Everyone weeps at the conclusion of Fiammetta’s tale, except Filostrato, who declares that Ghismonda and Guiscardo were luckier than him; they got to enjoy love for a time, but he dies a thousand daily deaths with no hope of reward. He asks Pampinea to speak next, and she—wanting to lighten the mood—decides to tell a lighthearted tale that still technically fits Filostrato’s theme. It also illustrates the hypocrisy of members of the religious orders, who are humble in asking for the money they crave but bold in criticizing people for their sins, even though the monks and nuns are often sinful themselves.
While most of the company expresses sympathy for the plight of Ghismonda and Guiscardo, Filostrato expresses jealousy instead, in line with his characterization as a love-tortured soul. Pampinea demonstrates her characteristic tact and wisdom in quickly reading the mood of the room and selecting a story that will cheer her companions up while also obeying the sovereign’s commands. The introduction to her tale directly criticizes the clergy for their hypocrisy and greed, and her tale will provide one of the funnier examples of anticlerical satire in the book.
An extraordinarily wicked man named Berto della Massa, having destroyed his reputation in his hometown, moves to Venice pretending to be a holy man, then joins the Franciscans under the name Friar Alberto. Friar Alberto seems to live a holy life and preaches about repentance and abstinence, but he’s just biding his time until he has an opportunity to return secretly to his sinful ways. In addition to his monastic vocation, Friar Alberto even gets himself ordained, and as a priest, he celebrates the mass while weeping copious tears over Christ’s Passion.
Friar Alberto’s primary character trait is excess: he’s excessively sinful as a lay person and he’s excessively emotional as a priest. His tearful display while celebrating mass echoes famous 12th-century holy women called “beguines,” many of whom were known for their copious tears. Priests and monks were separate categories in the medieval church, although some men took both monastic and clerical (priest’s) vows as Friar Alberto has done here.
His tears and holy reputation convince many Venetians to trust Friar Alberto with their souls and their worldly goods. One of these credulous Venetians is the wife of a wealthy merchant, a “frivolous and scatterbrained” woman named Monna Lisetta. While her husband is away, she comes to Friar Alberto for confession, during which he demands to know if she has a lover. Monna Lisetta is offended, declaring that although anyone with eyes can see that she’s beautiful enough to have as many lovers as she wants, she doesn’t serve every man who comes along because her charms would be exceptional even in Heaven.
Of course, being an evidently holy man grants Friar Alberto easy access to money, meaning that he has an easier time coming by ill-gotten gains as a priest than he did as a criminal before. The idea that priests were as bad as or worse than criminals is a keystone of anticlerical satire. The portrait of Monna Lisetta involves both antifeminist stereotypes (for example, her vanity and lack of intelligence) and Florentine stereotypes about Venetians, which were founded in their cities’ competition as important late-medieval trade centers. In this caricature, Venetians are scatterbrained, gullible, and ignorant.
Realizing that Monna Lisetta is easy prey because she’s not bright, Friar Alberto falls in love with her. He chastises her vanity, greatly offending her. But a few days later, he visits her at home to beg forgiveness. That same night, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream and beat him with a stick for having the impertinence to insult Monna Lisetta, whom Gabriel loves almost as dearly as he loves God. “Lady Bighead” is delighted, and there’s more: Gabriel wants to spend the night with her while inhabiting a human body. He asked Friar Alberto to arrange it for him.
Monna Lisetta may not be very bright—and the story Friar Alberto tells certainly strains belief—but his behavior towards her is still uncomfortably predatory, emphasizing the vulnerability of women to the tricks of men.
Because Gabriel loves her, Monna Lisetta should consider herself “the most blessed woman on earth.” She is thrilled and ready to accept if the angel promises not to leave her for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Friar Alberto humbly suggests that she ask the angel to use his body as a vehicle, while his soul will rest safely in heaven. Thinking this will make up for the beating he endured on her behalf, Lisetta agrees.
The language Friar Alberto uses here draws on the story of the Annunciation, where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her that she had been chosen to bear the son of God. Lisetta demonstrates her ignorance and vanity when she is silly and sacrilegious enough to believe that an angel wanted to be her lover and to fear that the famously virginal Mary would be a credible rival.
