Boccaccio turns 700

From prodigal son to Renaissance man

Ray Cavanaugh
April 11, 2013

2013 marks the 700th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Boccaccio, whose writing in the Italian vernacular helped herald the literature of Renaissance humanism. As famous as his name has become, his life and year of birth, 1313, are cloaked in considerable mystery. We don’t know the day or month in which he was born, nor can people agree on where he was born: some say Florence; others say Certaldo; and one prominent biographer even claims that it was Paris!

 

This last prospect seems rather unlikely. But it is not too surprising to see widely different scenarios where uncertainty has for so long reigned. In the biography Giovanni Boccaccio, J.A. Symonds writes that ‘very little’ of his early life can be pinned down with any chronological precision. Though his year of birth has been placed confidently, his mother’s identity has remained a mystery. Many suspect that Boccaccio was born out of wedlock; however, this has not been confirmed.

 

That his mother is almost never mentioned in Boccaccio’s writings leads Symonds to conjecture that she died during his infancy. One of the rare times the word ‘mother’ is used in his autobiographical writing is when he states: ‘Nature drew me from my mother’s womb with special aptitudes for poetry.’ Of course, even this reference to motherhood seems more geared to illustrating his poetical vocation than saying anything specific about a mother.

 

At any rate, Boccaccio’s passion for poetry put him at odds with his father, a merchant who ‘devoted his whole energy and all his thought to moneymaking.’ This mercantile father had scant use for the literary pursuits of his son, whom he wanted ‘educated as a man of business.’

 

Hoping to rescue his son from a life of poetry and poverty, the elder Boccaccio secured him an apprenticeship to a prominent merchant with whom the young writer ‘did nothing for six years but waste irrecoverable time.’ Following this disastrous endeavour, another six years were squandered trying to make a canon lawyer of young Boccaccio, who—to his father’s disgust—continued to indulge himself in the study and creation of literature, as he felt ‘wholly drawn by strong affection towards poetry.’

 

Boccaccio’s account of his nascent poetic calling and the grief it caused his father gives us by far the most vivid depiction of his early years. Other valuable biographical information is found in his early essays that—in Symonds’ view—‘prove incontestably’ that, as a young adult, he mingled with members of high society.

 

Symonds supposes that Boccaccio’s gifts as a storyteller gave him entry into an elevated social stratum, one to which he would otherwise have been unwelcome. As the biographer explains, ‘Telling stories formed a favourite pastime with gentle men and women of the fourteenth century. Having once obtained the opportunity of displaying this gift, his society was sure to have been sought after.’ Another contention is that Boccaccio’s studies in canon law—though futile—enabled him to mix with finer society.

 

Whatever the case, the year 1348 saw a visitor that cared little about social strata; its name was Black Death, and it claimed over half of the Florentine population. Symonds believes that Boccaccio’s father perished among the stricken masses. At some point in 1349, the writer returned to what remained of Florence and embarked on a work, called The Decameron, which would become his magnum opus.

 

Written in the Tuscan vernacular, The Decameron consists of 100 stories told by seven women and three men who have escaped the ravages of plague and retired to a country villa for ten days. The opening’s grim description of a plague-stricken land eerily contrasts with the ensuing playful atmosphere of the 10 escapees who indulge in song, dance, strolls, storytelling, and other leisurely pursuits. Through all the joie de vivre there exists an ominous undertone, as the revelers are aware that ‘Black Death is hovering near them too, and may descend with sweeping scythe at any moment on their paradise.’

 

Boccaccio’s aesthetic paradise was disrupted in 1361, courtesy of a dying monk named Pietro de’ Petroni, who—while on his deathbed—claimed to have a vision of the ‘bliss of saints’ and the ‘torments of the damned.’ Among this latter group were some men of prominence; Boccaccio was one. The dying holy man had sent a fellow monk to carry the message; and this monk visited Boccaccio in Florence.

 

Boccaccio was so stricken that he thought not only of ending his literary career, but of becoming a monk himself. Seeking some sort of guidance, he consulted his illustrious contemporary ,Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, the sonneteer extraordinaire. Petrarch told him essentially not to take the whole thing too seriously: that, even when genuine, deathbed visions are often more hallucinatory than revelatory.

 

These comforting words arrived just in time, as the writer was about to burn his manuscripts in a religious mania. Interestingly enough, these manuscripts would ultimately find a holy resting place: Florence’s own monastery of Santo Spirito. 

 

Though Boccaccio’s crisis of the soul eventually subsided, his later years would bring their share of misfortune: a number of friends were executed during the politically turbulent 1360s andhe was increasingly beset by a number of somatic problems.

 

The death of Petrarch in 1374 further weakened his spirits, and Boccaccio himself died in Certaldo at age 62 on December 21, 1375. Expiring in consecutive years were two writers who dictated the course of Italian literature for the next several centuries. From the depths of their eloquence, they raised the tone of vernacular literature and elevated it to that of timeless classics.

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