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The Core Curriculum

Boccaccio

1313 CE – 1375 CE
Dates are approximate

Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, writer, erstwhile banker and lawyer, was a born a bastard to a prominent merchant family in about 1313.  The date of his birth is an approximation, and it remains disputed whether he was born in Florence or Certaldo, a nearby Tuscan town.  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.  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.  He began writing the Decameron in the wake of the Black Death that devastated Europe in 1348, and would finish his masterpiece in about 1351.  Boccaccio, as a member of a prominent mercantile family, played a part in Florentine politics, serving at times as an ambassador and representative in negotiations.  He 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 in 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)

Sources Consulted: 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.

For more information, see The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Historical Contexts

The Decameron

Boccaccio: His Life

Boccaccio lived in a period of transition, when a new and powerful mercantile class had emerged as economic prosperity took cities like Florence by storm.  The intellectual currents were running high, with a vibrant university culture in Naples and Bologna and a new enthusiasm for Ancient Greek and Roman culture that was aided by the rediscovery of many lost texts of the ancient world.  Naples was, furthermore, a highly important center for trade and a cultural crossroads that undoubtedly served as an important resource for Boccaccio’s wide-ranging tales in the Decameron.  Robert d’Anjou, the king of Naples during Boccaccio’s day, was a powerful figure in Italian politics and an important patron of the arts.  He cultivated a court culture that perhaps served as a practical model for Boccaccio’s literary valuing of courtliness in the Decameron

The strength and far-reaching influence of Italian commerce can be measured by the success of the Bardi banking house, which employed Boccaccio’s father.  They not only served as financial advisers to the Angevin king of Naples, but also lent money across Europe to such figures as the English king Edward III.  The emergence of such a powerful mercantile class that did not belong to the noble aristocracy that traditionally held power led to social and political unrest.  It has been suggested that this new demographic was Boccaccio’s intended audience for his Decameron and that the tales represented a way for him to advocate an ideal ethos for this influential group.

The Black Plague, which plays a vital role in the frame of the Decameron and the formation of the brigata of storytellers, ravaged the city of Florence in 1348.  While accounts vary, it is estimated that the plague claimed the lives of 40,000-60,000 of the city's inhabitants (about half of the total population of the city), including Boccaccio's father, stepmother, and many of his close friends.  The introduction to the first day of the Decameron represents an important historical account of the devastation of the city and the chaos that ensued.

 The rediscovery of ancient texts such as Cicero’s letters and reacquaintance with Ancient Greek literature in the early 14th century led to an important shift in the arts and intellectual life.  There was an increased emphasis on renewing Classical culture and learning as well as a consciousness of how much was lost after the fall of the Roman empire.  These early Humanistic tendencies, seen in Dante as well as Boccaccio and Petrarch, are important precursors to the explosion of artistic and literary production during the Renaissance. 

Written by Akash Kumar (Department of Italian, Columbia University)

Sources Consulted: Branca, Vittore. “Vita e Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio.” In Giovanni Boccaccio. Decameron. Vittore Branca, ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1992. Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio medievale. Florence: Sansoni, 1956. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

For more information, see The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.