The Joy and Malice of It All


by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by John Payne, revised and annotated by Charles S. Singleton
University of California Press, three boxed volumes: 949 pp., $145.00

Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio; drawing by David Levine

We used to have a splendid scenario, no less picturesque than emotionally satisfying, to explain the abrupt appearance of the masterpiece from which Italian prose takes its rise. It ran about as follows:

The Decameron resulted, like life itself, from a hundred different coincidences coming together in one explosive accident. There was the tremendous chemical soup of medieval narrative, steamy but inchoate, mingling indiscriminately classic myths, folk narratives, saints’ lives, dirty jokes, oriental fables, pulpit moralities, fertility rituals, knightly romances, sacred legends, French fabliaux, epic cycles, scraps and tags from every corner of the Mediterranean and beyond. There was a language, Tuscan, just taking literary form behind the giant reputations of Dante and Petrarch. There was a frustrated poet, outcast and illegitimate, forced to work in a sordid business environment, but touched, at just the right moment, with the magical love of a princess.

Boccaccio, as the story goes which he (never too explicitly) hinted at, won the love of Maria d’Aquino by telling her stories. That lit the spark. She was a bastard like himself, but of Robert the Wise, king of Naples. It was at Naples, in the church of San Lorenzo of the Franciscans, on Holy Saturday, March 30, 1336, that he first laid eyes on her. While it lasted, their love was the glory of his existence; its ending was a wretched, heart-wrenching experience, the unhealed agony of which still speaks through the forced tranquillity of the “Proem” before the great book itself.

Before Boccaccio did so, Dante in 1274 and Petrarch in 1327 had experienced the transcendent vision in the person of a girl. But Beatrice and Laura come to us trailing the mists of allegory. Boccaccio presents Fiammetta (his cover-name for Maria) as the very reverse of a literary pretext; she was a flame all right, and the aspiring writer was not only terribly burned by his love for her, he devoted years to his recovery.

First he wrote several direct prose accounts of his unhappy affair; then, undeterred by his own half-recognized incompetence at verse, he wrote immense, ambitious, allegorical vision-poems, still on the same theme. Later, his cure took the form of recounting the miscellaneous but generally jocose stories of the Decameron, in order to bring to others (lovesick ladies particularly) the same consolation that a good friend had brought to him. A final jolt was given to his imagination by the devastating Black Death of 1348, which is the explicit setting for the Decameron, and which profoundly stirred the artistic conscience of Boccaccio.

The world of the stories is imbued with that high-strung, semi-hysterical democracy of the epidemic, in which anyone can be a carrier, anyone a victim, any moment one’s last. More catholic than the Church itself, the bubonic plague, by oppressing the civilized world with the sense of instant mortality, authorized the kinds of grotesque license fantasized in those wild…

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