The culture of Giovanni Boccaccio is rooted in the Middle Ages, but his conception of life points forward to the Renaissance. Like his fellow poet Petrarch, he straddled two ages, and yet he was unlike Petrarch—a fervent admirer of classical and Christian antiquity—in his acceptance of the medieval tradition. Boccaccio’s work reflects both his bourgeois mercantile background and the chivalric ideals of the Neapolitan court, where he spent his youth. He strove to raise Italian prose to an art form nurtured in both medieval rhetoric and classical Latin prose; he had immense admiration for his great Italian contemporaries Dante and Petrarch, as well as for the classical authors. In this sense Boccaccio’s vernacular humanism contrasts with Petrarch’s classical humanism.
Boccaccio’s father, Boccaccio di Chellino, was a merchant from the small Tuscan town of Certaldo. About 1312 he went to Florence and there worked successfully for the powerful banking company
of the Bardi and Peruzzi. The exact date and place of Boccaccio’s illegitimate birth are unknown. Despite tales of his birth in Paris of a Parisian noblewoman, a story derived partly from some of Boccaccio’s early works whose autobiographical value is disputed, it seems that he was born in 1313 in Certaldo or more likely in Florence, where he spent his childhood. Of these years he wrote, “I remember that, before having completed my seventh year, a desire was born in me to compose verse, and I wrote certain poetic fancies.”
In 1321 Giovanni began to study Latin. But his father did not encourage his literary interests, and by 1328 Boccaccio was in Naples to learn commerce, probably with the Bardi. After 6 years of fruitless apprenticeship, Boccaccio abandoned commerce and reluctantly studied canon law for another 6 years. Later he regretted this lost time. “I do not doubt that if, at an age most suited for this, my father had tolerated it with a serene mind, I would have become one of the celebrated poets; but because he strove to bend my talent first to a lucrative trade and then to lucrative studies, it happened that I am not a merchant, I have not turned out to be a canonist, and have not become a distinguished poet.”
However, the years were not wasted. Through his father’s contacts (he was a financial adviser to King Robert of Anjou), Boccaccio
was introduced to the cultivated society of the court at Naples. There he knew scientists and theologians, men of letters and the law. He learned astronomy and mythology and was introduced to Greek language and culture. He read the classical Latin authors, French adventure romances, and Italian poets. In the refined, and learned environment of Naples he matured and became a writer.
On Holy Saturday 1336, in the church of S. Lorenzo, Boccaccio saw and began to love ardently the young noblewoman whom he called Fiammetta in his works. She is said to have been Maria, the natural daughter of King Robert and the wife of the Count of Aquino, though there is no documentary evidence of her identity. Fiammetta returned Boccaccio’s love for a time and was the inspiration for all his youthful works in Italian.
Boccaccio’s earliest composition, probably preceding his love for Fiammetta, is the Caccia di Diana, 18 cantos in terza rima chronicling the events of the Neapolitan court under fictitious and allegorical names. The Filocolo, a prose romance inspired by Fiammetta about 1336, retells the tale of the noble lovers Florio and Biancofiore. Based on a French romance, it contains a vivid portrayal of Neapolitan society and two stories which later reappear in the Decameron.
The Filostrato (ca. 1338) is composed of nine cantos in octaves. For the first time the octave, a popular Italian verse form, is elevated to the dignity of literary art. The poem was composed at a time when Fiammetta’s love was declining, and the poet expresses his sorrow through the young lover, Troilus, who is tormented by jealousy. Chaucer made an English version of the Filostrato, and Shakespeare derived his Troilus and Cressida from it. The Tesdida (ca. 1340), 12 books in octaves, was intended to fill the need for an epic poem in Italian.
In 1340 his father, who had been reduced to poverty by the bankruptcy of the Bardi, called Boccaccio back to Florence. On his return he wrote to a friend: “About my being in Florence against my will I will write nothing to you, for it could sooner be shown with tears than with ink.” Little is known of this period of Boccaccio’s life, but his works written between 1341 and 1346 show a gradual shift in orientation. L’Ameto (1341-1342) is a pastoral romance in prose and terza rima, dedicated to a Florentine friend. L’amorosa visione (ca. 1342), dedicated to Fiammetta, is in terza rima. Both are moving idealizations of love in the form of allegory.
L’elegia de madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344) and the Ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346) mark a departure from allegory. Fiammetta is a psychological romance in prose, in which the situation of Filostrato is reversed—the woman, overcome by love, suffers abandonment, jealousy, and despair. But the author, who in his earlier works reflected his own emotions, now achieves an artistically detached and serene approach which results in a more subtle psychological analysis and a high degree of stylistic perfection. The Ninfale fiesolano is a narrative poem in octaves. A tragic idyll of love between the shepherd Affrico and the nymph Mensola, it explains poetically the origin of two rivers which join and flow into the Arno. It is Boccaccio’s best work in verse; in its narrative maturity it foreshadows the Decameron.
