Boccaccio

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Authors born between 1300 and 1450 CE

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Contents

Introduction

From Avarice to Generosity

Ancient Sparks of Love

Quickness

Rural Beauty

Turning a Woman into a Mare

Pleasing and Pleased by Ladies

Defense of the Decameron

Poetry is a Useful Art

A Definition of Poetry

Boccaccio’s Passion for Poetry

Sources

 

 

Introduction

 

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was born in Paris, France, to a Florentine father and a French mother. His father returned with the young Boccaccio to Florence, where he married a Florentine. Boccaccio received an education in business and canon law, but after some years of this he turned to literature and through his writing and his recovery of classical sources became one of the leading Renaissance humanists of Italy.

 A Florentine scholar, poet, and literary critic, Boccaccio is best known as the author of The Decameron. In this book, a group of seven women and three men flee to the countryside to escape the plague in the city  of Florence. To pass the time, they take turns at telling ten stories during the course of each of ten days. Each day ends with a piece of Boccaccio’s lyric poetry.

      The stories range widely, dealing with humanity in all of its homely disorder. So much so, that the work has been called an escape from Dante. The style of the writing is striking, because the light and airiness of the rural surroundings seem to enter into the spirit of the prose, which renders all shades of feeling. Being stories told among a group of young people, many of the tales deal with the plots and trials of lovers, but there are also adventures, tragedies, moral homilies, and descriptions of the natural beauty of the Tuscan area. The pieces excerpted here are selected chiefly because they are short enough for inclusion and illustrate the author’s style; some also represent the author addressing us directly.

      Before The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote a series of romances and poems, including Ameto, L’Amorosa Visione, L’amorosa Fiammetta, Il Filostrato (which Chaucer translated as Troilus and Cressida), and Il Ninfale Fiesolano—all dealing with love, usually ending in the sorrow of separation and desertion. From later scholastic studies of Greek and Roman literature, Boccaccio wrote The Genealogy of the Gods. This fifteen-volume encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology became a popular book of reference for writers and poets. In it Boccaccio was able to display the power of ancient poetry to a public previously unaware of its existence.

      In the 14th Century the treasures of classical literature were held by monks, largely ignorant of their content. At the monastery of Monte Cassino, Boccaccio found many of the valuable manuscripts were mutilated: the monks would tear leaves from them to make them into books for children or into women’s amulets. He bought or copied with his own hand many of the manuscripts. He also sought to revive knowledge of the Greek language, which had been all but forgotten in western Europe. It was in these circumstances that he inserted in the last two books of his encyclopedia a defense of poetry. Some of the less vituperative parts are excerpted here.

 

 

 

  1  From Avarice to Generosity

 

There was in Genoa, sometime ago, a gentleman called Messer Ermino de' Grimaldi. According to general belief, he far exceeded in wealth of lands and money the riches of any other rich citizen then known in Italy. And as he exceeded all other Italians in wealth, so also he outdid beyond comparison in avarice and squalidness every other miser and curmudgeon in the world.  For not only did he keep a closed purse in the matter of hospitality but, contrary to the general habit of the Genoese, who like to dress sumptuously, he deprived himself excessively of those things necessary for his own person, no less than of meat and in drink, rather than spend any money. For this reason, surname de' Grimaldi had fallen away from him and he was deservedly called by everyone only Messer Ermino Avarice.

It happened that, while he multiplied his wealth by not spending, there came to Genoa a worthy poet, both well-bred and well-spoken, by name Guglielmo Borsiere. He was not in the least like present day poets, who are rather to be styled asses, reared in all the beastliness and depravity of the basest of people, rather than in the houses of nobility. (This is  no small reproach of the corrupt and blameworthy habits of those who nowadays would wish to be called and be regarded as well-bred and people of rank)

In those times it used to be a poet's responsibility and ambition to put his efforts into negotiating peace treaties where feuds or malice had developed between noblemen, into transacting marriages, alliances and friendships, in solacing the minds of the weary, and into amusing houses with unusual and pleasant sayings. And, yes, like a father they also gave sharp reprimands in rebuking the misdeeds of the unruly. All this for little enough reward.

