A History of Italian Literature/Chapter VII
If the works of the third great Italian writer cannot be compared to Dante's for sublimity, or to Petrarch's for perfection of style, the most important of them is of even greater significance in the history of culture. By his Decameron Giovanni Boccaccio endowed his country with a classic prose, and won for himself a unique place as the first modern novelist.
Boccaccio always speaks of himself as "of Certaldo," a small Tuscan town under Florentine dominion, where he possessed some property. It would seem, however, from his own expressions, not to have been his birthplace. This was most probably Florence. The early legend of his birth at Paris rests upon a too absolute identification of himself with a character in his Ameto. His birth probably took place in 1313; and, if not early orphaned of his mother, he must have been an illegitimate child. His father, a Florentine merchant of the prudent and thrifty type, had him taught grammar and arithmetic, sent him into a counting-house at thirteen, and four years afterwards placed him with a mercantile firm at Naples. When, after two years, the youth's distaste to trade proved insuperable, the father made him study law at the Neapolitan University. It is not likely that he gave much attention to so dry a subject amid the distractions of the lively city, where he was insensibly receiving the inspiration of his future poetry and fiction. Notwithstanding the accusation of stinginess brought against his father, Boccaccio must apparently have possessed considerable means, mixing in the best society of Naples. He probably owed much to the Florentine extraction of Nicola Acciajuoli, a leading personage, and subsequently Grand Seneschal of the kingdom. By 1338 he had progressed so far as to fall in love with the lady he has celebrated as Fiammetta, but whose real name was Maria, putative daughter of the Count of Aquino, but generally believed to be the offspring of King Robert himself. Fiammetta was married. The degree in which she returned his passion is uncertain, but she appears to have exerted considerable influence upon his career as an author. He composed the Filocopo for her entertainment about 1339, and the close of his activity as an imaginative writer about twelve years afterwards coincides with the probable period of her death. Ameto and Fiammetta, in both of which she is celebrated were written after Boccaccio's return to Florence whither he was recalled by his unsympathising father about 1340; here the wild oats sown at Naples came up in a plentiful crop of fiction and poetry. Literary productions must have occupied most of Boccaccio's time until 1345, when, probably on account of his father's remarriage, he returned to Naples, where he is said to have begun the Decameron under the patronage of Queen Joanna. In 1348 the pestilence which devastated Florence carried off his father. Boccaccio returned in 1349 to arrange family affairs, and thenceforth appears in quite a new light, as a trusty diplomatist, the author of various manuals (Genealogiae deorum gentilium, De casibus virorum illustrium, &c.) of the information most sought for in the age, and, under Petrarch's direction, a chief agent in the promotion of humanistic studies. Copies of Terence and Apuleius are extant in his handwriting.
One of Boccaccio's first duties after he had settled himself in his native city was to entertain Petrarch upon his visit in 1350, and one of his first public missions, performed in the following year, was to solicit him to fix his residence at Florence and enter the service of the Republic. Petrarch declined to entrust his repose to so unstable a community, but his acquaintance with Boccaccio ripened into an intimacy which might have been compared to that of Goethe and Schiller if Boccaccio had not gracefully and judiciously assumed a tone of deference to the acknowledged sovereign of contemporary literature. He is indefatigable in literary suit and service. His piety towards Dante as well as Petrarch leads him to transcribe for the latter the Divine Comedy. His equal affection for Petrarch and classical studies made him at Petrarch's instigation entertain an erudite but uncomfortable Greek, Leontius Pilatus, who rendered Homer for him into very lame Latin; but still it was Homer that he read; while the mediaeval epicist of the Trojan war, Josephus Iscanus, had known his theme only in Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis.
Landor has delightfully depicted a supposed visit of Petrarch to Boccaccio at Certaldo; one only regrets that the conversation of the poets should turn so exclusively on Dante. Petrarch rendered his friend one inestimable service in dissuading him from the renunciation of the world, into which he had been almost scared by the prophecies and denunciations of an expiring monk. Boccaccio nevertheless so far profited by these admonitions as to write nothing more to which morality could take exception. Shortly before his end he received one of the most honourable and appropriate commissions with which he could have been entrusted, that of delivering public lectures on Dante, which he had carried down to the seventeenth canto of the Inferno, when death overtook him on December 21, 1375.
