This article is part of a series on Italian Renaissance Literature. See also:
Plague hits the metropolis: citizens die in thousands, only to be quickly and poorly buried. You, with a group of (undeniably attractive) male and female twenty-somethings, escape to the countryside – only to discover a massive, abandoned mansion, complete with verdant fields and stocked halls. “The entire palace had been cleaned, all the beds had been made, fresh flowers were everywhere, and the floors had been strewn with rushes,” continues the narrator (if you’ll permit me to lapse back into our idyllic fantasy); “It was surrounded by meadows and marvelous gardens, with wells of cool water and cellars full of the most precious wines.” Days are spent in a circle on the meadow, telling story after story; the nights are spent, well – who knows how the nights are spent. This vision isn’t the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but Giovanni Bocaccio’s 1348 masterwork The Decameron.
The volume contains, in addition to the introductory “frame”, one hundred stories told by the ten characters across ten days. These stories contain, as an Italian teacher of mine once proclaimed, “Every emotion that has ever been felt.” E. H. Wilkins says it differently: “nobles, knights, abbots, nuns, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, students, artists, tradesmen, troubadours, peasants, pilgrims, servants, spendthrifts, thieves, gluttons, gamblers, police—and lovers, both faithful and faithless.”
A professional article, now, would “advance a thesis” or “discuss a controversy”. I just want to share the awesomeness of The Decameron. Here I include synopses of a selection of a few of my favorites among The Decameron’s one hundred stories.
- THIRD DAY, FIRST STORY. A strapping youth named Masetto, in a clever plan, goes to work at a nunnery under the auspices of being deaf and mute. Masetto predicts – and reality confirms – that the nuns, upon recognizing the boy’s inability to convey information, will “break their vows” (to put it politely). What begins with a hushed conversation among two sisters spreads to the entire abbey, and soon Masetto finds himself in the quarters of the abbess herself. Suddenly, however, exasperated, Masetto declares: “My lady, I have heard that one cock is enough to satisfy ten hens, but that ten men can poorly, or with difficulty, satisfy one woman, and I have to satisfy nine of them. I can’t stand it any longer; from doing what I’ve done I have reached the point of no longer being able to do anything!” The abbess, is astounded: “I thought you were a mute,” she gasps. Realizing his mistake, Masetto says “Tonight, for the first time, [my speech] was restored, and for this I give all my thanks to God.” The story ends happily as the secret becomes known, Masetto is given a permanent post, and, as the years go by, the abbey sees “a large number of little monks and nuns.”
- FIRST DAY, SECOND STORY. A Jew named Abraham is begged relentlessly by his friend, Gianotto di Civigni, to convert to Christianity. Though Abraham remains quite firm, as time passes, Abraham offers a proposal: “I want to go to Rome,” he says, “to observe the man you say is God’s vicar on earth… If I am able to comprehend that your faith is better than my own,” says Abraham, “I shall do what I told you.” Gianotto is devastated: “If he goes to the court of Rome and sees the wicked and filthy lives of the clergy,” Gianotto thinks, “not only will he not change from a Jew to a Christian, but if he had already become a Christian before, he would, without a doubt, return to being a Jew!” Despite Gianotto’s sudden disguised dissuasion, Abraham travels to Rome. Gianotto was right. Abraham sees that “from the highest to the lowest of them, they all shamelessly participated in the sin of lust, not only the natural kind of lust but also the sodomitic variety, without the least bit of remorse or shame… Besides this, he observed that all of them were open gluttons, drinkers, and sots… and that they were more servants of their bellies than anything else.” Abraham, upon returning to Gianotto, remarks that despite the Vatican’s utterly despicable conduct, the Christian religion “continuously grows and becomes brighter and more illustrious.” Abraham has no choice but to proclaim that it must “have the Holy Spirit as its foundation and support” and that “I shall be baptized.”
THERE ARE A HUNDRED OF THESE, all equally hilarious, unexpected, and fresh.
“The sun with its light had already issued in the new day and the birds singing their pleasant verses on the green boughs were announcing its arrival to the ear when the young ladies and the three young men arose and went into the gardens…” Beyond the youthful idyllic escape, however lies a deep treasure of stories about love, life, and human nature.
Bocaccio’s work was remarkably prescient for its time. To paraphrase Yale Italian scholar Tomas G. Bergin: Bocaccio’s Decameron shed the “dogmatic rigidities of the Middle Ages” in favor of a “great Human Comedy, of scope and depth worthy to stand beside the Divine Comedy of Boccacio’s idol.” The Decameron abandons medieval formalisms in favor of a “joyous naturalistic creation, eloquent of its time and for all times.” The work rejects the traditional relegation of women into the roles of “angel or temptress” in favor of an earthly, honest, and entirely human portrayal – which many call the first feminism. Finally, The Decameron is timeless, honest, hilarious, and above all, joyful. The sky is blue outside and the green leaves are shining. It’s a perfect day to read The Decameron.