Dioneo’s tale diverges from Lauretta’s by telling about a cunning revenge taken on a cunning, not foolish, victim.
This tale has a very similar setup, setting, and cast of characters to Fiammetta’s second tale (II, 5).
In the seaports of all maritime countries, incoming merchants must have the value of their goods assessed at the customs-house, where they are stored until he pays the appropriate customs fees. Local brokers consult the customs-house’s register to identify potential business deals. In Palermo, where the women are as lovely as they are prone to criminality, this register offers a chance for those who would fleece—or rather, completely skin—naive merchants to select their marks. Then, they charm these men into falling in love and entice them to hand over their money or goods.
The opening to this tale is important because it is the earliest recorded description in western literature of a bonded customs house; given his father’s business and the overall importance of trade to Florentine society, it is likely that Giovanni Boccaccio was describing it from his personal knowledge. However, this customs house is in Sicily, which has already been shown to be a hotbed for attractive and effective conwomen (see II, 5) who use their feminine wiles to manipulate and defraud merchants of their hard-earned goods.
Niccolò da Cignano, better known as Salabaetto, goes to Palermo with five hundred florins’ worth of woolens. He is slow to sell them since he’s eager to see what the city has to offer. Before long, a Sicilian con-woman, who calls herself Madonna Jancofiore, learns about his goods and begins to cast glances at him. He thinks she is a fine lady who has fallen in love with his good looks. He is thus an easy mark when Jancofiore sends an invitation to meet secretly at a local bathhouse.
Madonna Jancofiore shows how easy it is for a woman to gain control over a man by using her charms, especially a naive young man like Salabaetto who, the tale implies, hasn’t yet had enough experience to learn about feminine trickery. It also speaks to a certain youthful arrogance in the young man, who can’t imagine any other reason for her attention than his enormous charm having caused her to fall hopelessly in love with him.
At the appointed hour, Salabaetto goes to the bathhouse, where he watches slave-girls prepare a fine bed and scrub the bath. When Madonna Jancofiore arrives, she washes him with fragrant soap, and the slave-girls anoint them both with fragrant waters. After some light refreshments, Jancofiore dismisses them and falls into Salabaetto’s arms. At the end of their time, she invites him to her home that evening. Her bedroom, filled with rich gowns and adorned with “mechanical songbirds” and other “paraphernalia,” convinces Salabaetto that she must be a great lady, despite some rumors he has heard to the contrary.
The description of the bath is oriental, exotic, and sensual. The intensely detailed description gives readers a taste of how overwhelming and impressive the experience is to Salabaetto. But in allowing himself to fall under the sway of such feminized ministrations, Salabaetto also makes himself vulnerable to the power of Madonna Jancofiore, inverting normal gender hierarchies that associate men with reason and rationality and women with sensuality and excess. In conjunction with the decorations in her house, which are also exotic and precious (such as wind-up, moving replicas of birds), Salabaetto is given the understanding that Madonna Jancofiore is very wealthy and well-connected.
Salabaetto becomes more enamored as he regularly meets with Madonna Jancofiore during his stay in Palermo. When he has sold his merchandise, she finds out. The next night, one of her slave-girls calls her from the room where she entertains Salabaetto. Jancofiore returns in tears because she’s just received a letter from her brother. He has been imprisoned and needs a thousand florins within a week to escape execution. She worries that she can’t sell her property or call in her debts fast enough to raise that amount in that time. Salabaetto, whose passion has caused him to misplace “a substantial portion of his wits,” offers to loan her his five hundred florins, to be repaid in two weeks.
The scam Madonna Jancofiore pulls on Salabaetto is calculated to take advantage of medieval gender stereotypes that cast women as fragile and in need of protection. She subverts the role of feminine victim by using it to manipulate and defraud Salabaetto. It works, in part, because of the overwhelming power of love over human actions—which can be for good or ill. Salabaetto is so smitten that he doesn’t rationally consider the situation. It’s also notable that Jancofiore’s scam is so similar to the 21st century’s so-called “Nigerian Prince” scams, showing how little some things have changed since the Middle Ages.
Proclaiming her undying gratitude to Salabaetto and protesting that she’d never have thought to ask for what he freely offered, Madonna Jancofiore throws herself into his arms. When he brings her the money, he takes her promise to repay as soon as she can as her surety. Having gotten the money, Jancofiore avoids him and frequently breaks their plans. Two weeks go by, then two months, before he realizes that she won’t be repaying his money. He’s too ashamed of his naiveté to report her to the authorities. Instead, he runs away from his creditors to Naples.
By the time he has realized that he’s been tricked (which admittedly takes a while), Salabaetto feels too guilty to behave appropriately. He demonstrates both excessive shame and excessive inexperience by trying to run away from his problems.
In Naples, Salabaetto goes to a family friend, Pietro dello Canigiano, who is treasurer to the Empress of Constantinople. He wants Pietro to help him find a livelihood in Naples, but Pietro promises to help him recover his money from Madonna Jancofiore instead. They prepare a shipment of merchandise and barrels of oil, which Salabaetto takes to Palermo and leaves at the customs-house. Learning that he has returned with more than two thousand florins’ worth of goods, Madonna Jancofiore quickly resumes their relationship. She claims her repayment was delayed due to difficulties raising the money and asks forgiveness. Salabaetto tells her that he is moving to Palermo to be with her, and that he’s expecting another valuable shipment of goods soon.
Fortunately, a wiser person is at hand to help Salabaetto restore balance and reclaim his money from Jancofiore. To pay her back in her own coin, they will manipulate her through her excessive greed just as she manipulated Salabaetto through his extreme youthful inexperience and lustfulness.
Madonna Jancofiore repays Salabaetto’s five hundred florins. To pay her back in her own coin, he goes to her home one evening looking sad and forlorn. He claims that pirates have captured his expected shipment, and he must contribute a thousand florins towards its ransom. Because he invested the money she returned in another shipment, he has no cash on hand. Madonna Jancofiore promises to ask a moneylender (by which she means herself) for help, and Salabaetto offers the goods in the customs-house as a guarantee against the loan.
The trick that Salabaetto plays on Jancofiore is exactly like the one she played on him, suggesting that her greed is so excessive that it prevents her from seeing the similarities. It also plays on catastrophes that seem to be commonplace in the medieval Mediterranean trade routes that fill the tales; this is only one of many references to pirates throughout The Decameron.
The next morning, Madonna Jancofiore gives a friend one thousand florins of her own money to “lend” to Salabaetto. Salabaetto happily signs over his goods as collateral, then returns to Naples with his fifteen hundred florins to repay his creditors. Two months later, suspecting a trick, Jancofiore seizes his goods in the warehouse. She discovers casks filled mostly with seawater and a thin layer of oil on the top. All but two of the bales of “woolens” are filled with straw. The whole shipment is worth only two hundred florins. She repents her losses as she realizes the truth of the old saying, “honesty’s the better line, when dealing with a Florentine.”
Like Salabaetto earlier, Madonna Jancofiore is slow to suspect the trick. Also like Salabaetto, she learns a lesson from the experience: although other men might be gullible enough to make good marks in the future, she shouldn’t mess with Florentines. Thus, the tale ends on some home-town pride for Florence—and it suggests the stature of the brigata, all of whom are, themselves, honest Florentines.