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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William James Stillman (1828–1901)

By Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375)

IT has been justly observed, and confirmed by all that we know of the early history of literature, that the first forms of it were in verse. This is in accordance with a principle which is stated by Herbert Spencer on a different but related theme, that “Ornament was before dress,” the artistic instincts underlying and preceding the utilitarian preoccupations. History indeed was first poetry, as we had Homer before Thucydides, and as in all countries the traditions of the past take the form of metrical, and generally musical, recitation. An excellent and polished school of prose writers is the product of a tendency in national life of later origin than that which calls out the bards and ballad-singers, and is proof of a more advanced culture. The Renaissance in Italy was but the resumption of a life long suspended, and the succession of the phenomena in which was therefore far more rapid than was possible in a nation which had to trace the path without any survivals of a prior awakening; and while centuries necessarily intervened between Homer and the “Father of History,” a generation sufficed between Dante and Boccaccio, for Italian literature had only to throw off the leaden garb of Latin form to find its new dress in the vernacular. Dante certainly wrote Italian prose, but he was more at ease in verse; and while the latter provoked in him an abundance of those happy phrases which seem to have been born with the thought they express, and which pass into the familiar stock of imagery of all later time, the prose of the ‘Convito’ and the ‘Vita Nuova’ hardly ever recalls itself in common speech by any parallel of felicity.

And Boccaccio too wrote poetry of no ignoble type, but probably because he was part of an age when verse had become the habitual form of culture, and all who could write caught the habit of versification,—a habit easier to fall into in Italian than in any other language. But while the consecration of time has been given to the ‘Commedia,’ and the ‘Convito’ passes into the shadow and perspective of lesser things, so the many verses of Boccaccio are overlooked, and his greatest prose work, the ‘Decameron,’ is that with which his fame is mostly bound up.

Born in 1313, at seven years of age he showed signs of a literary facility, and his father, a merchant of Florence, put him to school with a reputable grammarian; but afterward, deciding to devote him to merchandise, sent him to study arithmetic,—restive and profitless in which, he was sent to study canon law, and finding his level no better there, went back to traffic and to Naples in his father’s business when he was about twenty. The story runs that the sight of the tomb of Virgil turned his thoughts to poetry; but this confusion of the post hoc with the propter hoc is too common in remote and romantic legend to value much. The presence of Petrarch in the court of Robert, King of Naples, is far more likely to have been the kindling of his genius to its subsequent activity: and the passion he acquired while there for the illegitimate daughter of the King, Maria,—the Fiammetta of his later life,—furnished the fuel for its burning; his first work, the ‘Filocopo,’ being written as an offering to her. It is a prose love story, mixed with mythological allusions,—after the fashion of the day, which thought more of the classics than of nature; and like all his earlier works, prolix and pedantic.

The ‘Theseide,’ a purely classic theme, the war of Theseus with the Amazons, is in verse; and was followed by the ‘Ameto,’ or ‘Florentine Nymphs,’ a story of the loves of Ameto, a rustic swain, with one of the nymphs of the valley of the Affrico, a stream which flows into the Arno not far from where the poet was born, or where at least he passed his youth; and to which valley he seems always greatly attached, putting there the scene of most of his work, including the ‘Decameron.’ ‘Ameto’ is a mythological fiction, in which the characters mingle recitations of verse with the prose narration, and in which the gods of Greece and Rome masque in the familiar scenes. Following these came the ‘Amorosa Visione,’ and ‘Filostrato,’ in verse; ‘Fiammetta’ in prose, being the imaginary complaint of his beloved at their separation; ‘Nimfale Fiesolano,’ in verse, the scene also laid on the Affrico; and then the ‘Decameron,’ begun in 1348 and finished in 1353, after which he seems to have gradually acquired a disgust for the world he had lived in as he had known it, and turned to more serious studies. He wrote a life of Dante, ‘Il Corbaccio,’ a piece of satirical savagery, the ‘Genealogy of the Gods,’ and various minor works; and spent much of his time in intercourse with Petrarch, whose conversation and influence were of a different character from that of his earlier life.

Boccaccio died at Certaldo in the Val d’Elsa, December 2d, 1375. Of the numerous works he left, that by which his fame as a writer is established is beyond any question the ‘Decameron,’ or Ten Days’ Entertainment; in which a merry company of gentlemen and ladies, appalled by the plague raging in their Florence, take refuge in the villas near the city, and pass their time in story-telling and rambles in the beautiful country around, only returning when the plague has to a great extent abated. The superiority of the ‘Decameron’ is not only in the polish and grace of its style, the first complete departure from the stilted classicism of contemporary narrative, the happy naturalness of good story-telling,—but in the conception of the work as a whole, and the marvelous imagination of the filling-in between the framework of the story of the plague by the hundred tales from all lands and times, with the fine thread of the narrative of the day-by-day doings of the merry and gracious company, their wanderings, the exquisite painting of the Tuscan landscape (in which one recognizes the Val d’Arno even to-day), and the delicate drawing of their various characters. It is only when all these elements have been taken into consideration, and the unity wrought through such a maze of interest and mass of material without ever becoming dull or being driven to repetition, that we understand the power of Boccaccio as an artist.