The Filocopo, Boccaccio's first and longest work of fiction, would be thought intolerably tedious at the present day, when one must be indeed Φιλοκόπος to get through it. It forms nevertheless a most important landmark in the history of literature, for it signalises the transition from the metrical romance to the pure novel. Something similar had been attempted two centuries earlier in the delightful miniature romance of mingled prose and verse, Aucassin and Nicolette, but the example had not been followed. About the middle of the thirteenth century the Novellino had been compiled with a distinct moral purpose, but its hundred tales are rather anecdotes than novelettes. The Filocopo is founded upon the ancient lay of Floris and Blanchefleur, which Boccaccio has converted into prose, with a copious admixture of new incidents, characters, and descriptions. There is little semblance of probability in the incidents, or accurate delineation in the characters, while the diction, though polished, is full of what would now be justly considered affectation and bad taste. In the fourteenth century it was neither, but the faithful image of the mental ferment inevitably produced by the irruption of the classical spirit into the contracted world of the Middle Age. Everything, indeed, was confused and bewildered; as the blind man suddenly restored to sight saw men as trees, so the classical forms appeared most strangely distorted in the mediaeval atmosphere. This ignorance, which might have excited the reprehension of critics in Boccaccio's age, had such then existed, is the salvation of his book in ours: his mistaken erudition has become charming naïveté, and the eloquence which no longer impresses at least amuses. For its own day the Filocopo was an epoch-making work, and traces of its style may be met with until the displacement of the ideal romance by the novel of manners, a development of which the fourteenth century had no notion; although Petronius, as yet unknown, had given an example as early as the age of Nero. Boccaccio's affinities are rather with Apuleius, whom he frequently follows in the Decameron.
The Ameto of Boccaccio also possesses considerable importance in literary history, being the first well-defined modern instance of an important genre, the pastoral romance, afterwards carried to perfection by Sannazaro and Montemayor; and also of a literary artifice, the interweaving of several stories to compose a whole. The stories are not very attractive, and the combination is not very well managed but the idea was an important contribution to literature, and, though Longus is more likely to find emulators than Boccaccio, the pastoral romance still has a future before it. The tales are supposed to record the experiences of shepherdesses who personify the virtues, and that placed in the mouth of Fiammetta is certainly in some measure autobiographical.
More autobiographical still, and consequently nearer to the truth of nature, is the romance called after Fiammetta, the precursor of the modern psychological novel, although a germ that long remained unproductive in unkindly soil. Written, probably, about 1346, it is halfway in style between the Filocopo and the Decameron, and the plot is simplicity itself in comparison with the bewildering intricacy of the former. It is merely Fiammetta's own detail of her unfortunate passion for a young Tuscan, and her lamentation for his inconstancy after his recall to his home by a stern father. The autobiographical element is unquestionable, but it is extremely unlikely that Boccaccio would have accused himself of infidelity in the person of Pamfilo. It has been conjectured to be the work of some anonymous writer who took him as a hero; but had this been so, the fact would assuredly have come to light. It is more probable that it represents, not Fiammetta's feelings, but his own, and that, to avoid gossip, or for artistic reasons, he inverted the situation and the characters. Fiammetta undoubtedly excites more interest than Pamfilo could have done, and her sufferings appear in a more tragic light as the penalty of her breach of conjugal fidelity.
It may also well be the case that Boccaccio, finding his affection for Fiammetta on the wane, anticipated Goethe by hastening to cleanse his bosom of the perilous stuff while it yet retained sufficient vitality for the purposes of art. However this may be, Fiammetta has the merits and defects of Werther, real pathos and truth to nature associated with the tedium hardly separable from a long monologue, however well composed; and Boccaccio's style here, although a great advance on that of the Filocopo, still suffers from ambitious rhetoric and a superfluity of adjectives. Great part of the book, nevertheless, attains the level of true eloquence; and Boccaccio did much for prose when he proved it to be an apt medium for the expression of passions heretofore chiefly restricted to verse.