After this interview, Monna Lisetta struts around her room with her head held so high that “her smock rose clear of her bottom.” Meanwhile, Friar Alberto eats meat and other delicacies to ensure an adequate performance in bed. After dark, he puts on an angelic costume and goes to Lisetta’s bedroom. She falls on her knees and “Gabriel” blesses her before they go to bed. Friar Alberto is a virile lover who greatly delights Monna Lisetta with his physical prowess.
While the image of Monna Lisetta’s bigheadedness is certainly an indictment of women for their vanity (compare this, for example, to Filostrato’s warnings against vanity at the beginning of II, 7), it’s also simply a funny image that works to dispel the trauma of the preceding story. When Friar Alberto stuffs himself with fine food, he both prepares for his upcoming sexual adventures (since he will need his strength) and he acts out another sin for which the medieval clergy were often criticized: gluttony, or excessive indulgence in food and alcohol. When Lisetta falls on her knees before the “angel” and Alberto blesses her, they assume the positions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation, both recalling the language Alberto used in relating his dream, and emphasizing Lisetta’s vanity, since she seems to believe herself to be on Mary’s level. The adoration and blessing and the description of the sex are also meant to be funny.
The next day, Monna Lisetta visits Friar Alberto, who claims to have no idea what happened to his body while his soul was in Paradise. She gives him a clue: there’s a kiss under his left breast that will be there for a week. “Gabriel” comes to Monna Lisetta at regular intervals until gossip of the affair comes out after she brags to a friend about how her beauty snared her a heavenly lover. The friend finds this so unbelievable and hilarious that she can’t help but chatter about it to her other friends, and ultimately Monna Lisetta’s brothers-in-law hear about the affair.
Monna Lisetta, in the throes of lovemaking, put a hickey on Alberto’s body when it was possessed by “Gabriel.” In contrast to other lovers in this day’s tales, it’s not the caprice of fortune that endangers the affair, but Lisetta’s vanity and inability to resist the temptation to brag about her superlative lover. And her friend’s reaction to the story dispels doubt that anyone but a nitwit would have believed Alberto’s story.
Monna Lisetta’s brothers-in-law lay in wait to catch her lover, and the next time Friar Alberto stops by they are pounding at the door as he takes his clothes off. He leaps from the window and swims across the canal below, then throws himself on the mercy of an Honest Man living nearby, who puts Alberto to bed and tells him to stay there while he attends to his own business.
In the absence of her husband from Venice, Lisetta’s brothers-in-law act together to protect his honor by catching her and her lover in the act. And although Alberto is neither an angel nor possessed by one, his fear certainly encourages him to “fly” (or fall) from the window.
By morning, the Honest Man has heard the rumors about the “angel” who left his wings with Monna Lisetta the previous night. Putting two and two together, he demands a large sum of money from Friar Alberto for his silence, then offers to smuggle him out of town in disguise, since there’s a carnival going on. Alberto is too scared of Monna Lisetta’s in-laws to refuse.
The “Honest Man” is quick to blackmail Friar Alberto when he senses an opportunity to make some easy money, adding to the tale’s stereotype of Venetians as dishonest and greedy. While Friar Alberto was willing to dress in a ridiculous costume to bed Monna Lisetta, he’s wisely more cautious when it comes to donning this new disguise—although he’s at the mercy of his host and protector. Since the day’s theme is lovers whose affairs end badly, his fear foreshadows his coming embarrassment—or worse.
The Honest Man smears Friar Alberto with honey, covers him with feathers, gives him a mask and a club, and chains him to some dogs. Meanwhile—remember that everyone knows Venetians are dishonest tricksters!—his friend spreads the word that the Archangel Gabriel will be at the carnival. When the Honest Man leads Alberto to the square, he ties him to a pillar and dramatically unmasks him. Recognizing the allegedly holy man, onlookers hurl trash and abuse at Friar Alberto until the rest of the Franciscans whisk him off to the monastery, where he ends his days in miserable penance.
Friar Alberto’s host disguises him as a Wildman, a medieval character covered in hair or fur (the honey-stuck feathers of Alberto’s costume) and frequently associated with madness or a repudiation of societal norms. The association with insanity seems to be a particular point of this tale’s humor: having dressed himself up and played the part of a priest and an angel, Alberto is exposed as a potentially insane object of ridicule. And his love story ends unhappily when he finds himself confined in the monastery for the remainder of his days.