We must take the ten days’ holiday as it is painted: a gay and entrancing record of a fortunate and brilliant summer vacation, every one of its hundred pictures united with the rest by a delicate tracery of flowers and landscape, with bird-songs and laughter, bits of tender and chaste by-play—for there were recognized lovers in the company; and when this is conceived in its entirety, we must set it in the massive frame of terrible gloom of the great plague, through which Boccaccio makes us look at his picture. And then the frame itself becomes a picture; and its ghastly horror—the apparent fidelity of the descriptions, which makes one feel as if he had before him the evidence of an eye-witness—gives a measure of the power of the artist and the range of his imagination, from an earthly inferno to an earthly paradise, such as even the ‘Commedia’ does not give us. In this stupendous ensemble, the individual tales become mere details, filling in of the space or time; and, taken out of it, the whole falls into a mere story-book, in which the only charm is the polish of the parts, the shine of the fragments that made the mosaic. The tales came from all quarters, and only needed to be amusing or interesting enough to make one suppose that they had been listened to with pleasure: stories from the ‘Gesta Romanorum,’ the mediæval chronicles, or any gossip of the past or present, just to make a whole; the criticism one might pass on them, I imagine, never gave Boccaccio a thought, only the way they were placed being important. The elaborate preparation for the story-telling; the grouping of them as a whole, in contrast with the greater story he put as their contrast and foil; the solemn gloom, the deep chiaroscuro of this framing, painted like a miniature; the artful way in which he prepares for his lieta brigata the way out of the charnel-house: these are the real ‘Decameron.’ The author presents it in a prelude which has for its scope only to give the air of reality to the whole, as if not only the plague, but the ‘Decameron,’ had been history; and the proof of his perfect success is in the fact that for centuries the world has been trying to identify the villas where the merry men and maidens met, as if they really had met.

  • “Whenever, most gracious ladies, I reflect how pitiful you all are by nature, I recognize that this work will in your opinion have a sad and repulsive beginning, as the painful memory of the pestilence gone by, fraught with loss to all who saw or knew of it, and which memory the work will bear on its front. But I would not that for this you read no further, through fear that your reading should be always through sighs and tears. This frightful beginning I prepare for you as for travelers a rough and steep mountain, beyond which lies a most beautiful and delightful plain, by so much the more pleasurable as the difficulty of the ascent and passage of the mountain had been great. And as the extreme of pleasure touches pain, so suffering is effaced by a joy succeeding. To this brief vexation (I call it brief, as contained in few words) follow closely the sweets and pleasures I have promised, and which would not be hoped for from such a beginning if it were not foretold. And to tell the truth, if I had been able frankly to bring you where I wished by other way than this rough one, I had willingly done so; but because I could not, without these recollections, show what was the occasion of the incidents of which you will read, I was obliged to write of them.”
  • The elaborate description of the plague which follows, shows not only Boccaccio’s inventive power,—as being, like that of Defoe of the plague of London (which is a curious parallel to this) altogether imaginary, since the writer was at Naples during the whole period of the pestilence,—but also that it was a part indispensable of the entire scheme, and described with all its ghastly minuteness simply to enhance the value of his sunshine and merriment. He was in Naples from 1345 until 1350, without any other indication of a visit to Florence than a chronological table of his life, in which occurs this item:—“1348, departs in the direction of Tuscany with Louis of Taranto:” as if either a prince on his travels would take the plague in the course of them, or a man so closely interested in the events of the time at Naples, and in the height of his passion for Fiammetta,—the separation from whom he had hardly endured when earlier (1345) he was separated from her by his duty to his aged father,—would have chosen the year of the pestilence, when every one who could, fled Florence, to return there; and we find him in May, 1349, in Naples, in the full sunshine of Fiammetta’s favor, and remaining there until his father’s death in 1350.

    There is indeed in Boccaccio’s description of the plague that which convicts it of pure invention, quickened by details gathered from eye-witnesses,—the very minuteness of the description in certain points not in accord with the character of the disease, as when he narrates that the hogs rooting in the garments of the dead thrown out into the streets “presently, as if they had taken poison, after a few dizzy turns, fell dead”; and this, which he says he saw with his own eyes, is the only incident of which he makes this declaration (the incident on which the unity of his work hinges, the meeting of the merry troupe in the church of S. Maria Novella, being recorded on the information of a person “worthy of belief”). Nor does he in his own person intrude anywhere in the story; so that this bit of intense realization thrown into the near foreground of his picture, as it were by chance, and without meaning, yet certified by his own signature, is the point at which he gets touch of his reader and convinces him of actuality throughout the romance.