His fame, nevertheless, rests on his Decameron, for here he attained the perfection which elsewhere he only indicated. Among many lights in which this epoch-making book may be regarded is that of an alliance between the elegant but superfine literature of courts and the vigorous but homely literature of the people. Nobles and ladies, accustomed to far-fetched and ornate compositions like the Filocopo, heard the same stories which amused the common people, told in a style which the uneducated too could apprehend and enjoy, but purged of all roughness and vulgarity, and, in truth, such masterpieces of clear, forcible prose as the greatest scholars had till then been unable to produce. All that we know of Boccaccio leads to the conclusion that his true mission was to have been a poet of the people, such an one as the unknown balladists who in simple ages have given immortal form to popular traditions, or as the Burnses and Heines who in artificial periods have gone back to the fountains of popular song. Neither of these was a possible part in the fourteenth century; but if Boccaccio is in no respect archaic, the sap of his best work is drawn from the soil of popular interest and sympathy.
Few of the stories are of Boccaccio's invention the originals of some may be discovered in traditionary folk-lore, of others in French fabliaux or classical or Oriental writers; very many are probably true histories in every respect but for the alteration of the names. This is Boccaccio's best defence against the charge of licentiousness—he did not, like so many others, write with the express purpose of stimulating the passions, but reproduced the ordinary talk of hours of relaxation, giving it the attraction of a pure and classic style. The share of the ladies as narrators of or listeners to these loose stories, so repugnant to ideal conceptions of the female character, is not only explained by the manners of the time, but has greatly contributed to the charm of his work by tempering its licence with a refinement best appreciated by comparison with such similar collections as the Facetiae of Poggio. After all, the sensuous element, though conspicuous, is not predominant in the Decameron, and few books contain more or finer traits of courtesy, humanity, and generosity.
Prose fiction had existed before Boccaccio, and his manner had been in some measure anticipated by some of the tales which have foimd their way into the Cento Novelle Antiche, but he was probably the first to employ in Europe the Oriental device of setting his stories in a frame. The structure of the Decameron is too generally known to render it necessary to more than barely mention its scheme as a succession of stories told by ten persons in ten successive days, on the feigned occasion of the retirement of a lieta brigata to a delightful retreat from the plague which devastated Florence in 1348. Many among us will think that they ought to have remained to aid their perishing fellow-countrymen, and, what is more, would themselves have done so. But it would be absurd to blame the fourteenth century for a conception of public duty and a completeness of organisation in public calamity which did not and could not exist in it. Mediaeval Italy produced but one Florence Nightingale, and she was a saint. The step once taken, the exclusion of all unpleasant tidings was its indispensable corollary; and hence the scene of the story-telling, with its groves and orchards, gardens and fountains, charming company and frank converse, has ever remained one of the green spots on which imagination loves to rest.
Such an ideal of cultivated society afforded no room for the vivacity of delineation so admirable in Chaucer's portraits derived from all classes; yet the prologue and the little introductory passages to each day are, with their feeling for landscape and poetic truth, even more delightful than the stories themselves. If, as seems probable, some of these were composed at Naples before the pestilence, this lovely framework must have been an afterthought. Of Boccaccio's greatness as a master of narrative, nothing need here be said, unless that his progressiveness is even more surprising than his talent. Ten years (1339–49) had sufficed to raise him from the eloquent but confused and hyperbolical style of the Filocopo to the perfection of Italian narrative. He was now the unapproached model of later story-tellers, who can, indeed, produce stronger effects by the employment of stronger means, but have never been able to rival him on his own ground of easy, unaffected simplicity.
Two minor works of Boccaccio, written subsequently to the Decameron, deserve a word of notice—the Corbaccio, a lampoon upon a widow who had jilted him, which does him no credit morally, but evinces much satiric force; and the Urbano, a pretty little romance of the identification of an emperor's abandoned son—the genuineness of which, however, has sometimes been doubted.
