Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian writer (1313-1375). Along with Dante and Petrarch, he is known as one of the leading figures of the Italian Renaissance Literature. His most famous work is The Decameron. Originally a merchant, his literary talent brought him into contact with royalty and nobility. In his later years, he became friends with Petrarch and wrote Latin works.

Boccaccio’s Life

 Boccaccio was born into a merchant family from Tuscany. it is still unknown who his mother was. He learned Latin and arithmetic at an early age.

 Around 1325, Boccaccio began an apprenticeship in Naples. His father belonged to the Bardi Bank, a Florentine financier. He wanted Boccaccio to take over the family business, and so he apprenticed him to this bank. Boccaccio started working at a branch in Naples. The manager of the branch was his father.

 In Naples, a new place, Boccaccio was not ready to establish himself as a merchant. At that time, Naples, located in southern Italy, was one of the most important trading cities in the Mediterranean Sea and was bustling with activity. There were active exchanges of people, goods, and information not only from Europe but also from other parts of the Mediterranean.

 Boccaccio was interested in and interacted with people and goods coming from various regions. He also made contacts with people of higher status and learned men. He even began to enter the court. These experiences would later prove useful in the Decameron. While studying to become a notary, in the early 1330s, he also began his literary activities. He read a variety of literature and wrote his own works. His early works dealt with courtly love and mythology. He was influenced by the Italian Dante and Petrarch of the same period.

The Decameron and the Plague

 In 1338, the Bardi Bank went bankrupt. Thus, Boccaccio’s father was declared bankrupt. In 1340, Boccaccio moved to Florence. Here, he continued his literary activities. He produced works on themes such as chivalry and courtly love. These would influence Chaucer in England.

 In 1348, the plague struck Italy. Florence was no exception. Until 1352, it had struck all of Europe, killing about one-third of the population. This dire situation was also strongly impressed upon Boccaccio’s mind.

 In 1350, Boccaccio became a diplomatic envoy of Florence. He was sent to Milan, Brandenburg, and Avignon. As part of his official duties, he invited Petrarch to his home and began to develop a friendship with him. Boccaccio secured a professorship at the University of Florence for Petrarch. He also proceeded to return the Petrarch family’s property, which the Petrarchs had lost during their exile. Petrarch, however, refused these overtures and moved to Milan.

The Court in this age

 To better understand Boccaccio’s masterpiece, “The Decameron,” it is worthwhile here to explain the courts of Europe in this age. Court meant a group of cronies of the monarch. Specifically, they were family members, relatives, servants, office holders, and high-ranking officials. It may also include scholars and artists. In medieval Europe, monarchs traveled around their own country with their cronies, livestock, furniture, tableware, official documents, treasures, and so on. Not only monarchs but also nobles had their own courts.
 The most important role of the court in medieval Europe was that it was the center of cultural development. The arts and sciences were refined, as well as the rules of etiquette. A particularly important cultural event was courtly love. This was the manner of love between knights and wives in court. It had a great influence on lyric poetry and chivalry, such as the Arthurian tales.
Artists and upstart merchants from the regions where the monarchs were touring frequented this court. There, they had conversations about wonderful events and legends.

The Decameron

 In 1352, he completed his masterpiece, The Decameron. The work begins with the scene of the escape from the plague described above. The population of Florence was drastically reduced by the plague. Every day, somewhere, many people died. People began to disregard the law and the government. The sick were shunned and even abandoned by their relatives. There was not enough space in the cemeteries to bury the growing number of corpses. The city was overflowing with corpses, and the smell of decomposing bodies covered the whole city.
 In “The Decameron,” ten ladies and gentlemen flee this plague and gather at a villa in Florence, where each of them tells ten stories. Thus, it is a collection of 100 stories in total. The stories are not only set in Italy. They are set in Spain, India, Persia, France, Syria, North Africa, and England, etc. The sources also vary. The experience in Naples, mentioned above, was helpful. At the same time, this work contains many stories dealing with everyday social matters. This helps us to understand the social customs of the time.

 The influence of Dante’s “Comedy” and Petrarch’s “Canzoniere” has been pointed out in this work. With this book, Boccaccio’s fame has grown beyond Italy. This work would also come to be valued as a model of the Italian language in the 16th century.

 Late Years

 In his last years, Boccaccio also began to focus on Latin. It is partly because Petrarch had done so. So Boccaccio turned to more Greek and Roman classical works.
 Boccaccio also continued to write on his own. For example, he published biographies of outstanding women and queens at a time when the number of queens was increasing, as Naples was then ruled by a queen. However, he also implied criticism there. He also collected historical materials on mythology in classical antiquity and published an encyclopedia of ancient mythology (“Genealogy of the Pagan Gods”). Here, too, we can see Boccaccio’s development as a humanist. He also made a commentary on Dante’s “Comedy” in Latin. This was not completed. In 1373, he gave a public lecture on Dante’s Comedy at the request of the city of Florence.
 In 1375, while grieving Petrarch’s death, he himself died.

Giovanni Boccaccio

People associated with Boccaccio

Petrarch: Boccaccio’s friend and, with Dante, a representative of Italian Renaissance literature. Known for his “Canzoniere”.

Recommended or Selected References

ボッカッチョ『デカメロン』平川祐弘訳, 河出書房新社, 2017

Jane Chance, Medieval Mythography: The Emergence of Italian Humanism, 1321-1475, University Press of Florida, 2014

Christopher S. Celenza, The intellectual world of the Italian Renaissance : language, philosophy, and the search for meaning, Cambridge University Press, 2018