But nowadays they study to spend their time in hawking malicious gossip from person to person, in creating enemities, in vicious speaking and obscenity. And what is worse they carry on like this everywhere—insinuating evil acts, lewdness and dishonesty to anyone, on no basis at all. And they prompt men of social position to base and shameful actions by treacherous enticements. And these so-called poet, who speak the most abominable words and exhibit the most abominable actions, are most cherished and honored and most munificently entertained and rewarded by the worthless, ill-mannered nobility of our time—a sore and shameful reproach to the present age and truly manifest proof that the virtues have departed this lower world and left us wretched mortals to wallow in the mire of vice.

But to return to my story—from which righteous indignation carried me farther away than I intended—I say that the aforesaid Guglielmo was honored by all the gentlemen of Genoa and happily greeted by them. Then, having spent some days in the city and heard many stories about Messer Ermino's avarice and squalidness, he asked to see him. Messer Ermino having already heard how worthy a man was this Guglielmo Borsiere and retaining still, complete miser that he was, some vestige of gentlemanly breeding, received him with very amicable words and a most cheerful manner and talked about many and various things with him. In this fashion he took him, together with other Genoese who also came along, into a fine new house he had recently built. After showing him all over, he said, “Now, Messer Guglielmo, you have seen and heard many things, can you tell me of something that was never yet seen, which I may have painted in the gallery of my house?”

Guglielmo, hearing this preposterous question, answered, “Sir, I doubt I can take it upon myself to tell you of anything that was never seen yet, except perhaps sneezes or the like. But, with your permission, I will tell you of something that I think you never saw.” Messer Ermino, not expecting anything like the answer he would get, said,  “Please, do tell me what it is.” To which Guglielmo promptly replied, “Have generosity depicted here.”

When Messer Ermino heard him say this, he felt without restraint such shame that it changed his disposition totally around from what it had been. He said: “Messer Guglielmo, I will have it here depicted in such a way that neither you nor anyone else shall ever have cause again to tell me that I have never seen nor known it.” And such was the power of Guglielmo's words that from then on he was the most generous and the most courteous gentleman of his day in Genoa, and the one who most hospitably treated both strangers and residents alike.

From Lauretta’s story on the first day, Boccaccio's Decameron  

 

2   Ancient Sparks of Love

 

It is not many years since there lived (and perhaps still lives) at Bologna a very great and famous physician, widely honored throughout the world. His name was Doctor Alberto and although he was an old man close to seventy years of age and had lost much of his physical energy, he retained such a lively spirit that he did not hesitate to expose himself to the flames of love. At a party he saw a very beautiful widow called, as some say, Madam Malgherida de' Ghisolieri, and was greatly taken with her. In his mature heart, no less than if he had been a young spark, he experienced an amorous fire. So much so that he found he could no rest at night unless he had looked upon the delicate and desirable face of the fair lady the day before.

Therefore he began passing continually before her house, now on foot and now on horseback, however he happened to be going on his way. Naturally, she and many other ladies got wind of the cause of his constant passing to and fro. They often joked among themselves to see so old and wise a man in love, as if they assumed that that most pleasant passion of love took root and flourished only in the frivolous minds of the young and nowhere else.

As he continued to pass back and forth, it happened on one holiday that the lady was seated with many others in front of her door. And noticing Master Alberto making towards them in the distance, they took it into their minds to entertain him and treat him as a guest of honor, and after that to tease him about his passion. Accordingly, they all rose to receive him and invited him in,  taking him into a shady courtyard, where they brought out the choicest wines and pastries.

Presently they asked him, in a very polite and courteous manner, how he could fall in love with that fair lady, knowing her to be sought after by many handsome, young and spirited gentlemen. The physician, finding himself thus courteously attacked, smiled and answered, “Madam, that I love should not surprise any understanding person, and especially that I should love you, for you certainly deserve it. And although old men are by the work of nature deprived of the vigor necessary for amorous exercises, yet they are not deprived of the will nor of the wit necessary to perceive what is worthy to be loved. No, this perception is naturally sharper in them, to the extent that they have more knowledge and experience than the young.

