An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
The Renaissance was a pivotal historical period which did not exist, and lasted for the century 1300-1650 (give or take fifty years in both directions).
❧ Full name and titles: Giovanni Boccaccio [jō-vän-ē bō-kä-chē-ō; see our pronunciation guide for details], “the Certaldese” (from his birthplace, Certaldo)
❧ Dates: 16 June 1313-21 Dec. 1375
❧ Areas active: Republic of Florence; Kingdom of Naples; the Papal States (all in modern Italy); Brandenburg (modern Germany); Avignon (modern southeastern France)
❧ Original language of writing: Medieval Italian (Florentine dialect)
❧ Exemplary or important works: The Decameron; Lives of Famous Women; Il Filostrato; The Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles
These, at least, are the impression one might take away from reading a randomly-chosen handful of modern historians. All historical periods are at least a little artificial, and are invented by historians in retrospect as a convenient shorthand for the political, geophysical, and cultural trends that prevailed in—well, in a given historical period! But “the Renaissance” has been used to summarize different sets of trends, and the extent to which those trends meaningfully differ from the trends of the Middle Ages has been challenged. But if we accept the Renaissance, its most typical span begins some time in the fourteenth century; its end lies roughly two hundred years later, as early modernity takes shape under the forces of religious reform (resulting in Protestantism, Catholic missions in Asia, and the witch hunt), technological advances (such as the telescope, part of a larger upset of traditional astronomy*), and worldwide navigation and colonization. Near the beginning of this period, however, the innovative influences were mostly felt in northern Italy, and mostly by poets. Petrarch was the most famous, and it was largely thanks to him that Shakespeare took up the sonnet; still more famous was his self-styled pupil and friend, Giovanni Boccaccio.
Boccaccio was born in Tuscany, a region then dominated by the Republic of Florence. His father worked for the Bardi company, one of a handful of important banking corporations in the late Middle Ages, and during Boccaccio’s youth the family moved south to Naples, an important regional power at the time. After apprenticing as a banker proved hopelessly boring to the young man, he begged his father for permission to study law at the local university instead, which he ultimately obtained.
While there, he came under the influence of an eminent scholar and priest, Dionigi di Borgo San Sepulcro,** who was also Petrarch’s confessor for many years, and persuaded both men to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. It was at Naples that Boccaccio began his career as a writer: here he wrote Il Filostrato and The Theseid, which would respectively later inspire Chaucer‘s Troilus and Criseyde and “The Knight’s Tale.”
In 1338, Boccaccio’s father returned to Florence; three years later, due to tensions between the King of Naples and his native city, Boccaccio himself followed. In 1348, the Black Death struck Florence: as in most other parts of Europe, the plague was devastating,† killing about three-quarters of the populace. He lost his stepmother around this time, and his father the next year; thereafter he cared for his younger half-brother Jacopo, as the new head of household. It was also in this year that he began his most celebrated book, the Decameron.
The name refers to the book’s framing device: ten young nobles (three men and seven women) have retreated to an isolated castle for two weeks during the plague; excepting Sundays, reserved for rest, and one additional day per week devoted to chores, they tell each other ten stories each evening, for a total of ten days—in Greek, δέκα ἡμέραι [deka hēmerai]. The tales themselves are drawn from many sources, Asian and African as well as European, and are highly varied, though certain motifs run through many of them. Love stories are common, both tragic and happy; many lampoon the lusts and ambitions of the powerful, especially the clergy; many feature people narrowly rescuing themselves from danger or death by their wits, often in the form of brilliant replies to impossible questions.
Rather uncharacteristically for a tale rooted in Medieval sources and appearing in the Renaissance, Boccaccio expresses a quite positive attitude toward Jews in the Decameron. One tale features a wealthy Jewish merchant brilliantly outwitting the great Saracen king Saladin: Saladin, who would very much like a pretext to confiscate the Jew’s wealth, poses him the question of which faith—the Christian, the Judaic, or the Muslim—is true. The merchant, realizing the real purpose behind the riddle, tells a parable of a man with a unique and priceless ring and three sons, each of whom believes he ought to be his father’s principal heir. The man takes thought, and quietly visits a ring-maker; then he secretly confides in each son that they are his chosen heir, which he confirms by giving them the priceless ring. Later, the three young men resume their old quarrel, and each one tries to prove that he alone has the real ring—only to discover that, to all appearances, each one of them has the real ring. Even their father cannot tell the difference! Saladin is so charmed by the Jew’s politely insolent wit that he gives up his ambition to steal his fortune.
Many authors and works have looked back to Boccaccio, especially to the Decameron, which is widely subtitled l’Umana Commedia or “the Human Comedy,” an homage to the fact that it was Boccaccio who first added the epithet divine to Dante’s Comedy. Much English literature from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries draws on Italian sources, notably Chaucer (whose Canterbury Tales involves a group of pilgrims whose intention is The hooly blissful martir for to seke / That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke‡) and Shakespeare.
*The model of astronomy inherited by the Medievals from classical antiquity was geocentric and finite, and understood the heavenly bodies (from the Moon upwards) to consist in æther, a kind of matter essentially distinct from the terrestrial type (based on the observation that the stars and planets did not change, unlike things on earth). The heliocentric theory advanced by Copernicus and later Galileo, while constituting a dramatic difference, could in principle have been reconciled to this model; what was absolutely fatal to it was the supernova of 1572 (SN 1572, also called Tycho’s supernova after contemporary astronomer Tycho Brahe).
**Though treated as a surname (analogous to the phrase da Vinci with respect to Leonardo), di Borgo San Sepulcro means “from the Town of St. Sepulcher,” a Tuscan village named for the tomb of Christ.
†A few places made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed: Flanders (a region roughly corresponding to western Belgium and the adjacent parts of France), northern Germany, Milan, and the Basque country (around the western end of the Pyrenees) all fared better than the European average, and Poland and Finland escaped almost completely.
‡”The holy, blissful martyr there to seek / That them hath helpèd, when that they were sick”; the martyr in question is St. Thomas à Becket.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
Thank you for reading the CLT Journal. To explore our Author Bank further, check out the biographies of Boccaccio’s fellow Renaissance authors Christine de Pizan, Thomas Malory, and John Donne, or writers who were their predecessors or successors, like Procopius, The Saga of Erik the Red, Margaret Cavendish, and Henry David Thoreau. Have a great day.
Published on 27th November, 2023.