Leaving Dioneo the final tale, Elissa begins next, recalling Florence’s glorious past, when people displayed their generosity in fraternities dedicated to noble entertainments.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s pride in his hometown of Florence is evident throughout the tales, many of which are set in his fair city. The invocation of a glorious past in the introduction to Elissa’s sixth tale hints at the downturn in Florence’s status and wealth in the early part of the 14th century, due to political shifts and changes in trade routes. The young men’s fraternities are characterized both by wit and by generosity, which was an important value to the medieval aristocracy.
Betto Brunelleschi leads one of these fraternities, and he wants to add Guido Cavalcante to his coterie. Guido is a charming, sophisticated, extremely intelligent conversationalist. Also, he’s rich and can entertain lavishly. Betto believes his inability to win Guido’s friendship is due to Guido’s intellectual aloofness. People think that Guido is an Epicurean whose intellectual pursuits are concerned with proving the nonexistence of God.
Guido Cavalcanti was a near contemporary of Giovanni Boccaccio (dying shortly before Boccaccio’s birth) and a beloved friend and fellow poet of Dante Alighieri. In addition, Cavalcanti was a foundational figure of the stilnovisti poetry that influences The Decameron’s particular flavor of ennobling fin’amors (refined loving). The charge of Epicurianism is a veiled way of suggesting that Guido was an atheist; his intellectual triumph over the other young men thus champions the humanistic ideology on display in The Decameron, which has human efforts and achievements, rather than religious doctrines, as its focus.
One day, as Guido wanders in a cemetery, Betto Brunelleschi and his friends decide to taunt him. They charge at him with horses, asking what good it will do to prove that God doesn’t exist. Guido says that they have every right to criticize him in their own home, and then he vaults over a crypt and goes on his way. The companions are confused, since the cemetery is public ground, but Betto understands Guido’s implication that they belong in the cemetery because common men might as well be dead to “other men of learning” like Guido. Betto’s ashamed friends are impressed by his insight and never taunt Guido again.
In his retort, Guido both disarms the young men’s criticism of his alleged atheism and demonstrates his superior intellect and wit. His answer is thus a near-perfect example of the day’s theme. In this context, Betto’s understanding allows the tale to explain the true meaning of Guido’s tease for any members of the audience who might not have understood it themselves. This emphasizes Guido’s superiority not only over his immediate detractors but over the vast majority of people, including the tale’s audience.