“As for the hope that moves me, an old man, to love you who are courted of many attentive young men, it is like this. I have many times seen ladies lunch and eat lupines and leeks. Now, although in the leek no part is good, yet the head is less harmful and more agreeable to the taste. But you ladies, moved by a perverse appetite, commonly hold the head in your hand and munch the leaves, which are not only worthless, but also taste bad. How can I know, madam, that you do not choose your lovers in the same way? In which case, I should be the one chosen by you and the others would be turned away.”

     The widow and her companions were somewhat abashed and said, “Doctor, you have courteously and properly chastened us for our presumptuous act. You should know your love is dear to me, as should be that of a man of worth and learning. Therefore, you are free to ask from me, as your servant, whatever you please, except in regard of my honor.”

      The physician, rising with his companions, thanked the lady and taking leave of her with laughter and merriment, went away. Thus the lady, not thinking who she was teasing and thinking to embarrass someone, was herself embarrassed; from which, if you are wise, you will carefully guard yourselves.

                     From Elisa’s story on the first day, Boccaccio's Decameron 

 

 

3   Quickness

 

In the past there were in our city many admirable and commendable customs that no longer exist, for avarice has flourished there with the coming of wealth and has banished them all. Among them was a custom in which gentlemen from various quarters of Florence assembled together in different parts of town and formed themselves into companies of a certain number of people. They were careful to admit only those who might easily bear the expense incurred by all in turn—one today and another tomorrow—of holding open house for the whole company, each on his assigned day. At these banquets they often entertained any newly arrived gentlemen, if any came by, and also those living in the city. And also, at the least once a year, they all dressed up in the same uniform and rode in procession through the city on some special day. Sometimes they held armed contests, especially on the chief holidays, or when some welcome news of victory or the like came to the city.

Amongst these companies was one of Messer Betto Brunelleschi, into which this gentleman and his companions had worked hard to enroll Guido, son of Messer Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. There efforts were not without cause. For, besides being one of the most skilled in reasoning in the world and an excellent natural philosopher (of which things, indeed, they cared little), he was a very lively, courteous and well-spoken man. He knew better than any how to do everything that he wanted in the way expected of a gentleman. But more important to them was the evidence that he was very rich and knew exceedingly well how to entertain whoever he thought deserving of the honor. But Messer Betto had never been able to get him to join them. He and his companions believed that this was because Guido, being engaged in abstract speculations at that time, and had become withdrawn from society. Also because he inclined somewhat to the opinion of the Epicurus, people said that his speculations consisted only in seeking if it might be discovered that there was no God.

One day, Guido set out from Orto San Michele and walked along the Corso degli Ademari, his usual route past San Giovanni, which had scattered around it various great marble tombs (now at Santa Reparata) as well as many others. As he stood between the columns of porphyry there and the tombs, in front of the locked door of the church, Messer Betto and his company came riding on horseback along the Piazza di Santa Reparata. Seeing Guido among the tombs they said, “Let us go and annoy him.”

Spurring their horses, they all rode down on him in sport like a cavalry charge. And coming on him before he was aware of them, said “Guido, you refuse to join our company; but, look, when you shall have proved that there is no God, what will you have achieved?”

Guido, seeing himself hemmed in by them, retorted promptly, “Gentlemen, you may say anything you want to me in your own home.” Then, laying his hand on one of the great tombs and being physically very nimble, he vaulted over and landing on the other side made off, having thus rid himself of them.

The gentlemen sat looking at one another and arguing that he had gone weak in the head; that what he had answered them made no sense, for they had no more to do with the place they were in than other citizens, nor did Guido himself less than any of themselves. But Messer Betto turned to them and said, “It is you who are weak in the head, if you have not understood him. He has courteously and in a few words given us the sharpest rebuke in the world. Because, if you consider it properly, these tombs are the homes of the dead, seeing they are laid at rest in them. And these, he says, are our home, meaning to show us that we and other foolish and unlettered men are, compared with him and other men of learning, worse than dead folk. Therefore, being here, we are in our own home.” At this, each understood what Guido had implied and was ashamed. From that time on, they did not harass him any more and they admired Messer Betto as a gentleman of a subtle wit and understanding.

