Historical Context for The Decameron by Boccaccio
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)
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The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996