Fiammetta’s story, like Filomena’s, shows women the danger of allowing love to fall into the hands of fortune and her arbitrary whims. Her story comes from the repertoire of Coppo di Borghese Domenichi, a well-respected Florentine gentleman who was particularly gifted at telling stories of the past to his friends and neighbors.
The introduction to Fiammetta’s fifth tale, coming at almost the midway point of the book’s tales (it’s number 49), takes a moment to reemphasize the value of telling a good story well, which is Giovanni Boccaccio’s aim in The Decameron. It also engages with the idea of fortune and its complicated situation in human affairs; although we have already seen plenty of examples where fortune intervenes from the outside, as Filomena explicitly states here, at other times a person’s character and choices intersect with random chance to improve or impair a person’s fortune.
In Florence, nobleman Filippo Alberighi’s son Federigo is well-regarded for his chivalrous deeds and refined manners. Federigo loves Monna Giovanna, one of the city’s loveliest and most charming women. But because she’s as chaste as she is lovely, his bravery and generosity get him nowhere with her. He fritters away his entire fortune trying to win her love, retreating to live a humble life of poverty in the country on a small farm. A beautiful falcon is the only reminder of his noble past.
Monna Giovanni is married (“Monna” is the equivalent of the modern English “Mrs.”), so Federigo’s suit carries some danger for her. If she’s caught in adultery, she could face repudiation or violence from her husband or other male relatives who are heavily invested in protecting her “honor” (in other words, her sexual chastity). This speaks to the vulnerable and often precarious position of women in a patriarchal society, but it also highlights the contradictions between social expectations of female fidelity and the codes of fin’amors (refined loving), in which chastity can be a bad thing when it denies a man sexual access to a woman he loves. This tale also engages with The Decameron’s ongoing argument about the value of nobility of spirit over nobility by name or wealth. Federigo’s nobility isn’t diminished—indeed, it demonstrates strength and resilience—in his poverty.
Monna Giovanna’s husband dies, leaving her a widow with a young son. Every summer, they go to a country estate near Federigo’s farm, and he befriends the boy based on a shared love of birds and dogs. The boy greatly admires Federigo’s falcon, and when he falls ill, he tells his mother that it’s his heart’s desire. Giovanna is torn between guilt over her coldness towards Federigo—worrying that depriving him of his one remaining treasure would be “heartless”—and the knowledge that he will give her anything she asks for. Her maternal instincts ultimately overpower her guilt, and she decides to ask for the bird as a gift.
The death of Monna Giovanna’s husband doesn’t immediately free her to remarry Federigo (or anyone else). Because her son is her husband’s heir, she has a responsibility to keep his inheritance as intact as possible until he becomes an adult. In agonizing over asking Federigo for his one last fine possession, Giovanna shows that she has a conscience and a heart to feel pity. What she doesn’t yet understand is that, for a true lover, she herself is Federigo’s remaining treasure!
Federigo is astonished the following morning to find Giovanna at his gate. She says that she’s come to make amends for his suffering on her account, but he swears that her visit now makes up for any past cruelty. He invites her in and then searches desperately for anything refined enough to feed such a great lady. The only thing he can find is his plump falcon, which he has the housekeeper dress and cook. When Giovanna humbly asks Federigo for the falcon on her son’s behalf, appealing to his noble heart, he bursts into tears because he cannot give her what she wants, since she’s already eaten it.
Giovanna savvily plays on Federigo’s devotion to try to get what she wants, and her offer of “amends” carries a hint of misogynistic assumptions about women’s willingness to lie and manipulate others. But because the tale celebrates Federigo’s enduring love, it stops short of criticizing Giovanna or casting her as in any way unworthy of his devotion. In killing his prize falcon to provide Giovanna a suitable breakfast, Federigo proves himself to be an exemplary steadfast lover and demonstrates his generosity, a key trait of truly noble persons. At first, it looks like fortune has intervened to his detriment, and his attempt to offer her a gift as a sign of his devotion—a suitable meal—backfires when it deprives her of the thing she most wants. The moment in which she eats the bird is similar in emotional intensity to the scene in IV, 9, where Roussillon feeds his wife a dish made of her lover’s heart.
Monna Giovanna initially reproaches Federigo for killing the bird but realizes the generosity of spirit he showed in sacrificing it for her pleasure. She sees that poverty hasn’t destroyed his “magnanimity of spirit.” Sadly, her son dies, and when (after the appropriate period of mourning) her brothers urge her to remarry, she insists she will have only Federigo. His poverty doesn’t bother her. She tells her brothers, "I would sooner have a gentleman without riches, than riches without a gentleman.” Finally married to his love and with his wealth restored, Federigo lives in happiness for the rest of his life.
The nobility of Federigo’s spirit is impossible to ignore, and as the recipient of his most generous act, Giovanna finally realizes that he offers her unlimited, unselfconscious love. Her statement to her brothers about Federigo’s worth despite his poverty is The Decameron’s clearest argument for the value of a generous, noble character over wealth or social status. It is a little painful to realize that Federigo’s good fortune is dependent on the death of Giovanna’s son, but this also allows the tale to foreclose any means by which Giovanna could be criticized for returning Federigo’s love: she’s not cheating on her husband or depriving her son of his rightful inheritance.