                       From Elisa’s story on the sixth day, Boccaccio's Decameron 

 

 

4  Rural Beauty

 

The sun was still well up, as the day’s stories had been but short. Therefore, when Dioneus and the other gentlemen sat down to play backgammon, Elisa called the ladies aside, and said, "Ever since we have been here I have wanted to show you a nearby place that I believe none of you has seen. It is called the Ladies' Valley and I have not had an opportunity before today to bring you there. As the sun is still high, if you would like to go there, I 'm sure you will be pleased by the walk."

The ladies answered that they were all willing. Without saying a word to the gentlemen, they called one of their maids to come with them, and after going just over a mile they came to the Ladies' Valley. This they entered by a very straight path, on one side of which ran a fine clear stream. They found it so extremely beautiful and inviting, especially at that sultry season, and nowhere could have been better. As one of them told me afterwards, the plain in the valley was as true a circle as if it had been laid out with a pair of compasses, though it seemed rather the work of nature than of art. It was about half a mile around, set among six small hills, not too high, on each of which was a villa built in the form of a small castle. The hillsides sloped down gradually to the plain—much as in an amphitheater where the circle of each level grows gradually less and less.

     Those slopes which looked towards the south were all full of vines, olives,  almonds, cherries and figs, and many other kinds of fruit-bearing trees, without a patch of ground being wasted. The slopes which faced the Northern Wagon were covered with thickets of dwarf oaks and ashes and other trees, as green and straight as could be. The plain in the middle, which had no other way in than the one the ladies came by, was full of firs and cypresses and laurels and various sorts of pines, as well arrayed and ordered as if planted by the most skilled landscape gardener; and between the trees no sun, even at its highest, made its way to the ground. The meadow of very fine grass was sown thick with purple flowers and many others.

No less delightful than anything else was a little stream running down from a valley that divided two hills, tumbling over cliffs of living rock, murmuring in a way entrancing to hear, and appearing in the distance, as it broke over the stones, like so much quick­silver jetting out under pressure into a fine spray. As it came down into the little plain, it entered a handsome channel and ran very swiftly to the middle, where it formed a small lake, much like a fish pond town people sometimes make in a park when they have room for it. This lake was no deeper than would reach up to a man’s chest. Its waters being exceedingly clear and altogether free from silt, a bottom of very fine gravel could be seen; the pebbles could be counted by anyone who had nothing else to do. But, looking into the water revealed not only the bottom but also many fish flitting here and there, so that, over and above the pleasure this gave, it was a marvel to see. The lake itself was enclosed by no other banks than the grass of the meadow itself, which was the healthier there because of the more moisture it received. The water that exceeded the capacity of the lake went into another channel, running out of the little valley into the lower country.

To this place then came the young ladies. And after they had gazed all about and exclaimed how much they liked the place, they agreed among themselves to have a swim, for the heat was oppressive—they saw the lake before them, and they had no fear of being seen. So, telling their serving maid to stay near the path and keep an eye out and warn them if someone should come by, they stripped themselves naked, all seven, and entered the lake. This hid their white bodies no more than as a thin glass would hide a vermilion rose. Then, once they were in, and not muddying the clear water, they began rushing here and there, as best they could chasing the fish—which had trouble finding where to hide themselves—trying to catch them in their hands. After they had spent some time in such a joyful game and had indeed caught some fish, they came out from of the lake and put on their clothes again. Then, unable to praise the place more than they had already done, and finding it time to turn back for home, they set out on their way with soft steps, talking much about the beauty of the valley.

    From the description of the end of the sixth day, Boccaccio's Decameron

 

 

5   Turning a Woman into a Mare

 

A year or two ago there was at Barletta a priest called Dom Gianni di Barolo. Because he had an impoverished parish, he took to adding to his income by trading goods from fair to fair in Apulia, going along with his mare and buying and selling. In the course of his travels he became friendly with a man who called himself Pietro da Tresanti. He carried on the same trade with the help of an ass he had.