In 1346 Boccaccio was in Ravenna at the court of Ostasio da Polenta; in 1347 he was a guest of Francesco degli Ordelaffi in Forli and thereafter may have sojourned briefly in Naples. In 1348 he was probably in Florence to witness the devastating pestilence which he described in the proem of the Decameron. In 1349, the year of his father’s death, he was definitely in Florence, where he was increasingly esteemed. By this time he was working on the Decameron, which he completed by 1353.
The great pestilence of 1348 may have afforded Boccaccio the occasion to write his masterpiece; it provides the framework for this collection of 100 stories in Italian. While the Black Death rages in Florence, seven young ladies and three young lovers meet by chance in S. Maria Novella and agree to flee from the city to their country villas during the epidemic. Against the somber background of death and desolation, portrayed in vivid detail, the group lives a carefree yet well-ordered life in the pleasant countryside for 15 days, avoiding all thoughts of death. They meet daily in the cool shade, where each one tells a story on a determined subject, and each day ends with a ballad. Each day a king or queen is named to govern the happy assembly and to prescribe occupations and determine a theme for the stories. The storytelling continues for 10 days, hence the title Decameron.
The tales have an abundance of subjects—comic, tragic, adventurous, ancient, and contemporary. The grouping around a particular daily theme organizes them into a unified structure. In his multitude of characters, from ridiculous fools to noble and resolute figures, from all times and social conditions, Boccaccio depicts human nature in its weakness and heroic virtue, particularly as revealed in comic or dramatic situations. There is an emphasis on human intelligence and a kind of worldly prudence with which characters overcome difficult situations, be they noble or ignoble. Boccaccio presents life from an earthly point of view, with a complete absence of moral intentions. If nothing is sacred, if a corrupt clergy is shown in all its greed and vanity, this offers stuff for amusement but never satire. And so, though the Decameron is not licentious, it is not moral either. Boccaccio in his old age repented having written it, but by then it was being read all over Europe. The prose of the Decameron, in its balanced, rhythmic cadences, became the model of Italian literary prose.
In the autumn of 1350 Boccaccio received as his guest in Florence Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), whose biography he had written shortly before (De vita et moribus, F. P.). It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, attested to by an abundant correspondence. Petrarch was to have considerable influence in orienting Boccaccio toward the moral austerity and philological discipline characteristic of humanism.
About 1350 Boccaccio began his De genealogiis deorum gentilium, an erudite work evidencing a vast and precise knowledge of classical sources. Its 15 books constitute the first encyclopedia of mythological science. Between 1350 and 1354 he was honored with a civic office and various diplomatic missions. Between 1354 and 1355, after a Florentine widow refused his advances, he wrote, in Italian, the prose Corbaccio, a satirical invective giving vent to the most ferocious misogynism.
From 1355 to 1360 Boccaccio composed several Latin works: De casibus virorum illustrium (in nine books, illustrious men from Adam to Petrarch tell of their fall from fortune to moral misery); De montibus, silvis, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominibus maris liber (a dictionary of all the geographical names found in the classical authors); and De claris mulieribus (biographies of 104 famous women from Eve to Queen Joan of Naples, with moralistic intent).
Between 1357 and 1362 Boccaccio wrote his biographical Trattello in laude di Dante and also had as his guest the Calabrian monk Leonzio Pilata, whom he induced to translate the Homeric epics and to teach Greek. Of this he wrote later: “Indeed I was the one who first, at my own expense, made the books of Homer and of various other Greek authors return to Tuscany.” At this time his house became one of the most active centers of Florentine prehumanism.
In 1362 a Carthusian monk, Gioacchino Ciani, brought Boccaccio a prophecy of imminent death and exhorted him to abandon his worldly studies and devote himself to religion. Profoundly disturbed, Boccaccio thought of destroying his works but was dissuaded by Petrarch, who saw no contradiction between literary activities and the Christian life. Pressed by economic necessity, Boccaccio went to Naples that year to seek the help of an influential friend in finding a position. But he soon left, disillusioned, and spent 3 months with Petrarch in Venice (1363). He was twice Florentine ambassador to Pope Urban V (1365 and 1367) and made a final unsuccessful attempt to establish himself in Naples (1370). Thereafter he retired to Certaldo.
Though afflicted by illness, he enthusiastically accepted the task entrusted to him by Florence to give daily public readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy at the church of S. Stefano in Badia. Beginning in October 1373, he read and wrote a commentary to the Inferno through Canto XVII. But weakened by illness and criticized for expounding the divine poem before an ignorant populace, he had to discontinue. His Commento all’Inferno is based on these lectures.
Boccaccio returned to Certaldo, where news of Petrarch’s death reached him late in 1374. On Dec. 21, 1375, Boccaccio died in Certaldo. He was buried there in the church of SS. Michele e Jacopo.