The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 11 Giovanni Boccaccio: Master of Mythology and Softcore 14th-Century Erotica

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Giovanni Boccaccio: Master of Mythology and Softcore 14th-Century Erotica

For six hundred years the lifeblood of Western erotica was drawn from a series of stories improbably written during the depths of the Black Plague.  As two out of every three Florentines died in the course of a single year, one man wrote a book that formed the basis not only of Europe’s erotic imagination, but the foundation of narrative fiction for the next half-millennium.  That book was the Decameron, and the rotund mass of excitable contradictions who penned it stands at the very threshold of modern humanist fiction.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was, like Leonardo da Vinci, an illegitimate child.  Unlike Leonardo, however, his father was quick to bring him into his new family and business, entrusting him with the most important of tasks, and generally making illegitimacy seem so light a burden that Boccaccio passed the favor forward by later siring five illegitimate children of his own.

BoccaccioHis father was a businessman invested deeply in fostering economic relations between Florence and Naples, and it was the vivacious world of the marketplace that stamped Boccaccio’s early life.  While the clerics and academics scribbled away in towers, agonizing over the twists and turns of Scholasticism, Boccaccio was doing business with traders from all parts of the world, grappling with the unique humanity of each, and the many ways by which people seek purpose and pleasure.  His early books, including the Decameron, were celebrations of this hectic merchant-class spirit, of love and duplicity, compassion and lust, all jostling against each other.

With that background, Boccaccio could have led a thoroughly robust, eminently enjoyable, and entirely forgotten life as one of the thousands of merchants working their way valiantly, if not always quite honestly, to the heart of the post-feudal world.  But it so happened that he also was allowed to pursue an entirely unique course of education as well.  While he was supposed to be studying law, he was actually learning at the feet of some of the most eclectic minds of fourteenth-century Italy.  Their interest was in learning everything, in gathering all of human knowledge up and using it to create works of imposing referential erudition but little psychological insight.  Under their spell, Boccaccio wrote his early works, imitations of his favorite authors spattered with references to antiquity and given to explosive bouts of whimsical autobiographical ecstasy and bottomless grief.  In the Filocolo (1336), he veers wildly between styles, a tour de force pastiche of everything available in the literary air at the time, driven forward by his unrestrained emotionalism.

He was trying everything that literary life had to offer, digesting it, and reproducing it at first as a gifted mimic, and ultimately fusing the voices of a continent together into the narrative pulse that would drive Europe away from the grandeur of the epic, towards the psychological complexity of the domestic and mercantile spheres.  He mixed the elegance of the Latin classics with the simple emotionality of French balladry, and at the end of the day, he had forged the modern secular storytelling voice, which would inspire Chaucer some decades later to summon English literature forth from the ether.

In 1341 and 1342, returning to Florence after his formative years at Naples, he wrote the Comedia delle Ninfe and the Amorosa Visione, which accelerated the turn towards the middle class as the subject of fiction, and of the qualities and needs of the heart as superior to all other concerns.  He was finding his voice, but it was still hemmed in by the need to dazzle.  He wanted to put all that he knew on the page, while at the same time staying true to a realistic portrayal of humanity and its foibles, a tension that was only decided in favor of reality at last when that reality came barreling grimly down upon him and everyone he loved.

For 1348 was a Plague year.  In Florence, it was the Plague year.  When it ended, only one out of every three citizens remained.  In the midst of omnipresent death, half the survivors threw themselves into religious extremism, while the others lost themselves in chasing pleasure while they could, ripping to tatters the web of traditional wisdom that had driven society automatically on, and making room for something new.  It is that sense of reworking the boundaries of humanity’s potential in the midst of absolute tragedy that gives the Decameron a fearless radiance that excites still.

That, and all the sex.

Because, let’s face it, the Decameron is as much a masterpiece of new narrative style as it is a shameless erotic smorgasbord.  The entire third chapter is composed almost exclusively of stories that center around elaborate schemes that culminate in serial humping.  A convent gardener is used as an object of sexual pleasure by every nun on the premises until he gets too worn out to work and pleads for a more sensible love schedule.  An abbot tricks a man into believing he is dead, and keeps him in a dark room, convincing him it is Purgatory, to cure the man of his jealousy, all while flagrantly carrying on a hot affair with his wife.  Two lovers use a monk as their unwitting go-between to pass messages about likely times to meet for mutual carnal knowledge.  A woman gets fed up with her husband, who will only have sex on days that aren’t religious holidays, and runs off with a pirate king to make mad unrestrained love multiple times a day.  A woman cheats on her husband in the husband’s full view and somehow manages to convince him that it was a vision induced by a magic pear tree.  A holy hermit, overcome by the beauty of a visitor, convinces her that his penis is the devil, and her vagina is hell, and that, as good Christians, they must find a way to put the devil back in Hell, mustn’t they?

