Everyone agrees that Nathan was certainly more generous than King Alphonso and the Abbot of Cluny. Since the ground of basic generosity has been amply covered, Lauretta turns to tales of love to open new areas. She feels that her protagonist’s actions are all the more striking since love will make men do anything to possess the objects of their affection.
Because it’s hard to top a story in which one character is willing to lay down his life for another’s pleasure, Lauretta shifts the trajectory of the day’s tales towards love, an enduring theme of The Decameron. Earlier stories have amply demonstrated the power of love to drive men to excessive actions; in contrast, this tale suggests that generosity’s power can compete. By extension, this tale thus contributes to the book’s overall argument about the importance of moderation and behaving with temperance rather than excess.
A noble gentleman named Gentile de’ Carisendi lives in Bologna. Because his love for Madonna Catalina, Niccoluccio Caccianimico’s wife, is unrequited, he finds a position in Moderna. Catalina is pregnant when she unexpectedly falls into a coma so deep that even the physicians think she is dead. Because her ladies affirm that the baby isn’t yet viable, they make no attempt to deliver it. Gentile is heartbroken at this news, but after some consideration, he realizes that in death she can’t reject his advances. He resolves to break into her tomb to steal a kiss from her.
This setup—the happily married couple and the unrequited admirer—is standard in stories of excessive love and it recalls earlier tales, such as Federigo’s love for Monna Giovanna in V, 9. The tale’s happy ending depends on Monna Catalina being buried unharmed. But the question of whether her baby was yet viable points to the use of caesarean section deliveries in the Middle Ages in cases where it was thought that a child’s life might be saved even after a mother died in childbirth (or, as in this case, of other natural causes). Gentile’s plan, on the one hand, indicates the overpowering nature of love, which pushes him to breach social taboos against disturbing the dead (but which recall the willingness of Francesca’s suitors to engage in tomb robbing in IX, 1). On the other hand, it also suggests how vulnerable women were to men’s desires. Gentile will have what he wants from Catalina, even if he must steal it from her cold, dead body.
That night, Gentile de’ Carisendi rides to Bologna, enters Madonna Catalina’s tomb, and kisses her many times. But kissing isn’t enough, and after a while he desires to touch her breasts. When he does, he thinks he feels a faint heartbeat, and on more careful inspection, he realizes that she’s still alive. He carries her to the home of his resourceful mother, who restores Catalina with a warm bath and fire.
Although Catalina is actually alive, no one yet knows that, so Gentile’s actions here under the overwhelming power of love are nothing short of necrophilia—inappropriate sexual contact with dead bodies. Her vulnerability to his desires, especially after she is unable to assert her own choice by saying yes or no, makes this scene uncomfortable, and it grows even more so as Gentile moves from a chaste kiss to groping her body. Nevertheless, the tale rewards his faithful love with a revived Catalina.
When she recovers consciousness, Madonna Catalina is confused to find herself in a strange home. Gentile de’ Carisendi explains what has happened, and she begs him—out of his love for her—not to dishonor her in his home. Gentile promises to treat her like a sister, asking only that she stay with his mother until he has prepared a suitable celebration to reveal her apparent resurrection. Although she longs to go home, Catalina considers her debt to Gentile great enough to agree. And as soon as she does, she goes into labor and delivers a baby boy.
Although the tale seems to have rewarded Gentile’s undying love with a recovered Catalina, her first fear on waking up in his mother’s home is that he will rape her, emphasizing her vulnerability despite her formerly chaste and upright behavior in her marriage and even her pregnancy. And although he honors her request, he nevertheless asserts control over her by requesting—in terms she feels she can’t refuse—that she stay with his mother until he can publicize her miraculous recovery himself.
Gentile de’ Carisendi returns to Moderna to complete his appointment, which takes three months. In Bologna, he arranges a great feast and promises to show his guests (including Niccoluccio Caccianimico) his greatest treasure. But before he does, he presents an interesting dilemma: if a man had a loyal servant and threw him out of the house when he fell ill, but a stranger found him and nursed him back to life, would the man or the stranger have a better claim to keep the servant? After much debate, Niccoluccio speaks for the crowd when he declares that the first man abandoned and cast away his entitlement to the servant when he put him in the street; the stranger has the greater claim.
The size of Gentile’s request that Catalina delay her reunion with her husband becomes evident only slowly, as his absence extends over the course of months. Conveniently, however, this also gives her time to recover from childbirth. Gentile advertises her as his greatest treasure in part to conceal her identity until his big reveal. But his language also reduces her to his possession rather than a person in her own right. And his theoretical example, by focusing on the case of a servant turned out by one master and adopted by another, suggests that he has a sense of ownership over her in a society that considers both servants and women to be the property of their male masters.
Gentile de’ Carisendi sends for his greatest treasure, Madonna Catalina, who enters the hall beautifully dressed and carrying her baby. She looks familiar to most of the guests, especially Niccoluccio Caccianimico, although they understand Catalina to be dead. He and several others ask her questions, which she refuses to answer (on Gentile’s instructions). Finally, Gentile promises to explain everything if everyone will remain in their seats until he's done.
Gentile has secured the general agreement of the assembled guests that he has a greater claim to Catalina than her own husband, who buried her instead of healing her—even though his example differed markedly from the facts, since a wife isn’t a servant and Catalina’s illness was much graver than the one described in Gentile’s example. And he continues to exert his control over her by requiring her silence until he can explain the situation.
Gentile de’ Carisendi explains that Madonna Catalina is the loyal servant in his scenario. Because of Gentile’s love, God turned her from an entombed and “fearsome corpse” into the “lovely object” his guests see before them. In contrast, her family threw her into the gutter like worthless trash before she was truly dead. Unless Niccoluccio Caccianimico has suddenly changed his mind, everyone has agreed that she belongs to Gentile. Niccoluccio and Catalina begin to cry, but Gentile takes her by the hand and restores both her and her child to Niccoluccio.
Gentile claims outright that the force of his enduring love is what cured Catalina of her mysterious ailment. He also implies that God recognizes and supports the claim of his affections over her, since it was on account of his eternal devotion that she was apparently resurrected. But the tale doesn’t fully engage with the strain in his argument since Catalina’s family—and her doctors—all believed her to be dead. Nor does anyone in the crowd raise the objection that wives and servants occupy different categories, suggesting that their shared submission to male authority renders them both objects of their masters’ control. Gentile is only generous in restoring Catalina to Niccoluccio insofar as she is his object to give, rather than a person in her own right or Niccoluccio’s rightful wife.
Niccoluccio Caccianimico joyfully greets Madonna Catalina and his son, while the guests marvel at her miraculous return and the generosity shown by Gentile de’ Carisendi. He remains friendly with her and her husband for the rest of his life. In closing, Lauretta asks the company if he isn’t the most generous example thus far since he was driven to possess Catalina by the power of love and believed himself to be legally entitled to her.
Lauretta’s assertion that her tale shows the most extreme example of generosity thus far is based on a view of women as objects of male authority and trade. The only legal rights asserted in the tale are Gentile’s rights of ownership over that which he “rescued” from the tomb; Catalina’s own evident and stated desire to return to her husband is ignored.