The Decameron

The Decameron


Giovanni Boccaccio

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The Decameron Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio was born out of wedlock into the Florentine merchant class in the early years of the 14th century. When he was about 13, he moved to Naples, where he apprenticed at his father’s bank but found that he disliked the profession. However, his father’s business connections granted Boccaccio access to a fine life among the Neapolitan nobility. He began his literary career in Naples, crafting some of his most famous works there, including two epic poems (Il Filostrato and Tesieda), and a prose romance translation (Il Filocolo). In 1338, Boccaccio’s father returned from Naples to Florence, where he subsequently went bankrupt. Boccaccio followed him, reluctantly, about two years later, due to eroding political and economic security in Naples. He lost his stepmother in the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague that is described in The Decameron, which he composed between 1349 and 1352. After 1350, Boccaccio became involved in Florentine politics, undertaking diplomatic missions throughout Europe through the 1350s and 1360s. It was as a representative of the city that he hosted the famous Italian poet and humanist Francesco Petrarch. The two remained friends and correspondents until Petrarch’s death. In Boccaccio’s later years, his writings turned to antifeminist works like Il Corbaccio (a dream vision narrating all the failures of women), moralistic biographies, and educational texts. His final years were marked by ill health, due to obesity and congestive heart failure. He died and was buried in Certaldo in 1375.
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Historical Context of The Decameron

The Decameron was written on the threshold of the Italian Renaissance, during a time of great political, religious, social, and intellectual upheaval in Italy. The failure of King Frederick of Sicily (mentioned in tales on Day II and V) and his successors to unify Italy meant that it had been broken into several competing, politically independent areas by the 14th century. More broadly, Italian political factions were divided between the Guelphs (who supported the pope and internal Italian control) and the Ghibellines (who supported the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled present-day German and Italian lands). The Florentines were generally zealous Guelphs, and the political sentiments of members of the brigata are mentioned in passing on Day X. Within Florence, ongoing political strife between Guelph and Ghibelline factions led to high-profile political exiles, including Dante, who was exiled in 1302. Boccaccio’s life also coincided with the so-called “Babylonian Captivity,” or the nearly 70 years in which the pope ruled from Avignon, in France, rather than Rome. Because the Roman Catholic Church was a strong political force in the Middle Ages, its absence from the Italian peninsula contributed to the political infighting and brigandage in some of the collection’s tales and contributes to the sense of complete chaos and disorder that pervades the Introduction to Day I. Despite political upheavals, however, Florence itself thrived during the first half of the 13th century, establishing itself as an international banking and trade center. This expansion of mercantile business made Florence and many Florentines wealthy; Boccaccio’s father was a successful banker until the Florentine bubble burst in the 1340s. The social mobility and emphasis on business affairs in The Decameron reflects the economic and social shifts of the era in which it was composed. However, the Black Death’s appearance, in early 1348, devastated the city. Although Boccaccio’s description draws from an earlier plague narrative, there is no doubt that Florence, which lost half of its population, was drastically altered by the catastrophe that provides the narrative basis for The Decameron. Finally, on the cusp of the Renaissance, Boccaccio joined his friend and teacher, Petrarch, as a key figure in the development of humanism, which emphasizes the power of human, rather than divine, agency. Boccaccio’s humanist ideals are evident in his scholarly work, which includes a survey of Dante’s poetry, an encyclopedia of geographical allusions in ancient literature, and a genealogy of the Greek and Roman gods. The Decameron itself shows a humanist spirit by investing all sorts of human affairs—from romantic affairs and royal weddings to trade deals and customs-houses to sexual liaisons and ingenious trickery—with importance.

Other Books Related to The Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio is considered one of the “three crowns” of Italian literature, along with Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374). Dante was Boccaccio’s favorite poet, and The Decameron, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, explores many facets of human nature—both good and bad. Moreover, many of the tales in The Decameron draw on ideas about the divinity of love expressed in the works of the Dolce Stil Novo group of poets, which Dante founded. The literary forebears of this movement, and of The Decameron itself, include Roman de la Rose, written in two parts by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and Jean de Meun (c. 1275). In this work, a lover falls asleep and dreams of being admitted into a lavishly beautiful garden where he becomes an acolyte of the God of Love (Cupid), who tells him love’s commandments and causes him to fall in love with a rose (allegorically representing a beautiful woman). The other primary source for fin’amors, or “refined loving,” is the De Amore, written c. 1186–1190 by a man called Andreas Capellanus as an instructional guidebook for those who want to be successful courtly lovers. Many of The Decameron’s tales of sexual hijinks and misadventures come from the French fabliaux tradition, and from the earliest surviving Western novel, The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second century. The frame narrative structure of The Decameron bears a marked similarity to 1001 Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folktales, although it’s more likely that Boccaccio borrowed the frame idea from The Seven Sages, another collection of Eastern tales. In the century after Boccaccio’s death, Geoffrey Chaucer used a frame narrative structure and borrowed some of his tales for The Canterbury Tales: the “Clerk’s Tale” draws from Petrarch’s Latin translation of Boccaccio’s Griselda narrative (The Decameron’s final tale), and at least three other Canterbury tales (Franklin, Merchant, and Reeve) derive from The Decameron or from shared source material. And Shakespeare developed two plays from Boccaccio’s work: All’s Well That Ends Well is based on the story of Gilette of Narbonne from Day III, and Cymbeline comes from the tale of Bernabò and Zinerva on Day II.
Key Facts about The Decameron
  • Full Title: The Decameron, or Prince Galahalt
  • When Written: Between 1349 and 1352
  • Where Written: Florence
  • When Published: 1352
  • Literary Period: Medieval
  • Genre: A collection of short stories, including examples of history, romance, pastoral, fabliaux, and other medieval genres.
  • Setting: Florence and the surrounding countryside, 1349
  • Climax: Each tale has its own climax.
  • Antagonist: Each tale has its own antagonist.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Decameron

Love-Children. In one of his poems, Giovanni Boccaccio mourns the death of a beloved daughter, Violante, after whom two characters in The Decameron are named. It appears that she, and her four siblings, were all illegitimate, as Boccaccio himself was.

Boccaccio’s Little Flame. Boccaccio suggests that he fell in love with Maria d’Aquino, illegitimate daughter of King Robert of Naples, after whom he created characters named “Fiammetta” or “little flame” in no fewer than eight of his works. However, Boccaccio may have invented this unreciprocated affair to increase his credibility within the tradition of fin’amors or “refined loving” that was popular in the Middle Ages.