Thursday, November 7, 2013

Okay Already, I'm Reading The Decameron Starting Tonight

There's no way anyone could not want to jump in to Giovanni Boccaccio's magnus opus, which has been languishing on my shelves across two continents over the past decade, after reading Joan Acocella's spirited review of what she calls "probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon," whose "main theme [is] "unfraught sex, of a kind that has probably not been wholly comprehensible to Western people since the Reformation" — Renaissance Man. (Damned prots, spoiling "unfraught sex" for all of us since 1519!)

The little I knew about this work came from my exchange student days in the sister republic that lent her name to the neighboring town of Chili, New York, where in one of the capital's art house cinemas I saw the gay Pier Paolo Pasolini's soft-porn rendition of The Decameron (1971) (two decades after its release for the record). The film did not really impress me, unlike the director's stunning The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

Back to the subject of this post, you'd think Holy Mother Church would have raked Giovanni Boccaccio over the coals, right? Wrong. The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1917 had to say about Giovanni Boccaccio:
    The book with which Boccaccio's name is inseparably linked is the "Decameron", which was finished in 1353, but part of which had probably been written before the "Black Death" reached its height in 1348. The "Decameron" opens with a masterly description of the terrors of the pest, and we are then introduced to a gay company of seven ladies and three young men who have come together at a villa outside Naples to while away the time and to escape the epidemic. Each in turn presides for a day over the company and on each of the ten days each of the company tells a story, so that at the end one hundred stories have been told. It is difficult to say whether such a company as Boccaccio describes ever met. At all events, he says that he has taken pains to conceal the real names of the persons mentioned in the stories. There are reasons to believe, however, that Fiammetta is the same lady to whom Boccaccio has given that name in other works, while Dioneo may well represent Boccaccio himself.

    The great charm of the "Decameron" lies in the wonderful richness and variety of the adventures which he relates, in the many types of character and the close analysis of all shades of feeling and passion, from the basest to the noblest. The style is now Ciceronian, now that of the everyday speech of Florence. The sentence-structure is, to be sure, often involved and inverted, and it often requires several readings to enjoy a full understanding of the phrase. Boccaccio found the germs of his novelle in other literatures, in historic events, and in tradition, but, like Shakespeare, whatever he borrowed he made his own and living, by placing the adventures in the lives of his contemporaries. The indecency which is the greatest blot on the "Decameron", but to which it undoubtedly owes not a little of its celebrity, is no greater than is to be found elsewhere in medieval literature, and is due as much to the time and the circle in which the work was written as to the temperament of the author. He himself in his later years expressed deep repentance for the too free works of his youth; moreover, his jibes and anecdotes at the expense of clerics did not impair his belief in the teachings of the Church. Boccaccio's character was by no means a despicable one. He was a steadfast friend, a son who felt tenderly for his mother and never forgave his father for having abandoned her. He speaks with affection of his daughters who had died in childhood; it is not known who their mother was. He was a scholar of the first rank for his time, a man of independent character, and a good patriot.

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