Saturday, May 4, 2013

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in or near Florence in 1313, the (likely illegitimate) son of a minor Florentine banker. His father made an advantageous marriage, got appointed head of the Bardi bank in Naples, and moved there with his family in 1326.

In Naples Giovanni studied accounting and then church law but never cared for either. Instead he pursued reading, writing, and relationships with women. All three benefited from his access to the royal court made possible by his father’s role as financial advisor to the king of Naples.

Around 1338 Giovanni wrote a long narrative poem entitled Il Filostrato. In it a young Trojan warrior named Troilo falls in love with Criseida. At first she returns his love but soon gives her heart wholly to Troilo’s main Greek rival Diomedes. Giovanni’s book inspired both a book by Geoffrey Chaucer and, through him, a play by William Shakespeare.

Perhaps two years later Giovanni wrote an epic poem called Teseida. The context is the reign of Theseus but the main action concerns the rivalry of two men for the affection of one woman. Geoffrey Chaucer used this story as the basis for “A Knight’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales.

Giovanni moved back to Florence in 1341 but on to Ravenna in 1347. The next year the plague struck Florence and killed three-quarters of its inhabitants.

Giovanni wrote The Decameron (The Ten-day [Event]) in Italian over a period of three years beginning in 1349. He thoroughly revised it in 1370-1371 and this is the version we read today. The book is a collection of 100 interwoven stories shared by three men and seven women who have fled Florence to avoid death by plague.

Tales from The Decameron later inspired a host of significant writers. These include Martin Luther (I.2 in Table Talk [#1899]), William Shakespeare (III.9 for All’s Well That Ends Well), Gotthold Lessing (I.3 for Nathan the Wise [1779]), MoliĆ©re (III.3 for The School for Husbands [1661]), Voltaire (translated I.1), John Keats (IV.5 for Isabella), and Alfred Tennyson (V.9 for The Falcon).

After his return to Florence, its rulers asked Giovanni to host Francesco Petrarch during his official visit to their city in October 1350. This meeting led to a mutually stimulating friendship between the two. These rulers later sent Giovanni as their representative to important people in places such as Bologna (1351), Avignon (1354, 1365), and Rome (1367).

Giovanni and Francesco regularly corresponded with one another following their first meeting until Francesco’s death in 1374. In one letter to Giovanni, Francesco included his retelling, in Latin, of Giovanni’s tale about Griselda from The Decameron (X.10). Later Francesco published this letter and Latin retelling in his Letters of Old Age. The Venetian Apostolo Zeno wrote a libretto based on Francesco’s retelling. His libretto was used for operas composed by fellow Venetians Tomaso Albinoni (1728) and Antonio Vivaldi (1735).

Impressed by the Divine Comedy, Giovanni wrote a biography of fellow Florentine Dante (finished in 1355?). Florentine rulers later appointed him a lecturer on Dante (1373).

Francesco and Giovanni encouraged one another in their studies of ancient Greek and Roman literature. This led Giovanni to write, in Latin, On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles (1360). In it he retells for his time the stories of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. It remained the standard work on Greek and Roman mythology for centuries.

In 1362 a monk predicted that Giovanni would soon die and encouraged him to abandon his Olympian literary work in favor of Christian works. This prediction and exhortation profoundly disturbed Giovanni and he seriously considered burning all of his papers and selling his library. Francesco, however, was able to persuade his good friend that no contradiction existed between his work as an author and his life as a Christian. 

From 1362 Giovanni wrote essays about women and, in 1374, had 106 of them published as a book On Famous Women. It was the first book devoted solely to women in the history of Olympia. His subjects included Eve, Europa, Cassandra, Helen (“of Troy”), Penelope, Dido, Sappho, and Cleopatra.

In 1374 Giovanni also published On the Fates of Famous Men. Among the 56 subjects who rose then fell he included Adam, Cadmus, Theseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Samson, Saul, Zedekiah, Xerxes, Hannibal, Pompey, Cicero, Marc Antony, Herod, Arthur and, oddly enough, Francesco Petrarch.

Giovanni died, probably of congestive heart failure, at his home in a small town near Florence.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.