It was the constant destiny of Boccaccio to make epochs—producing something absolutely or virtually new, and tracing out the ways in which his successors, far as they might outstrip him, were bound to walk. We have seen that the heroic, the pastoral, the familiar romance owed, if not their actual birth, at least their first considerable beginnings to him; and his activity was no less important in the domain of narrative poetry. He may not have been the inventor of the octave stanza, but undoubtedly he was the first to show its supreme fitness for narrative, and thus mark out the channel in which the epic genius of Italy has flowed ever since. The peculiar grace of her language, and its affluence of rhymes, adapt it especially to this singularly elegant, if not massive or sublime, form of versification, superior for narrative purposes to the sinuous and digressive terza rima, or to Italian counterfeits of the majestic blank verse of England. It could not be expected that Boccaccio's attempts should at first display all the perfection his metre is capable of receiving, he is undoubtedly lax and diffuse. Yet all the main recommendations of the octave are discoverable in his Teseide and Filostrato, poems especially interesting to English readers from the imitation—frequently translation—of them in Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Troilus. The Teseide is the earlier, having been composed shortly after Boccaccio's return to Florence in 1340 for the gratification of his Neapolitan mistress; while the Filostrato, apparently composed upon his second visit to Naples about 1347, disguised satire upon her inconstancy.
Both from the acuteness of feeling thus engendered, and from the rapid progress Boccaccio had in the interim made in the poetic art, the Filostrato is the more powerful and poetical composition; the prosperity of Troilus's love while returned, for example, is described in the liveliest colours and with the truest feeling. The Teseide, on the other hand, has the advantage of a more dignified and heroic story, known to the English reader, not only from Chaucer, but from Dryden's imitation of the latter in his Palamon and Arcite. It also gave the plot to Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen. Boccaccio's source is uncertain, but is believed to have been some Greek romance written under the later Roman Empire. If so, he can only have been acquainted with it in a Latin translation, now lost as well as the original. His own poem was translated back into Greek in a miserable Romaic version printed in 1529. For the tale of Troilus and Cressida he had Guido de Colonna's history of the Trojan war, itself indebted for this episode to an ancient metrical romance.
The little idyllic narrative Ninfale Fiesolano is one of the most attractive of Boccaccio's minor writings. It relates the breach of "Diana's law" by one of her nymphs, and its tragical consequences—the suicide of the lover, and the metamorphosis, or rather the assumption of the nymph into the waters of a river; although the fruit of their union survives to become a hero and found the city of Fiesole. If, as is probable, somewhat later than the Filostrato, this pleasing little story evinces Boccaccio's increasing mastery of the octave couplet, ease of narrative, and power of natural description. Had he continued to compose in verse, he would probably have ranked higher among Italian poets than he does now.
The Amorosa Visione is an earlier and very different work. It is written in terza rima, and betrays an evident ambition to imitate Dante, while in its turn it has not been without influence on Petrarch's Trionfi. Like the latter, it testifies to the mediaeval love of allegories and stately shows, and may well have aided to inspire the Polifilo of Francesco Colonna. The poet is conducted through a number of visions illustrative of the pomps and vanities of the world, and the poem leaves off just as, by command of his mistress, he is about to attempt the narrow way which he should have taken at first. Written apparently for the entertainment of a courtly circle, and encumbered with fantastic acrostics, it reveals little of the deep feeling of its predecessor or its successor; but if regarded simply as the description of a series of pageants, must be allowed the merits of fertile invention and glowing colour. Boccaccio's enthusiastic praise of Dante, whom he calls the lord of all science, and the source of everything, if there be anything, excellent in himself, is highly honourable to him.
A good example of Boccaccio's epic vein is afforded by the prayer of Emilia to Diana in the Teseide, uttered when Palamon and Arcite are about to fight for her sake. For this, as for several other versions, the writer is indebted to Miss Ellen Gierke:
"She thus in broken vows 'mid sighs began:
'Chaste Goddess, who dost purify the glades,
And of a maiden train dost lead the van,
And him chastises who thy law evades,
As lost Actaeon learned in briefest span,
Who, young and hapless, smit 'mid sylvan shades,
Not by scourge whip, but by thy wrath celestial,
Fled as a stag in transformation bestial.
'Hear, then, my voice, if worthy of thy care,
While I implore by thy divinity,
In triple form, accept my lowly prayer,
And if it be an easy task to thee
To perfect it—I prithee strive, if e'er
Soft pity filed thy heart so cold and free
For maiden client who in prayer addrest thee,
And who for grace or favour did request thee.
