a public audience in Florence, he delivered and wrote a series of lectures. Dante, however, was out of favor with Church authorities and admiration for the poet was extremely difficult to square with holy orders. Boccaccio solved the problem, as he had solved all his literary problems, by reveling in stories. Dante’s damned are all resurrected and their lives lavishly retold. This was fun. Except now a friend and fellow humanist was accusing him of having abased himself and poetry by speaking to the vulgar herd.

In early 1374 Boccaccio fell ill and, still in the Inferno, abandoned his lectures at Canto XVI. Nor did he go on writing them in the eighteen months that remained to him. You were right, he told his anonymous friend in a sonnet, it had been “madness” to imagine one could bring poetry to the people. “I shall never insist on such misdeeds again.” Reflection, apparently, was for lofty minds only, especially if it could threaten your status in the afterlife. Wrapped in lofty thoughts, obese and stricken by dropsy, Boccaccio departed his dilemmas on December 21, 1375.

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