     As a mark of friendship and affection, Dom Gianni called him friend Pietro, after the Apulian fashion, and whenever he came to Barletta, he took him back to his parsonage and lodged there him with himself and gave him his best hospitality. Friend Pietro, for his part was very poor and had only a humble little house at Tresanti, hardly sufficing for himself, his young buxom wife and his ass. But whenever Dom Gianni came to Tresanti, Pietro took him home with him and entertained him as best he could, in return for the hospitality he received at Barletta. Nevertheless, because he had only one narrow little bed, which he slept in with his beautiful wife, he could not accommodate the priest in the way he would like. Instead, not only did he bed down Dom Gianni's mare with his ass in his tiny stable, but he had to have the priest himself lie by her side on a bundle of straw.

Whenever the priest came by, the generous wife, knowing the hospitality which the priest gave her husband at Barletta, would more than once have liked to gone over to sleep at the house of her neighbor, Zita Carapresa, daughter of Giudice Leo. Then the priest would be able to sleep in bed with her husband. She kept offering to do this for Dom Gianni, but he would never hear of it. In the end he said to her, “Dear Gemmata,  don’t worry about me.  I do very well, for when I feel like it, I change this mare of mine into a beautiful woman and lie down with her. Then, afterwards, I change her back into my mare again. For this reason, I do not care to be away from her.”

 The young woman was amazed, but believed his story and went and told her husband. She added “If he is such  a friend of yours as you say, why don’t you make him teach you this trick, so you will be able to turn me into a mare and carry on your trading with both an ass and a mare? In that way we would have two instead of one. And when we came home, you could turn me back into a woman again, as I am now.”

Pietro, who was a little thick in the head, believed what she said. So, agreeing with her idea, he began as best he knew how to get Dom Gianni to teach him the trick. The priest did his best to drive such foolishness out of his head. However, when this failed, he said, “Look, since you will have it your way, we will get up tomorrow morning before day break, as usual, and I will show you how it is done. To tell you the truth, though, the most difficult part of the matter is putting on the tail, as you will see.”

Friend Pietro and his wife Gemmata hardly slept that night with their impatience to have this marvel accomplished  And so, as daybreak drew near, they got up and called Dom Gianni. He came out in his night shirt and went to Pietro's little bedroom. As he came in he told them, “I know nobody in the world I would do this for, except you. Therefore, since it will make you happy, I will in fact set about it. But you will have to do everything I tell you if you want this thing to succeed.”

They answered that they would do exactly what he asked.

On this, he took up the candle and put it into Pietro's hand, saying to him, “Watch carefully what I do and remember exactly what I say. Above all, to avoid ruining everything, take great care that no matter what you hear or see you do not say a single word, and pray God that the tail may stick on well.”

Pietro took the light, promising to do exactly as was asked. Then Dom Gianni had Gemmata strip herself as naked as she was born and made her get down on all fours, like a mare. He warned her in the same way not to utter a word, no matter what happened. Then, passing his hand over her face and her head, he said, “Let this be a fine mare's head,” and touching her hair said, “Let this be a fine mare's mane.” After this he touched her arms, saying, “Let these be a fine mare's legs and feet.” Then he passed his hands over her breasts and, they being round and firm, something woke up that had not been called and stood up on end. At this he said, “Let this be a fine mare's chest.” And in this way he went on to do the same thing with her back and belly, and her crupper, thighs and legs. In the end, with nothing left to do but attach the tail, he pulled up his shirt and taking the dibble with which he planted men, he thrust it quickly into the furrow made for it and intoned, “And let this be a fine mare's tail.”

Pietro, who had up till now watched everything intently, seeing this last activity under way and thinking it was not being done properly, said, “Look here, Dom Gianni, I won't have a tail there, I won't have a tail there!” By this time the vital moisture such as makes all things grow was come, and Dom Gianni drew back, saying, “Alas, friend Pietro, what have you done? Did I not tell you not to say a word no matter what you saw? The mare was all but made. Now you have spoiled everything by talking, and there is no way of doing it over again, ever.”

 Pietro replied, “Mother of God, I did not want that tail there. You were putting it too low down. Why did you not say to me, ‘Make it yourself’?”

