The Naughty Pleasures of Boccaccio

The Decameron

by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated from the Italian and with an introduction by Wayne A. Rebhorn
Norton, 947 pp., $39.95
Granger Collection
A Flemish miniature from a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, circa 1430. The fourth day of the ­Decameron includes the story of Ghismunda, the daughter of Prince Tancredi of Salerno. Ghismunda fell in love with Guiscardo, a virtuous but humble valet in Tancredi’s court, and the two began meeting secretly in her bedroom. When ­Tancredi found them together (here he is shown spying from the chimney), he had Guiscardo killed and his heart sent to Ghismunda in a golden chalice. Realizing what her father had done, she poured poison into the cup, drank the concoction, and died.

What was he supposed to do? His father, who held a position in an important Florentine banking firm, expected him, perfectly reasonably, to follow in his footsteps. But Giovanni Boccaccio, who was born in or near the Tuscan town of Certaldo in 1313, dreamed of being a poet. When he was seven, before he had even seen a book of poetry, he was, or so he claims, already writing verses. Childhood friends nicknamed him “the poet.” His father was kind and indulgent—though a bastard, little Giovanni was quickly legitimized and given a proper education—but he was not inclined to be reckless. Poets generally starved. Giovanni could study Dante as much as he wanted in his spare time, but he would learn how to make a living.

For six years the young Boccaccio struggled to accommodate himself to an apprenticeship in merchant banking, but to no avail. He hated it. His father, who had by this time moved to the bank’s offices in Naples, relented, at least to the extent of allowing his son—whose intellectual promise he clearly recognized—to enter the Neapolitan Studium (in effect, the university) to study canon law. It was another disaster. Again, Boccaccio recalled, he lost nearly six years. The course of study was so nauseating to him that neither the urgings of his teacher nor the authority of his father nor the reproof of his friends could make him stay with it. His love of poetry was invincible.

But if Naples was stony soil for the potential canon lawyer, it was to be a garden of delights for the aspiring writer. In the fourteenth century, as for a long time afterward, Naples was culturally and intellectually buoyant. At a time when cattle grazed in the ruins of the Forum and thugs terrorized the remaining inhabitants of Rome, Naples was one of the largest, wealthiest cities in Europe.

Boccaccio, who had a gift for friendship, met an impressive group of writers and scholars and found his way into the court of Robert the Wise, the Angevin king who ruled Naples and all of southern Italy. The sophisticated court, with its air of elegance, learning, intrigue, and erotic adventure, was a heady place for a young poet. Boccaccio was present in 1341 when the king, an ardent patron…

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