    And to my mind this opening chapter, with all its horrors and charnel-house realization, its slight and suggestive delineation of character, all grace and beauty springing out of the chaos and social dissolution, is not only the best part of the work, but the best of Boccaccio’s. The well-spun golden cord on which the “Novelle” are strung is ornamented, as it were, at the divisions of the days by little cameos of crafty design; but the opening, the portico of this hundred-chambered palace of art, has its own proportions and design, and may be taken and studied alone. Nothing can, it seems to me, better convey the idea of the death-stricken city, “the surpassing city of Florence, beyond every other in Italy most beautiful,”—a touch to enhance the depth of his shade, than the way he brings out in broad traits the greatness of the doom: setting in the heavens that consuming sun; the paralysis of the panic; the avarice of men not daunted by death; the helplessness of all flesh before—

  • “the just wrath of God for our correction sent upon men; for healing of such maladies neither counsel of physician nor virtue of any medicine whatever seemed to avail or have any effect—even as if nature could not endure this suffering or the ignorance of the medical attendants (of whom, besides regular physicians, there was a very great number, both men and women, who had never had any medical education whatever), who could discover no cause for the malady and therefore no appropriate remedy, so that not only very few recovered, but almost every one attacked died by the third day after the appearance of the above-noted signs, some sooner and some later, and mostly without any fever or violent symptoms. And this pestilence was of so much greater extent that by merely communicating with the sick the well were attacked, just as fire spreads to dry or oiled matter which approaches it…. Of the common people, and perhaps in great part of the middle classes, the situation was far more miserable, as they, either through hope of escaping the contagion or poverty, mostly kept to their houses and sickened by thousands a day, and not being aided or attended in any respect, almost without exception died. And many there were who ended their lives in the public streets by day or night, and many who, dying in their houses, were only discovered by the stench of their dead bodies; and of these and others that died everywhere the city was full. These were mainly disposed of in the same way by their neighbors, moved more by the fear that the corruption of the dead bodies should harm them than by any charity for the deceased. They by themselves or with the aid of bearers, when they could find any, dragged out of their houses the bodies of those who had died, and laid them before the doors, where, especially in the morning, whoever went about the streets could have seen them without number,—even to that point had matters come that no more was thought of men dying than we think of goats; more than a hundred thousand human beings are believed to have been taken from life within the walls of Florence, which before the mortal pestilence were not believed to have contained so many souls. Oh! how many great palaces, how many beautiful houses, how many noble dwellings, once full of domestics, of gentlemen and ladies, became empty even to the last servant! How many historical families, how many immense estates, what prodigious riches remained without heirs! How many brave men, how many beautiful women, how many gay youths whom not only we, but Galen, Hippocrates, or Esculapius would have pronounced in excellent health, in the morning dined with their relatives, companions and friends, and the coming night supped with those who had passed away.”
  • The ten companions, meeting in the church of S. Maria Novella, seven ladies and three gentlemen, agree to escape this doom, and, repairing to one of the deserted villas in the neighborhood, to pass the time of affliction in merry doings and sayings; and with four maids and three men-servants, move eastward out of the gloomy city. Their first habitation is clearly indicated as what is known to-day as the Poggio Gherardi, under Maiano. After the second day they return towards the city a short distance and establish themselves in what seems a more commodious abode, and which I consider incontrovertibly identified as the Villa Pasolini, or Rasponi, and which was in their day the property of the Memmi family, the famous pupils of Giotto. The site of this villa overlooks the Valley of the Ladies, which figures in the framework of the “Novelle,” and in which then there was a lake to which Boccaccio alludes, now filled up by the alluvium of the Affrico, the author’s beloved river, and which runs through the valley and under the villa. The valley now forms part of the estate of Professor Willard Fiske. As the entire adventure is imaginary, and the “merry company” had no existence except in the dreams of Boccaccio, it is useless to seek any evidence of actual occupation; but the care he put in the description of the localities and surroundings, distances, etc., shows that he must have had in his mind, as the framework of the story, these two localities. The modern tradition ascribing to the Villa Palmieri the honor of the second habitation has no confirmation of any kind.

