BOCCACCIO, GIOVANNI (?1313-75). Author of the Decameron, the third of the Three Crowns of Italian literature, the great master and model of classic Italian prose, and the greatest of modern story-tellers. He was born (probably in 1313, and surely not later than July 20, 1314) in Paris, the illegitimate son of Boccaccio di Chellino, a Florentine merchant, and a French noblewoman, whose first name was Giovanna (Jeanne). Reared in Florence, Boccaccio was sent about 1323 to study accounting in Naples. Finding this uncongenial, he turned to canon law, which also he left for classical and scientific studies and the gay life of the court of King Robert of Naples, a brilliant centre of culture and learning. Here he made powerful and stimulating friendships, his mind was enriched in cultivated surroundings, his sensibilities were sharpened to the natural beauty of Naples, and his emotional nature expanded in a sympathetic, sensuous luxury. The great episode in his life at this time was his love for Maria de Conti d’Aquino-- for "Fiammetta," as she is called in some of his writings--a love which touched all the chords of emotion in Boccaccio, from exquisite happiness while she was faithful to him, to bitterest jealousy and despair after she left him for others. For her he wrote his earliest Italian romances, and his experiences with her brought him a deep insight into human nature and feeling. Financial difficulties recalled Boccaccio to Florence in 1340, and during the next years he is almost lost to view. In 1346 he was living with Ostasio da Polenta at Ravenna: in 1348, with Francesco Ordelaffi at Forli. He settled, after a short trip to Naples, in Florence, where he was living in 1351. For his native city he performed various diplomatic services in Bologna (1351), the Tirol (1351), Avignon (1354 and later in 1365), and Rome (1367). In 1351 also he had carried to Petrarch in Padua a nomination to a professorship in Florence. Boccaccio had met Petrarch, in 1350, in Florence. His acquaintance with the great poet ripened into a sincere affection, which sustained Boccaccio in the difficult years to follow, encouraging him in his studies and writing, steadying his mental and moral poise. Their correspondence was uninterrupted till Petrarch's death, in 1374. In 1362 Boccaccio was invited to Naples by his friend Nicola Acciauoli, who promised him the patronage of Queen Joanne. His cold reception led him to seek the consolation of his friend Petrarch in Venice (1363) . Rejecting Petrarch's offer of a home, he returned to the poverty of his Certaldo estate. His last years were brightened by his appointment as lecturer on Dante in Florence in 1373, but the course was interrupted by illness in 1374. Since 1354 a great change had come over Boccaccio's view of life. The bitterness of his emotional experiences had inclined him to disgust with the world and to religious meditation. These tendencies became very definite after a visit to him in 1362 of a monk, Gioacchino Ciani, who brought him the dying message of a certain Fra Pietro Petroni, urging him to repent. Boccaccio regarded the poverty of his last years as a direct judgment of God on his youth. His retirement to Certaldo in 1374 was a definite renunciation of the world. He died there, Dec. 21, 1375.
