Swans Commentary » swans.com November 2, 2009  



The Monuments Of Civilization: Analysis Of Classics
A Tale of Literary Inventions -- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio


by Raju Peddada





[Author's note: Thirty-three score years ago, during the long sunset of the late Middle Ages, and in the intervening years before the sunrise on the Renaissance, a corpulent thirty-six-year-old intellectual from Naples sequestered himself in Florence, in muse, during the demonic rampage of the Black Plague, to lay down with his quill what became the foundation of our Western literary culture. If anything, this is just a brief reexamination of his monumental work, and more so, a canonic salute to his timely wit and unfathomable wisdom when it was most needed.]


(Swans - November 2, 2009)   The first time I came to know about the Boccaccio masterpiece was in the mid '70s, watching the 1970 Pier Paolo Pasolini choppy and eponymous film The Decameron. Then it disappeared into a thicket of memories among other films, books, and pursuits. It resurfaced again as one of the subjects of discussion in Daniel J. Boorstin's copious tome The Creators, which I read during October 2006. Subsequently, it got on my "to do" list.

In many ways, 2007 was the worst year of my life. I don't want to burden you with the myriad details, but such was the year from the first to the last dreadful day. I desperately sought sanity and mirth by escaping from this unbearable period into the landscapes of literature. I picked up The Decameron as a respite, not knowing what I really had in my hands. Earlier, I had purchased a 19th century edition in two ornamentally bound volumes from the brilliant Florence Shay, a rare book dealer with repute amongst the well read, and then another huge thumb stack of a paperback by Penguin Classics that I flipped continuously in bewildered amazement, abusing it. The wonderfully framed format allowed me to interrupt my reading without getting lost or losing the essence in the tales. Why not reacquaint ourselves with this grand standard of literature that rang with paradigmatic literary inventions by the unequivocal progenitor of prose fiction, Giovanni Boccaccio.

Imagine, if you will, a dark brown old world in grime, dank, and decrepit conditions in the narrow streets shrouded by smoke, which the timid northern sun could never penetrate. A perpetual grey-brown darkness obscured the good as well as the bad intentions of the lifers there. A world where open sewers floated with refuse, blood from slaughter, feces in full ferment, in conditions worse than the Roman dungeons. Fancy a place of unpaved dirt streets with horse and cow dung, decaying organic refuse dredged up continuously into a putrid and pungent batter by the animal hoofs and cart wheels. Where humans, due to lack of water, bathed rarely, covered in blotchy linens, woolens, and tweeds soaked with bodily fluids carrying billions of microbes. The living conditions barely witnessed sunlight. It was a grotesque miasma of perpetual dampness and odors from butchering, tanning, fisheries, rotting produce, and diary activities frequented by furtive stray fouls, dogs, mules, sheep, cows, and unkempt children. Add to this mélange of life, scurrying under the carts, legs, paws, and hoofs: the rats.

The poor and illiterate subsisted in this unimaginable organic putrescence, devoid of any harsh light or hygiene. And in this darkness, in dark robes, traversed the clergy to sell conversions, elicit confessions, extract alms, and enquire about apostates and heretics. Conjure a world in which, except for the merchant class, aristocrats, nobles, and the clergy, the people of middle and lower strata huddled in grimy rooms with walls that seem to move in the darkness with life. Conditions were ripe for a catastrophe.

The Black Plague came from the east, the Black Sea region, and disembarked at the trading port of Kaffa in Genoa in 1346.(1) People lived in the crudest of conditions there and elsewhere. The plague was caused by a bacillus (Yersinia pestis) that thrived in the stomach of the flea, which was usually a parasite on black rats. In an inexplicable phenomenon, the bacilli multiplied rapidly, blocking the digestive tract and forcing the flea to regurgitate and spill the bacilli into the bloodstream of the rodent host. Upon the death of these rodents, the fleas sought the humans as the next hosts, thereby propagating the contagion at horrifying velocity, consuming millions of souls. The Plague, in 1348, managed to kill two-thirds of Florence's population of 100,000, which was quite graphically described by Boccaccio in the introduction to the first day of The Decameron. Some managed to escape this pestilence, and one soul who sought escape in his hermetical muse was none other than the literary maestro himself.