    The house-flitting is thus told:—

  • “The dawn had already, under the near approach of the sun, from rosy become golden: when on Sunday, the Queen arising and arousing all her company, and the chamberlain—having long before sent in advance to the locality where they were to go, enough of the articles required so that he might prepare what was necessary—seeing the Queen on the way, quickly loading all other things as if it were the moving of the camp, went off with the baggage, leaving the servants with the Ladies and the Gentlemen. The Queen, then, with slow steps, accompanied and followed by her Ladies and the three Gentlemen, with the escort of perhaps twenty nightingales and other birds, by a little path not too frequented, but full of green plants and flowers which by the rising sun began to open, took the road towards the west; and gossiping, laughing, and exchanging witticisms with her brigade, arrived before having gone two thousand steps at a most beautiful and rich palace, which, somewhat raised above the plain, was posted on a hill.”
  • As the description of the surroundings of the villa into which the gay assembly now entered is one of the most vivid and one of the gayest pieces of description in the brilliant counterfoil which the author has contrived, to set off the gloom of the city, it is worth giving entire; being as well a noble example of the prose of the ‘Decameron’:—

  • “Near to which [the balcony on which they had reposed after their walk] having ordered to open a garden which was annexed to the palace, being all inclosed in a wall, they entered in; and as it appeared to them on entering to be of a marvelous beauty altogether, they set themselves to examine it in detail. It had within, and in many directions through it, broad paths, straight as arrows and covered with arbors of vine which gave indications of having that year an excellent vintage, and they all giving out such odors to the garden, that, mingled with those of many other things which perfumed it, they seemed to be in the midst of all the perfumeries that the Orient ever knew; the sides of the paths being closed in by red and white roses and jasmine, so that not only in the morning, but even when the sun was high, they could wander at pleasure under fragrant and odoriferous shade, without entanglement. How many, of what kind, and how planted were the plants in that place, it were long to tell; but there is nothing desirable which suits our climate which was not there in abundance. In the midst of which (which is not less delightful than other things that were there, but even more so) was a meadow of the most minute herbs, and so green that it seemed almost black, colored by a thousand varieties of flowers, and closed around by green and living orange and lemon trees, which, having the ripe and the young fruit and the flowers together, gave not only grateful shade for the eyes, but added the pleasures of their odors. In the midst of that meadow was a fountain of the whitest marble with marvelous sculptures. From within this, I know not whether by a natural vein or artificial, through a figure which stood on a column in the midst of it, sprang so much water, and so high, falling also into the fountain with delightful sound, that it would at least have driven a mill. This, then (I mean the water which ran over from the fountain), through hidden channels went out of the meadow, and by little canals beautiful and artfully made becoming visible outside of it, ran all around it; and then by similar canals into every part of the garden, gathering together finally in that part of it where from the beautiful garden it escaped, and thence descending limpid to the plain, and before reaching it, with great force and not a little advantage to the master, turned two mills. To see this garden, its beautiful orderliness, the plants and the fountain with the brooks running from it, was so pleasing to the ladies and the three youths that all commenced to declare that if Paradise could be found on earth, they could not conceive what other form than that of this garden could be given to it, nor what beauty could be added to it. Wandering happily about it, twining from the branches of various trees beautiful garlands, hearing everywhere the songs of maybe twenty kinds of birds as it were in contest with each other, they became aware of another charm of which, to the others being added, they had not taken note: they saw the garden full of a hundred varieties of beautiful animals, and pointing them out one to the other, on one side ran out rabbits, on another hares, here lying roe-deer and there feeding stags, and besides these many other kinds of harmless beasts, each one going for his pleasure as if domesticated, wandering at ease; all which, beyond the other pleasures, added a greater pleasure. And when, seeing this or that, they had gone about enough, the tables being set around the beautiful fountain, first singing six songs and dancing six dances, as it pleased the Queen, they went to eat, and being with great and well-ordered service attended, and with delicate and good dishes, becoming gayer they arose and renewed music and song and dance, until the Queen on account of the increasing heat judged that whoever liked should go to sleep. Of whom some went, but others, conquered by the beauty of the place, would not go, but remained, some to read romances, some to play at chess and at tables, while the others slept. But when passed the ninth hour, they arose, and refreshing their faces with the fresh water, they came to the fountain, and in their customary manner taking their seats, waited for the beginning of the story-telling on the subject proposed by the Queen.”
  • Of the character of the Novelle I have need to say little: they were the shaping of the time, and made consonant with its tastes, and nobody was then disturbed by their tone. Some are indelicate to modern taste, and some have passed into the classics of all time. The story of ‘Griselda’; that of ‘The Stone of Invisibility,’ put into shape by Irving; ‘Frederick of the Alberighi and his Falcon’; ‘The Pot of Basil’; and ‘The Jew Abraham, Converted to Christianity by the Immorality of the Clergy,’ are stories which belong to all subsequent times, as they may have belonged to the ages before. Those who know what Italian society was then, and in some places still is, will be not too censorious, judging lightness of tongue and love of a good story as necessarily involving impurity. And Boccaccio has anticipated his critics in this vein, putting his apology in the mouth of Filomena, who replies to Neifile, when the latter speaks of scandal growing out of their holiday, “This amounts to nothing where I live virtuously and my conscience in no wise reproaches me—let them who will, speak against me: I take God and the truth for my defense.”