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Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, writer, erstwhile banker and lawyer, was the illegitimate son of a prominent Tuscan merchant. The date of his birth, 1313, is an approximation, and it remains disputed whether he was born in Florence or in the nearby town of Certaldo. He was finally recognized by his father shortly before 1320, and was given a good Latin education before being sent to Naples to apprentice at the prominent Bardi banking house at the age of 13. Even at a young age, Boccaccio found a passion for poetry that spurred him to resist his father’s efforts to make him a banker. That said, his father’s position as a financial advisor at the Angevin court of Naples gave Boccaccio access to the aristocratic and literary circles of the city.
In the end, Boccaccio managed to convince his father that a banker’s life was not for him, but only on the condition that he study canon law. He studied at the University of Naples from 1330-1331 and 1334, pursuing all the while his humanistic interests of poetry and scholarship. During his time in Naples, Boccaccio wrote his first works of poetry and prose, from an imaginative blending of myth and allegory to praise the prominent women of Neapolitan society (Caccia di Diana-The Hunt of Diana) to a novelistic retelling of a French romance that melds myth, history and Christian allegory (the Filocolo). Boccaccio returned to Florence in 1340 due to a spell of economic hardship that would not allow his father to support his son’s life of indulgence any longer.
Boccaccio began writing the Decameron in the wake of the Black Death that devastated Europe in 1348, and would finish his masterpiece in about 1351. As a member of a prominent mercantile family, he played a part in Florentine politics, serving at times as an ambassador and representative in negotiations. Boccaccio had a long and intimate friendship with Francesco Petrarca, the great Italian poet and humanist of the 14th Century, and was closely connected to the efforts to renew cultural acquaintances with Latin and eventually ancient Greek literature. Boccaccio’s later works include a life of Dante and lectures on the Divine Comedy commissioned by the Florentine government as well as a misogynist prose vision Corbaccio and a Latin treatise on Classical mythology De genealogie deorum gentilium. Giovanni Boccaccio died in 1375 at his family home in Certaldo, a year after Petrarch and still in the midst of his lectures on Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Written by Akash Kumar, Department of Italian, Columbia University
Branca, Vittore. “Vita e Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio,” In Giovanni Boccaccio. Decameron. Vittore Branca, ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1992
The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996