Am fitter far, with quiver and with bow,
To roam the forest, than 'neath love's soft reign
To do a husband's will; and if thou go
In memory back, thou must in mind retain
How harder face than granite did we show
'Gainst headlong Venus' law, based not on reason,
But headlong passion, to its promptings treason.
'And if it be my better fate to stay
A little maid amid thy vestal throng,
The fierce and burning fumes do thou allay
Sprung from desires so passionate and strong
Of both the enamoured youths my love who pray,
And both for joy of love from me do long,
Let peace supplant between them war's contention,
Since grief to me, thou know'st, is their dissension.
'And if it be reserved for me by fate
To Juno's law subjected now to be,
Ah, pardon thou my lapse from maiden state,
Nor therefore be my prayer refused by thee;
On others' will, thou seest, condemned to wait,
My actions must conform to their decree:
Then help me, Goddess, hear my prayer thus lowly,
Who still deserve thy favour high and holy.'"
Boccaccio thought little of his own poetry, would have destroyed his sonnets but for the remonstrances of Petrarch, and laments that even the incitement of Fiammetta is unavailing to spur him on to the Temple of Fame. Yet in another place he says that he has spared no pains to excel:
"Study I have not spared, or scanted time:
Now rest unto my labour I permit,
Lamenting this so little could avail
To reuse me to that eminence sublime."
This judgment was unreasonably severe. It is true, nevertheless, that Boccaccio would have gained more renown as a poet if the taste of his time had permitted him to seek inspiration among the people for his verses, as he did for his stories. How exquisite he could sometimes be is shown by two of the sonnets translated by Rossetti—versions, it must be owned, which surpass the originals:
"Love steered my course, while yet the sun rode high,
On Scylla's waters to a myrtle-grove:
The heaven was still and the sea did not move;
Yet now and then a little breeze went by,
Stirring the tops of trees against the sky:
And then I heard a song as glad as love,
So sweet that never yet the like thereof
Was heard in any mortal company,
'A nymphy a goddess, or an angel sings
Unto herself within this chosen place
Of ancient loves, so said I at that sound
And there my lady, 'mid the shadowings
Of myrtle-trees, 'mid flowers and grassy space,
Singing I saw, with others who sat round.
By a clear well, within a little field
Full of green grass and flowers of every hue,
Sat three young girls, relating (as I knew)
Their loves: and each had twined a bough to shield
Her lovely face; and the green leaves did yield
The golden hair their shadow; while the two
Sweet colours mingled, both blown lightly through
With a soft wind for ever stirred and stilled.
After a little while one of them said
(I heard her), 'Think I if ere the next hour struck,
Each of our lovers should come here to-day,
Think you that we should fly or feel afraid?
To whom the others answered, 'From such luck
A girl would be a fool to run away.' "
Apart from the merits of his writings, Boccaccio might rest a claim to no ordinary renown as the creator of classic Italian prose; and even if he had found this instrument ready to his hand, his work with it might alone have assured him immortality. Perhaps he has a still higher title to fame in his quality as a great originator, achieving, indeed, no consummate work except the Decameron, but reconnoitring the unknown world through which the human spirit travels, and opening out new paths on every side as he steers "bound upon beating wing to golden bough." As the first effective exemplar of the heroic and pastoral romance and of the epic in octave stanza, as the principal populariser of classical lore, his influence will be felt to the end of time. The books which gave him this power are, indeed, comparatively forgotten. On the other hand, the great marvel of his Decameron is its undying freshness. The language is as terse and bright, the tale as readable as ever: the commentator may exercise his research in detecting the sources of the stories, but has little to do in explaining obsolete diction or obsolete manners.
In morals and conduct, until his latter days, Boccaccio seems to have been a perfect type of the gay and easy class of Florentine citizens, and as remote as possible from the wary and penurious burghers depicted in his tale of the Pot of Basil. Apart from the fair and courteous presence revealed in the Decameron, his principal titles to moral esteem are his disinterested love of culture, his enthusiasm for his master Dante, and his obsequious yet graceful demeanour towards Petrarch, embodying sentiments which could have found no entrance into an ungenerous breast.
- When preceded by the Christian name, "Boccaccio" ought, in strictness, to lose the final vowel, but this would seem pedantic in English.