Aside from the Decameron, Boccaccio's writings include: (1) The Filocopo (1331-38), his first and longest work of fiction, which was written for Maria d'Aquino. It deals with the fundamental theme of Fleur and Blanchefleur, two youthful lovers, separated by adversity, and reunited after many adventures. The naïve tale of mediaeval France is adorned by Boccaccio with a curious conglomeration of pagan and chivalric legends, of classic mythology and mediæval Christianity. A certain importance attaches to the discussions of love on the background of Neapolitan society of the day, and to the personal revelations concerning himself and Maria, which Boccaccio has woven into the story. Greater psychological acumen appears in (2) the Filostrato (the story of Troilus and Criseïs, written c.1338) and (3) the Teseide (the story of Palemon and Arcite, written c.1341), both poems in the octave stanza, inspired by Boccaccio's own love affairs and interesting as sources of Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Troilus. A third poem in octaves (4), the Ninfale Fiesolano (the love of Affrico for a nymph of Diana, and the founding of Florence through their son Pruneo), shows a great advance in artistry, in the delicacy and sincerity of its sentiment and pathos, and in the simplicity of its form; whereas in (5) the Ameto and in (6) the Amorosa visione the warmth of biographical motivation is smothered under a cold and perfunctory allegory of love. Just as the Ameto is the first great pastoral romance, so (7) the Fiammetta is the first great psychological novel. Here, under the names of Panfilo and Fiammetta, Boccaccio relates, with inverted roles, the story of his abandonment by Maria. Even though the analysis of sentiments, especially of jealousy, is hampered by an excess of classical illustration, it is profound acute and sincere, and there is much of the same rich objectivity in setting that we find in the Decameron. In (8) the Corbaccio (written c.1354-55) he vents in a satirical allegory on the wiles of women his resentment at his disillusions in love, and hints at that weariness with worldly things which characterizes the later years of his life. In fact, the Decameron, finished in 1353, seems to have exhausted one phase of Boccaccio's nature, his gayety and mundanity. Between 1351 and 1360 we have (9) a work of ponderous erudition, the treatise De genealogiis deorum gentilium, followed (1356-64) by (10) the De casibus virorum illustrium and the De claris mulieribus and (1366) by the scientific De montibus, all works of distinctly mediæval type, without the historical perspective so notable in Petrarch's humanism. (11) The Vita di Dante and the Commentary on the Comedy also belong to this later period. The notable (12) Eclogues in Latin and (13) his Italian verses retrace in part the ground covered in his romances.
If Boccaccio had died in 1348, the minor works already produced would have made him an important figure among the lesser contemporaries of Petrarch and Dante. It was the Decameron, written between that year and 1353, which gave him a place among the greatest writers of all time. Purely extrinsic considerations make the Decameron a work of the first importance. In it Boccaccio gathers together from all sources--from the French fabliaux, from the classics, from current folklore and contemporary life--all those fundamental human situations, tragic, comic, practical, ethical, which confront human existence in its most universal aspects. In this respect the Decameron has been a storehouse for all writers of fiction from his own time to the present: his imitators include hundreds of writers, from masters like Shakespeare to geniuses like D' Annunzio. The perfection of his art has likewise made him a universal model for story-telling: he isolates with absolute clearness the "point" of his situation, develops it with characters visualized in their most living and essential features, and his exposition proceeds with the greatest expedition and economy to the climax and conclusion. In a narrower field, that of Italian prose, his influence, like that of Petrarch, has been tremendous; for the Renaissance, with its doctrine of imitation, set up the Decameron, as the criterion of prose excellence, choosing, however, with typical perversity the occasional involution of his periods as the essence of his art. So that here its influence was mostly bad. The Decameron finally offers an encyclopædic panorama of contemporary life and manners, representing people from every walk of life, but especially from the middle classes, in their objective reality, living, moving, feeling, revealing themselves in their inmost souls. All this makes the Decameron interesting. But the vital principle which makes it immortal is Boccaceio's own æsthetic vision. In the representation of the tragic, the heroic, the virtuous, Boccaccio is out of his natural field; he becomes rhetorical, abstract, and inclined to exaggeration. His creations move as though out of touch with reality. If his patient Griselda has survived, it is not for her virtue but for her pathos as a suffering, neglected wife. It is rather when Boccaccio comes to his characters with the pure delight of concrete portrayal that he attains perfection. And his own best insight was for the uglier sides of human nature in their more venial manifestations. Here we have the true field of the comic. Boccaccio's laugh is the quintessence of laughter. He penetrates behind every pose, every self-deception of his people and brings them face to face with reality, and this reality and this pose are visualized by him in their completeness and essence. There is no phase of life that escapes his comic vein. He riots in licentiousness and at least skims the surface of sacrilege, not because his genius was more perverse, but because his available materials were more plentiful. In the comic field he attains the heights reached by Dante in his treatment of human aspiration. He has the same grasp of human nature, the same power of objectifying his vision.
Consult a F. Hutton, Giovanni Boccaccio: A Biographical Study (New York, 1910; trans. by T. Wright, London, 1874) ; complete ed. of all works, by Moutier (Florence, 1827-34); expurgated ed. of Decameron by Fornaciari (Florence, 1900).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. III (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 438-439.