Thursday, December 28, 2023

Boccaccio's The Decameron (Classics Club Spin)

"...if what young people do in the name of love should be called a sin..." [435]
...then this is is not the book for you.

Giovanni Boccaccio started writing his The Decameron some time shortly after the Black Death of 1348, and finished it in 1352. Ten young people (Fiammetta, Lauretta, Panfilo, etc.)
are left rootless by the plague and decide to leave Florence and live in the countryside to escape. There they spend their time in dancing, singing, eating well, and most importantly telling stories, quite often about what young people do in the name of love. These ten (seven girls and three boys) each tell a story a day for ten days (over a period of two weeks) making a hundred stories.  Dioneo claims the privilege of telling the last story on each day, and his are pretty reliably the extra-bawdy ones.

Eight of the ten days have a theme assigned--magnanimity, trickery, or tragedy, for example. Most of my favorite stories came on the day where the theme was love, dogged by troubles, comes a happy end, (Day 5) but maybe that was just the mood I was in.  '...where he lived with her in peace and prosperity for a great many years to come.' [429] There were a bunch of stories that day ending like that and I liked 'em. 😉
"Now, since the reason we are here is to enjoy ourselves and have some fun,..." [715]
Lauretta, as imagined by Jules Lefebvre
Boccaccio gathered his stories from earlier collections in Latin or other languages; though influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy, he also tells stories of real people. Maybe he's telling those for the first time? Though it's also possible he's slotting historical people into traditional stories. Generally characters are new in each story, though some reappear. Calandrino, a not very bright painter, who is a historical figure, appears in several stories, together with his (?) friends Bruno and Buffalmacco, always suckering poor Calandrino into some gaffe. You can go see the paintings of all three even today (albeit in lesser-known Italian churches).

Did I mention the sex? One of the most famous stories is where a priest teaches a naive young woman how he's going to put the devil in hell. Do I need to explain? Probably not and anyway, I'm not going to. 

Boccaccio is mostly OK with religion, but he's pretty anti-clerical:
"a friar who was, without doubt, some gluttonous soup-swilling pie muncher" [259]
A bit ahead of the curve, but I kept thinking he'd made a fine Protestant. 

The stories went on to be reused by others. Chaucer is clearly swiping from Boccaccio in several places. I hadn't realized (and anyway it may not be true) but some consider that Chaucer met Boccaccio (and Petrarch) on one of Chaucer's trips to Italy on royal diplomatic business. Two of Shakespeare's plays have a story from the Decameron as a clear antecedent, though the the line of influence may not be direct, even in the form of translation. (Shakespeare had little Latin, less Greek, and even less Italian.) But the ninth story of Day 2 is the Cymbeline, and the ninth story of Day 3 is All's Well That Ends Well. Another of Boccaccio's stories suggested to me The Winter's Tale, though neither the notes in this volume, nor the Internets in general seemed to see what I saw. 

After I finished it I reread Poe's Masque of the Red Death, whose connection to the  Decameron in the end is pretty slight, I thought, but also Keats' long poem 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil', which was based on a fairly Gothic story from that day of tragedies. I don't think it was Keats at his finest, and it was the day of tragic stories, my least favorite day, but another example of Boccaccio's influence.

Anyway, a substantial tome...
"Nothing will seem long to those who read in order to pass the time." [858] my Classics Club list that I've been hemming and hawing over for a while. I'd started it once years ago in the Penguin translation before I even started blogging, but didn't finish it; for this reading I used the Wayne Rebhorn translation in a Norton paperback (shown above) that first came out in 2013. (The page numbers are to that version.) It won some awards and is pretty readable, I thought, though the Other Reader (who read it before I did) was put off by the use of Amurrican to represent what must have been a regional dialect in Italian. Well, translating dialect is always tricky.

However, the Decameron is a work that can usefully have notes, and the notes didn't strike me as very good in this, which was too bad. Oh, well. I did finish this version, even if I started skipping the notes after a while, which is more than I can say of the Penguin.

It was my Classics Club spin book, and I finished it a while ago (though not quite on time) but there have been things to do, movies to see, parties to attend or host, cookies to bake, etc., so it's only gotten its blog post now... 😉


  1. I had completely forgotten about this. Your review is wonderful and day perhaps I will get to this.

    1. Thanks! It really is a pretty fun collection of stories. One of the interesting things I read about it is how many of the stories have parallels in similar Indian collections, even though Boccaccio couldn't have read those directly. Translated into Arabic and then into Latin, which he then read. Possibly!

  2. Congrats on finishing Boccaccio! I had a hard time with the repetitiveness; in my recollection it's an endless procession of naughty priests, but I do remember the pot of basil...(Jean@Howling Frog)

    1. Thanks!

      They do get a bit repetitive--I find that with any collection of short stories. But I did find it fun.