Boccaccio's birth may be veiled in mystery, but his work is not much of a mystery, as it is an indicting humor on the establishment. One of the earliest analysis and commentary by Cormac O'Cuilleanain, The Religion and the Clergy in Boccaccio's Decameron, was a survey of crucial ingredients that constituted the work, and how Boccaccio exploited the church, the clergy, and its iconography for the narrative purposes. The structure of his work was based on many precedents, on which he built this secular magnum opus. The other influences that surface in his work reveal the relevance of Boccaccio's close association with the Neapolitan Courtly and merchant circles, and with certitude the sway of the French culture at the Angevin Court. King Robert the Wise, who reigned from 1309-43, established a great standard in the patronage of literary arts and visual arts to such an extent that he became known as the "wisest Christian in the last five hundred years." It was this fertile atmosphere that spurred Boccaccio's growth as an intellectual.

Boccaccio's development as a writer must be attributed to his early tutor Giovanni Mazzouli, who encouraged his son and Boccaccio to study and admire Dante's Commedia. Boccaccio's adoration for Dante was in many ways synonymous with Dante's ardor for Virgil's work. Boccaccio's primary influences were revered humanists and intellectuals like Paolo da Perugia, the curator of the Royal Library with its nourishing collection of mythology, philosophy, medicine, and theology. The others who held sway on Boccaccio were astronomer Andalo da Negro, and the theologian and rhetorician Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro. Leading propagators of early Neapolitan Humanism were the shapers of his emotional and philosophical oeuvre, the likes of Barbato da Sulmona and Giovanni Barrili. He also began a voracious consumption and collection of information from all sources that only enhanced his outsized erudition; besides, he also nurtured contacts and interaction with all these intellectuals that had in myriad ways affected him to become a polished narrator with the quill. That you are shaped by the company you keep is an evergreen lesson in itself.

Many detractors were aghast about the setting and narration of these tales by nymph-like maidens wanting in suitable context to lend an atmosphere of realism under the circumstances in which the tales were told. But the public catastrophe of 1348, to Boccaccio, was an event seen to have "positive aspects," and I agree with the author. It is precisely this calamity that provided the impetus and a perfect miserable backdrop for the tales to have unfolded. I think the natural setting was in jeopardy due to the plague. To negate this outlook Boccaccio deliberately had the stories narrated by his characters in the imaginary natural settings with considerable descriptive and rhetorical skills.

The hypocrisy of the ecclesiastical entities, the clergy, and the wantonness of woman were the two favored targets of this medieval satirist, and it is abundantly manifest on his preoccupation with these two themes throughout his work. Despite the overall tinge of the Renaissance ethos and spirit, his work was unequivocally anchored in medieval culture. And the ethos of The Decameron, normally respected for reason, became a certifiable barometer of the fantastic and far-reaching transformations being wrought in the 13th and 14th century in the structure of Italian society. It also largely reflected a decline in the feudal aristocracy and the rapid expansion of vitality with the bourgeoisie.

Boccaccio created an "Elysian" world of storytellers. The framing of each story had an allegorical resonance -- the ten narrators take part in a drama of the human soul, a drama that pits the rational appetite against the base irascible and concupiscible appetite --represented by a trio of men as narrators, reason dominates anger and lust with the help of the seven virtues represented by seven young ladies. Like all great allegories, Boccaccio's ten narrators may be accessible to various meanings, but the predominant characteristics are the fresh candor and the lack of guile.

With a Hellenic title, The Decameron is vernacular masterpiece that was also modeled upon a work of a different kind, written a thousand years earlier by St. Ambrose; a collection of reverent commentaries on the Old Testament known as "Hexaemeron." Interestingly, Boccaccio's ardent desire was to format the book symmetrically within a specific rhetorical genre in the progression of the tales of vice on the first day to the tales of virtue on the tenth day. From the epitome of villainy in the opening to the embodiment of saintliness in the concluding tale, this sequence had led a plethora of analysts to unanimously claim The Decameron as a "human comedy" complementing the Divine Comedy by Dante. The esteem Boccaccio harbored for both his predecessors, Virgil and Dante, was so much that the number of lines in The Decameron matched the number in the Aeneid, and its structural basis in sync with the Divine Comedy, as symbolic tributes and gestures of gratitude. Another confluence of great minds took place when Petrarch, on the way to Rome, stopped by Boccaccio's house, which occasioned a friendship that endured a lifetime. Some claim this meeting to be a crucial assembly in the history of European culture.