“Because,” answered Dom Gianni, “you would not know the first time how to stick it in so well as I can.”

 The young woman hearing all this, stood up and said to her husband, in all seriousness, “You buffoon, why have you made such a mess of our plans? What mare did you ever see without a tail? God help me, you may be poor, but it would serve you right if you became much poorer.” Then, because the words that Pietro had spoken meant there was no longer any way to make a mare out of a young woman, she put on her clothes, grieving and disconsolate.

So friend Pietro set off to ply his old trade with just an ass, as he always did, traveling with Dom Gianni to Bitonto fair. But he never again sought from him a similar service.

                                From Dioneo’s story on the ninth day, Boccaccio's Decameron 

 

 

6  Pleasing and Pleased by Ladies

 

There are, discreet ladies, some who reading these stories have said that you please me overmuch and that it is not a seemly thing that I should take so much delight in bringing pleasure and solace to you. Some have said even worse of my praising you as I do. Others, making a show of wishing to speak more maturely, have said that it ill suits my age in future to be engrossed in things of this kind, namely, to hold forth on women or to study to please them. And many, pretending themselves mightily concerned about my reputation, swear that I would be wiser to dwell with the Muses on Parnassus rather than keep myself busy among you with these toys. Again, there are some who, more in a spirit of spite than advice, have said that I should think more carefully where I might earn my bread rather than to go peddling these baubles and feeding on the wind. And certain others, disparaging my efforts, take pains to prove that the things I have recounted have not been as I presented them. . . But, before I come to answer any of them, it pleases me to relate in my own defense, not an entire story—in case it should seem I am trying to mix my own stories in with those of so commendable a group of people as I have presented to you—but a part of one. In this way its very lack of completeness may attest that it is none of theirs.

So, speaking to my assailants, I say that in our city, a good while ago, there was a townsman, by name Filippo Balducci  . . . Filippo after the death of his wife was as disconsolate as any man could be who has lost a loved one.  He saw himself left alone and forlorn, missing that company which most he loved. He resolved, therefore, to abandon worldly cares and to devote himself to the service of God, and to have his little son do the same. So, giving away all his worldly goods for the service of God, he went off without delay to the top of Mount Asinajo, where he made his home with his son in a tiny hut. There they lived on alms, and spent time in fasting and praying, rigorously abstaining from conversation. He did not tell the boy about worldly things, in case this might divert him from their way of life. Instead he only spoke about the glories of life in eternity, and of God and the saints, teaching him nothing but pious prayers.  And he kept him many years in this way of life, never allowing him leave the hermitage nor letting him see any other person than himself.

Now the pious man used sometimes to go into Florence, where his needs were supplied by some monks, and then he journey back to his hut. Well, one such day when his son had reached the age of eighteen years and Filippo himself had become elderly, the young man asked him where he was going. Filippo told him and the boy said, “Father, you are now an old man and get tired easily. Why not bring me to Florence this time and let me get to know your friends and devotees of God? Then, when you feel like it, you can remain here while I who am young and stronger than you can go to Florence for our needs.”

The worthy man realized that his son was now fully grown. So, thinking him so accustomed to the service of God that the things of this world would no longer be unable to seduce him, said to himself, “The young man speaks the truth.” And the next time he needed to go to Florence he took his son along with him. There the youth stared at the palaces, the houses, the churches and all the other things on show throughout the city. As he could not remember having seen anything like it, he began to marvel out loud and to ask his father what these things were and how they were called. Filippo told him and, having got his answer, the son was satisfied and each time went on to ask about something else.

As they were going along in this way, the son asking and the father answering, they met by chance a company of pretty and well-dressed young women, coming from a wedding. As soon as the young man saw them, he asked his father what manner of things these were. “My son,” answered Filippo, “cast your eyes on the ground and do not look at them, for that they are a wicked thing.”

The son asked, “But how are they called?” The father, to avoid waking in the young man's mind a less than beneficial carnal appetite, would not name them by the proper name, namely, women. Instead he said, “They are called young geese.” To his surprise, the young man who had never seen a woman before and who had no regard for palaces or oxen or horses or asses or money or anything else he had seen, suddenly said, “Father, I beg you, get me one of these young geese.”