The heroes are cunning tricksters, impelled by love or something slightly less pure to twist the social system to their advantage.  One of the earliest stories features a greedy and utterly profane merchant who, by dint of a cunning and entirely insincere deathbed confession, manages not only to get his hosts out of a sticky situation, but also to get himself canonized in the process!  Rapscallions become saints.  Saints become horny lechers like the rest of us.  And the most consistent heroes are not brave Christian knights, but honorable Muslim rulers, impassioned lovers, and poor but clever scamps of every flavor.

In those one hundred stories lies the seed of everything we consider now to be a good yarn.  The scoundrels whom you can’t help but root for, the teenagers risking everything to outwit the system in order to enjoy a perfect day,  the women who are frank about their desires and rather fed up with being treated as incorruptible marble objects.  Boccaccio gave us leave to care seriously about these characters and their stories, and we haven’t stopped caring since.

After the Plague, Boccaccio was absorbed equally in tasks diplomatic and literary.  His status as the great writer of Florence meant that, whenever a diplomatic mission needed that extra savor of distinction, he was put in charge of it and packed off to some corner of Italy for a while.  That might have given him yet more material for a second Decameron, but he was decisively re-routed to other pursuits by the advice and friendship of the man he looked up to as the greatest poet and mind of his age, Petrarch.

Petrarch was the great influence in the second half of Boccaccio’s life, and it’s hard to say whether that was for good or for ill.  The two shared a beautifully nerdy love of the works of antiquity, bubbling over with glee whenever one or the other unearthed a rare Latin manuscript in their travels.  Together, they pushed Leontius Pilatus to translate Homer’s works into Latin and so to add another shade altogether to European literary life.  Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio to continue work on the great compilations of Boccaccio’s later life, including the massive and authoritative collection of ancient mythology, the Genealogica, which reigned for centuries as the standard text on the study of mythology and contained a stirring defense of the study of pagan beliefs.  He also buttressed Boccaccio’s belief in the project of vernacular poetry, and together they elevated poetry to a place of prominence in Western intellectual life.  And, on the human side, he was a friend, somebody who understood the younger man’s bursts of temper, and who always had a room available whenever fortune took a downturn, which it often did.


He was also a Christian moralist who drove Boccaccio to a life of contemplative solitude, to ponderous moral reflection, and to an increasing cynicism about the world and the pleasure to be had in it.  The boy who ran through the marketplace and university, absorbing everything he heard and turning it into a new sense of narrative promise had become the scholarly hermit, obsessing over politics and whether the last letter he wrote to Petrarch had been quite flattering enough.  From having written a startling collection of the lives of famous women, he fell to authoring a nasty and misogynist rant, the Corbaccio (1365). He felt ashamed of the impulses that had made him such an intoxicating writer, and retreated as an independent artist.  He was looking backwards, to Dante and the works of Rome and Greece, and sideways, to Petrarch, but no longer forward.

Not that he needed to.  The Decameron was such a complete success that he could have rested on its merits the rest of his career.  Instead, he produced a definitive accounting of ancient mythology, saved countless precious manuscripts from destruction, brought us the Iliad and the Odyssey, wrote the first work devoted exclusively to giving full credit to woman’s place in history, and played an important role in organizing a new generation of writers to create poetry and narratives in their country’s native tongue about the everyday people they knew.  He found a new self that, if less sexy than Boccaccio Mark 1, was as useful in the grand project of collecting and appreciating the vastness of human belief.

In 1374 Petrarch died, and bequeathed to his friend Boccaccio his fur mantel, knowing how bitterly the cold of his often poor lodgings bit at the younger poet’s bones.  One year later, Boccaccio died while wrapped in that very mantel, and if the case can be made that the real Boccaccio died twenty years earlier, suffocated by the moral mantel of Petrarch, at least both kept him warm.


Further Reading

The Decameron can be found anywhere.  It is one of those books you need to have on hand at all times in order to be called a bookshop.  On Famous Women, his collection of a hundred plus biographies of famous women, is also readily available in English translation.  Amorosa VIsione was finally translated into English for the first time in 1986, and will run you about $100 for a used copy, so best of luck with that.  A first volume of Boccaccio’s massive Genealogica was finally released in English in 2011, and runs to a modest 928 pages if you want to get really into the roots of European mythological studies.  For biographies of Boccaccio, Branca’s 1976 Boccaccio: The Man and his Works gives you a good sense of Boccaccio’s literary importance, though if you don’t know Latin the extensive untranslated quotes might be a bit bothersome.