Boccaccio emphasized the didactic function of storytelling; he believed that narratives should invariably instruct and entertain. In fact didacticism in his creation is what distinguishes The Decameron to a great extent, like the Biblical characters. Several of the tales, schemes, and structures found in The Decameron have their germinal in the Panchatantra from 500AD, The Thousand and One Nights, Metamorphoses, The Golden Ass, and Divine Comedy. Boccaccio mined these antecedents assiduously for his structural and narrative concepts. However, despite all the inspirational sourcing, The Decameron is a unique and an authentic creation in its own right -- the output of a fecund and reflective intellect. The big D over the centuries had attained the hallowed status of a progenitor of more known genres of Western literature than any other work.

If one probes Boccaccio's subterranean intentions in his work it will become obvious that he was interested in his growth and his wider audience via a new narrative genre. We can say that his sole objective was to establish the validity of this particular literary genre known as the narrative prose fiction, for which his creation became the vehicle. Boccaccio relentlessly pursued verisimilitude, even in the narration of a highly implausible tale. He stated that the nature of the story dictated the method of its telling. Prior to Boccaccio, the critics and analysts did not consider prose fiction worthy of intense and serious study in Europe; for almost another four generations, it was sneered at as a fatuous literary diversion.

Boccaccio was an irrepressible punster. His lexical improprieties with common words like hole, rod, mortar, and pestle treaded treacherous territory in a world of repressive etiquette. However, his usage exemplified a ribald charm and irreverence towards societal norms, especially the ecclesiastical authorities. Double meanings of words and narrative subtext was aimed at mocking the all-consumed clergy always skirting the power of natural instincts, impulses, and laws for that matter. His exuberant sexual innuendos and wit in his defense boiled over to a point of being blasphemous. More than anything, Boccaccio's selection of words of parallel meaning is derived by considerations of rhythms and euphony instead of giving into the doctrinal obsession with semantic precision. Somehow, he survived these literary transgressions under the circumstances.

In fact, his most obvious line of defense against the lexically prudish is reminiscent in its imagery of a passage from Guinizzelli's Canzone beginning, in his statement that:

No corrupted mind construed a word wholesomely; and just as seemly words leave no impression on a mind that is corrupt, so words that are not so seemly cannot contaminate a mind that is well ordered, any more than mud contaminates the rays of the sun, or earthy filth on the beauties of heaven.

Boccaccio's narrative brilliance is evident when he says:

Virginity, like honor, resides in appearances, a kissed mouth doesn't lose its freshness: like the moon it turns up new again.

As an ardent humanist and believer in the preponderance of natural laws, he claims that any attempt to interfere with the natural impulses or instinctive forces is doomed to failure. Here is an exemplary didactic passage that lays out his convictions within the confines of a tale:

When you consider that even an apprentice hermit, a witless youth who was more of a wild animal than a human being, liked you better than anything he had ever seen, it is perfectly clear that those who criticize me on these grounds are people who, being ignorant of the strength and the pleasures of natural affection, neither love you nor desire your love, and they are not worth bothering about.

In the tale of Alatiel's adventures, Boccaccio wrought form and consistency to the unuttered sexual fantasies of his audience. This capability on transforming a fantasy into discernable reality is one of the reasons for The Decameron's abiding immortality through the ages: its timeless relevance to the human condition. The big D is a dictionary of wisdom for both the genders and could serve as ready reference in the matters of amorous liaisons. Here is another example of his didacticism:

...no woman should unreasonably withhold her consent to the advances of an ardent wooer, by behaving like a saint she may discover she is a sinner, and consequently suffer torments of hell for her cruel inflexibility.