“Alas, my son,” replied the father, “be quiet; I tell you they are a wicked thing.”

“How?” asked the youth. “Are all wicked things then made this way?''

      “Yes.” answered Filippo.

Then the son said, “I  do not understand what you are saying or why these are a wicked thing. For my part, it seems to me that I never yet saw anything so good or pleasing as these are. They are fairer than the painted angels you have shown me before. For God's sake, if you have any feelings for me, arrange it so that we may carry one of those young geese back with us up the mountain, and I will feed it.”

      “No,” answered the father, “I will not: you do not know what they feed on.” And he realized that a passionate instinct was stronger than his wisdom and regretted having brought the young man to Florence.

        But that is a far as I need to go with the present story, and now I should return to those for whose benefit I have told it.

      Some of my censurers, then, say that I am wrong, young ladies, to take so many pains to please you and that you please me far too much. These things I confess openly, namely, that you please me and that I study to please you. Furthermore, I ask them why they are amazed at this. Setting aside my having known the dulcet kisses, amorous embraces and delightful couplings often received from you, most sweet ladies, they have to consider only that I have seen and am still seeing your dainty manners, loveable beauty, sprightly grace and above all your womanly courtesy.

     How can they be amazed at me when Filippo who had been reared and bred on a wild and solitary mountain and within the bounds of a little cell, without other company than his father, no sooner set eyes on you than you alone were desired of him, you alone sought, you alone followed with passionate eagerness. Will they, then, blame me, backbite me, rend me with their tongues if I—whose body heaven created expressly to love you, I, who from my childhood vowed my soul to you, feeling the potency of the light of your eyes, the sweetness of your honeyed words and the flame kindled by your compassionate sighs—if I say you please me or that I study to please you, seeing that you over all else pleased an apprentice hermit, a lad without understanding, no, rather, a wild animal? Certainly, it is only those, who, with neither sense nor understanding of the pleasures and potency of natural affection—who do not love you nor desire to be loved of you—that scold me in this way. And of these I take little account.

As for those who go railing about my age, it would seem they little know that even though the leek has a white head, its tail is green. But, laying joking aside, to these I answer that never, no, not to the extreme limit of my life, shall I think it shameful to seek to please those whom Guido Cavalcanti and Dante Alighieri, when already stricken in years, and Messer Cino da Pistoja, when a very old man, held in honor and whose approval was dear to them. And if it would not be breaking away from the accepted pattern of story telling, I would cite sufficiently from history to show it to be full of stories of ancient and noble men who in their ripest years have still studied above all to please the ladies. If my critics do not know this, let them go learn.

                            From the author’s introduction to the fourth day, Boccaccio's Decameron  

 

 

7  Defense of the Decameron

 

There are, perhaps, some of you who will say that I have used too much license in setting down these stories, as well as in making ladies sometimes say, and very often hear, things not very seemly either to be said or heard by modest women. This I deny, for that there is nothing so unseemly as to be forbidden unto any one, if it is but expressed in seemly terms, as it seems to me I have indeed done very aptly here. . .

     Corrupt minds never understood a word in a healthy way. And just as seemly words do not profit depraved minds, so those which are not altogether seemly do not serve to contaminate the well-disposed, any more than a slimy bog can sully the rays of the sun or earthly foulness the beauties of the sky. What books, what words, what letters, are holier, worthier, more venerable than those of the Divine Scriptures? Yet there are many who, interpreting them perversely, have brought themselves and others to perdition. Everything in itself is good in some way, but when ill used may become harmful; and so say I of my stories. . .

     Again, I do not doubt for a moment that some of you who will say that the stories told are full of quips, fancies, and humorous asides that are not suitable in the writing of a man of gravity and weight. To these I am bound to render—and do render—thanks, for the fact that moved by a virtuous jealousy, they are so considerate of my fame. But to their objection I reply in this way. I confess to being a man of weight and to have been often weighed in my time; therefore, speaking to those ladies who have not weighed me, I declare that I am not heavy. No, I am so light that I float like frothy wood in water. And considering that the sermons offered by priests to rebuke men of their sins are nowadays for the most part full of quips and verbal conceits and gibes, I conceived that these latter would not sit amiss in my stories written to comfort women in their melancholy. . .

