BY KONRAD EISENBICHLER
'It is a remarkable story that I have to relate. And were it not for the fact that I am one of the many people who saw it with their own eyes, I would scarcely dare to believe it, let alone commit it to paper."
If Dante's Commedia is divine, Boccaccio's Decameron is definitely human. Sweaty, sneaky and at times even slutty, it presents us with a world that operates at the opposite end from the ethereal spheres and rational universe of Dante's masterpiece. Energetic, fast moving, bubbling over with life, this is a world where stupidity, not sin, is punished; where wit, not faith, is rewarded; where sexual pleasure, not chastity, is the object of the game. It has enthralled readers for generations and remains a bestseller to this day.
The Decameron is a collection of 100 tales narrated over the course of 10 days by three young men and seven young women. The premise is that the youths fled the plague ravaging Florence and are now waiting for the contagion to subside by holidaying, as it were, on the hills above the city, moving every day from one villa to the next and entertaining each other with dinner parties, songs, dances and stories.
When Boccaccio was writing The Decameron, the Black Death had, in fact, decimated the population of Florence (1348-49) and was wreaking havoc throughout Europe. Within a generation, a demographic catastrophe of biblical proportions had reduced the continent's population by one third, in some places by a half.
And yet, despite the disaster that was transforming European society forever, Boccaccio depicted a world that was full of life, he presented a cast of resilient characters and told stories that amuse, inspire and even edify the reader.
Many of Boccaccio's characters have become memorable. Andreuccio from Perugia, who foolishly flaunts the cash he has on hand to purchase horses, falls victim to an enterprising prostitute who steals his money and clothes, but eventually he gets his hands on a large jewelled ring and returns home richer than when he started, though not any smarter. A twist of fortune saves the day for him.
Having been caught in bed with her lover, Filippa is brought to court by her offended husband, but with an ingenious explanation, she is able to have the case against her dismissed and the local legislation on adultery altered. Wit wins the day for her.
The unemployed but not unimaginative Masetto from Lamporecchio pretends to be deaf and dumb so as to be hired as the gardener in a nunnery, where he then spends his entire adult life tending to the garden and the nuns, happily capitalizing on the fertility of the convent in more ways than one. Ingenuity is the key to his success.
Boccaccio's characters are resilient individuals who survive by luck, wit or ingeniousness. They represent the bustling world of late medieval Italy, replete with scoundrels and scholars, merchants and monks, nobles and nobodies, all struggling to survive. Optimism colours this mercantile epic where chance and human intelligence intertwine to move life forward in strange and unexpected ways.
But not everyone survives. The Decameron also tells of unfortunate lovers who end rather badly.
When Lisabetta's brothers murder her lover Lorenzo, she finds his body, chops off his head, hides it in a pot of basil and proceeds to water the pot with her tears. When her brothers discover her secret and take the pot away, Lisabetta dies of grief.
When Pasquino accidentally poisons himself and dies, his lover Simona re-enacts the incident for the judge and follows him into the grave.
When Guillaume de Roussillon's wife discovers that her husband has killed her lover and tricked her into eating his heart in a stew, she jumps off the castle's casement to her death.
Boccaccio clearly had a macabre streak in him that, in a grotesque way, makes for captivating reading.
Readers for six centuries have debated the moral of the stories and the purpose of the collection. The discussion will probably continue for another six centuries, to say the least.
Konrad Eisenbichler teaches Renaissance studies at the University of Toronto. He is the prize-winning author of The Boys of the Archangel Raphael: A Youth Confraternity in Florence, 1411-1785.
The two men then held a short consultation, at the close of which they said: "Lo now; we are sorry for thee, and so we make thee a fair offer. If thou wilt join with us in a little matter which we have in hand, we doubt not but thy share of the gain will greatly exceed what thou hast lost." Andreuccio, being now desperate, answered that he was ready to join them. Now Messer Filippo Minutolo, Archbishop of Naples, had that day been buried with a ruby on his finger, worth over five hundred florins of gold, besides other ornaments of extreme value. The two men were minded to despoil the Archbishop ... and imparted their design to Andreuccio, who, cupidity getting the better of caution, approved it; and so they all three set forth. But as they were on their way to the cathedral, Andreuccio gave out so rank an odour that one said to the other: "Can we not contrive that he somehow wash himself a little, that he stink not so shrewdly?"
Translation by J. S. Rigg