Updated: May 15, 2022
"I, ..., do intend to recount one hundred Novels or Fables or Parables or Stories, as we may please to call them, which were recounted in ten days by an honourable company of seven ladies and three young men in the time of the late mortal pestilence"
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
The year 2020 will be remembered in part for how the world grappled with the global COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has not only impacted us health-wise, but economically, politically, and socially as well. In the spring, most of the world went into a self-imposed lockdown and quarantine in order to slow the transmission of the disease. During this time, the New York Times Magazine commissioned a group of authors to write a collection of short stories that reflected this unusual time period. They gave it the name The Decameron Project inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's most renowned literary work. Indeed, the pandemic has brought renewed interest in Boccaccio's classic work of literature.
Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313 in Florence. His mother remains unknown, but his father was an important agent for the Bardi family, one of the great Florentine banking families. The Bardi, the Medici, and other bankers were the major lenders to most of the European royalty during this time period. When Boccaccio was thirteen, his father was appointed to head up the Bardi branch in Naples. Here, Boccaccio began an apprenticeship in banking. He was also introduced to the French-influenced court of Robert the Wise, the King of Naples. In a short time, Boccaccio gave up on a career in banking and decided to study law at what is now the University of Naples. This too would be short-lived after being introduced to the works of Dante and Petrarch. He left the university to devote himself to poetry and literature. Like Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio would eventually become one of the leaders in using the Italian vernacular rather than Latin.
In early 1341, Boccaccio left Naples for his native Florence. Political tensions had increased between the two cities as the French wished to extend their influence on the Italian peninsula. The plague struck Florence in 1348 where it is estimated that three-quarters of the city's population died. Boccaccio claims to have been in Florence during the time of the plague but this has been disputed. (He might have been in Ravenna where he was seeking patrons.) Nevertheless, he started writing his most famous work, The Decameron, in 1349. It would be completed in 1352.
The Decameron is a collection of tales organized around a literary device known as a frame story. In this case, the frame story is that ten young aristocrats - seven women and three men - flee plague-ridden Florence for an unoccupied villa in the countryside. In order to pass the time, the group decides to tell ten stories per day over the course of ten days. (The title is from the Greek meaning "ten-day event".) Each day a king or queen is selected, and this person chooses the theme of the day. Only one member of the group can speak on any topic he wishes because he is famous for his wit. Topics of each day include examples of the power of fortune, the power of human will, acts of cleverness that save a character, love stories that end sadly as well as those that end happily, tricks women play on men, tricks people in general play on each other, and examples of virtue. Despite the different themes of the day, Boccaccio threads them together with recurrent plots that form a commentary on Italian society. He mocks the lust and greed of the clergy, and he highlights the tensions between the emerging merchant class and the feudal nobility. He praises the new urban values of wit, sophistication, and intelligence that were becoming the ethos of growing urban centers such as Florence.
Naples at the time was a polyglot and an important crossroads of commerce in the Mediterranean. Florence was already established as a center of art, learning, and the revival of classical antiquity. Living in these two cities provided Boccaccio with his source material. He borrowed stories and tales not only from works of classical Greece and Rome, but also from European, Middle Eastern, and Indian folklore. Yet Boccaccio doesn't simply retell these tales. He recast and repurposed them. He updated them for a contemporary 14th-century Italian audience. He combined tales or made them more complex. In many cases, he used actual historical people for his characters. Other times he based characters off of real people. All to suit his narrative purpose. As a result, his readers would not realize that most of these stories came from other cultures and other time periods.
At one level, The Decameron offers us a glimpse into 14th-century life. Each day is also framed with descriptions of activities besides storytelling. Boccaccio gives us snippets of Italian folksongs, poetry, and games. Of course, the introduction to the entire work provides us with a descriptive view of the plague in Florence. He writes of the horrors people confronted when suffering from the disease, but what is striking is that for us living and dealing with COVID-19, many of the responses to the plague will sound eerily familiar to our 21st-century ears. Boccaccio talks of those who retreat into their homes, of those who abandon their families, and even about the large bands of people who defied death to march around Florence visiting taverns and other establishments. Yet Boccaccio doesn't dwell long on the dark side of the plague. The Decameron is not a book about death and mourning, but it is about life. It has been said that Boccaccio offers us a prescription for our mental well-being during a pandemic as well as how to address the social upheaval such a pandemic induces.
The group of young people in the frame story are fortunate to have the means to escape Florence. Yet they are not just fleeing. They are a microcosm of society and they symbolize a chance to build something new. The plague is destroying old social bonds, but this small group doesn't dwell on the plague itself. The characters in The Decameron seek to imagine a world beyond the plague. What should society be like? What is worth saving? How should one live? How should society be structured? For example, two of the stories tell of women caught in extramarital affairs. The outcomes of these stories are different. One ends tragically. One ends happily. Yet they both reveal the imbalance of power between genders in society, and they ask us to consider a society in which all humans are worthy of compassion, regardless of who they are.
Boccaccio also shows us the importance of our social groups. Humans by our very nature, (even us introverts), are social creatures. Storytelling is one of the most ancient ways we as humans have bonded and formed a cultural connection with each other. The Decameron, through the sharing of stories, stresses the need to maintain or reestablish these social networks in order to maintain our mental well-being. As represented by the fleeing group of Florentines, social bonds help to lessen the fear and anguish that comes with uncertainty and change. Our social networks support us and offer us ways to divert our attention to more pleasurable pursuits whether it be storytelling or games. We're fortunate enough in this technological age to have the means to connect to our friends and family through social media and video applications like Zoom. More low-tech, a woman in Italy sang opera from her balcony to serenade her neighbors during the COVID-19 quarantine.
The Decameron would have a profound influence on Western literature. It was one of the first works of prose to be written in the Italian vernacular paving the way for future writers and poets to compose works in their native tongue rather than Latin. The stories in the book were borrowed by authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired countless artists. The themes and plots are still relatable today despite their 14th-century underpinning. On the surface, The Decameron is a collection of tales, but it gives us a way of dealing with uncertainty and a roadmap toward rethinking the old and repurposing it to form something new and better. Beyond this, The Decameron embodies what it means to be human - both the most terrible aspects to the most exalting.
More about The Decameron:
The Decameron: Giovanni Boccaccio
Decameron Web: Brown University
The Decameron Project: NY Times Magazine
The Decameron – the 14th-century Italian book that shows us how to survive coronavirus: Andre Spicer (NewStatesman)
Why Boccaccio's 'The Decameron' Can Help Guide Us Through COVID-19: Ryan Poll (PopMatters)
Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Life Beyond the Plague: Alyssa Granacki (EuropeNow)