     Again, who can doubt that some will certainly be found who say that I have a bad and venomous tongue, because I have in various places written the truth about the friars?  Those who say this must be forgiven, since it is not credible that they are moved by other than just cause, because the friars are a good sort of folk, who avoid lack of ease for the love of God, and who grind with a full head of water and tell no tales. But for the fact  that they all smell somewhat like a billy goat, meeting with them would be far more agreeable.

                                 The author’s concluding remarks, Boccaccio's Decameron 

 

 

8  Poetry is a Useful Art

 

I am about to enter the arena, a dwarf against those giant hulks who have armed themselves with authority to say that poetry is either no art at all or a useless one. . . They say, then, in condemnation of poetry, that it is nothing. If such is the case, I should like to know why, through generation after generation, so many great men have sought the name of poet. Where do so many volumes of poems come from? .  .  .

If then it prove a worthy branch of knowledge, what more will those noisy sophists have to say? They will either retract a little, or rather, I think, flit lightly over the gap thus moving in their argument to the second point of their objection. They will say that if poetry is a mere art, it is a useless one. How rank! How silly! Better to have kept quiet than hurl themselves with their frivolous words into deeper error. Why, do not the fools see that the very meaning of this word "art" or "faculty" always implies a certain abundance? But more of this elsewhere. Just now I wish that these accomplished gentlemen would show how poetry can reasonably be called futile when it has, by God's grace, given birth to so many famous books, so many memorable poems, clearly conceived, and dealing with strange marvels. They will keep quiet at this, I think, if their vain itch for showing off will let them. . . .

                               From Boccaccio's Genealogy of the Gods

 

9  A Definition of Poetry

 

This poetry, which ignorant triflers cast aside, is a form of glowing and exquisite invention, with fervid expression, in speech or writing, of that which the mind has invented. It proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; indeed so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of' men. This fervor of poesy is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adorns the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction.

Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, even counterfeit sky, land, and sea, adorn young women with flowery garlands, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper share of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry.

Yet if any man who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a praiseworthy poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be given shape are deficient. I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric, an abundant knowledge of which is required. I grant that many a man already writes his mother tongue admirably, and indeed has performed each of the various duties of poetry as such; yet over and above this, it is necessary to know at least the principles of the other liberal arts, both moral and natural, to possess a strong and abundant vocabulary, to be familiar with the monuments and relics of ancient civilizations, to have in one's memory the histories of the nations, and to be familiar with the geography of various lands, of seas, rivers and mountains.

                                From Boccaccio's Genealogy of the Gods

 

10  Boccaccio’s Passion for Poetry

 

Whatever the vocation of others, mine, as experience since leaving my mother’s womb has shown, is clearly the study of poetry. For this I believe I was born. I well remember how my father even in my boyhood directed all my endeavors towards business. As a  mere child, he put me under a great business man for instruction in arithmetic. For six years I did nothing in his office but waste irrevocable time.

Then, as there seemed to be some indication that I was more disposed to literary pursuits, this same father decided that I should study for holy orders, as a good way to get rich. My teacher was famous, but I wasted under him almost as much time as before. In both cases I so tired of the work that neither my teacher's admonition, nor my father's authority, who kept torturing me with ever renewed orders, nor the pleas and importunities of my friends, could make me yield, so great was my one passion for poetry. . .

Then let those who grant the cobbler his awl and bristles, the wool-raiser his flock, the sculptor his statues, in all patience give me leave to cultivate the poets.

                                       From Boccaccio's Genealogy of the Gods

 

Sources

 

     1-7     Adapted from The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by John Payne. Horace Liverright, New York, 1925.

    8-10   Adapted from Boccaccio on Poetry, translated by C. G. Osgood. Princeton University Press, Princeton , N. J. 1930.

             The first four days of the Decameron, translated by J. M. Rigg, are available for downloading from Project Gutenberg.

 

Introduction, selections, adaptations copyright © Rex Pay 2001