Boccaccio's original intent still remains a mystery; however, one thing that can be stated with certitude: his tales are positively polemical in favor of humanism. They ruffle the proverbial feathers of a repressed puritanical society with pervasive hypocrisy that always hid the nature in themselves. His mastery is evident not only in the polemical inciting with questions on doctrinal morality, but his paramount objective and purpose is the aesthetics. Yes, aesthetics of communication, in graceful phonetics and the articulation of engaging narrative of tales, which, although for the most part are innately improbable, are rendered plausible by the manner of the narration. The conversion of fantasy and transformation of improbable events into the realm of the possible is what makes up The Decameron's unusual dynamic and motivation. That is the genius of this man, and it is no wonder The Decameron has been called the epic of human intelligence.

It is impossible to catalog the cornucopia of literary gifts from The Decameron in a mere 2500 words. However, without going into the tales ad infinitum (which I suggest you read) I simply touched on his intellectual machinery and tried to decipher the subtext of this classic. One of the most authentic features of Boccaccio's creation is the fact that it is not an envisioning of immorality, rather an acknowledgement of the feeling that man is a part of nature, which is not governed by moral laws or principles but reports invariably to the instincts, impulses, and biological phenomena that lay outside the realm of ethics. In a paradoxical presentation of two worlds as narrated by his ten characters, he brings together both worlds with a unilateral force in all existence: the role of intelligence in human affairs. This celebration of intelligence is largely responsible for the ambiguous moral tint of The Decameron.

R. Hastings puts it best in his Nature and Reason in the Decameron:

The more important reason for the celebration of intelligence in The Decameron is that virtue itself cannot exist without it. Not only does intelligence able to secure the satisfaction of natural desires, it is in addition the only thing that makes possible the rational control of natural instinct, the regulation of violent passion, and the education and refinement of instinct and impulse that are the basis of all virtuous and responsible conduct, as we see from those tales where the right use of intelligence leads directly to virtuous behavior.

It is impossible to bring this discussion to a satisfactory conclusion without the inclusion of Geoffrey Chaucer. (2) Ironic storytelling is the invention of Boccaccio, and the objective of this breakthrough was to free stories from Moralism and to a certain extent didacticism, so the listener or the reader became responsible for their employment. Chaucer extrapolated from Boccaccio the idea that tales need not be true or paint the truth; rather tales are something "new" novelties as it were. Chaucer's method of storytelling could not have hatched without the unacknowledged mediation and meditation of Giovanni Boccaccio.

Over the centuries The Decameron had been autopsied, and analysis upon analysis came forth explicating every conceivable angle with copious literary speak. While all of it is entertaining and enlightening, it is not differential equations or astrophysics to comprehend and appreciate the personality of this man through the hazy veil of eons. In this day and age when "acquiescing reportage" is the prevailing norm, where the "independent" writers and intellectual elites kowtow to the establishment and toe its propagandistic lines or run for cover at the slightest warning or threat -- Boccaccio, with a steely personality and intellectual probity, sat amidst the ecclesiastical hyenas and aristocratic prudes and created a document that in blistering humor and mockery is a commentary at every level that derides clergy's and societal hypocrisy and promotes intelligence and the supremacy of natural laws. Imagine, if you can, it being the equivalent of Salman Rushdie writing The Satanic Verses sitting in Tehran or Mecca and releasing it there under the noses of the authorities.

It is quite ironical that while I lambasted our national obesity in my last essay, here I am willing in abstract, to wipe a corpulent Boccaccio's brow for his brilliant uproarious serenade on human intelligence, freedom of speech, and preponderance of nature over the doctrinal and the puritanical pretense on human sexuality. This literary keystone will still be in place when all else has crumbled around it.


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Further reading:

1.  The Medieval Plague: The Black Death in the Middle Ages, by Geoffrey Marks  (back)

2.  The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom
Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach
The Novel, by Franco Moretti
The Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt, by Leonard W. Courie
Boccaccio and Freud, by Eugene W. Holland  (back)


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.



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Published November 2, 2009