Sacred and Profane Love in the Decameron of Boccaccio english

αποκλειστικά στα

text in Greek here

by  Maria Cristina Cataldo-Halkioti

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today I am glad to talk about Italy, my country of origin, the country of poetry and love!  Since the beginning of the 13th Century we come across the marvelous Sicilian production of the Poesia Aulica; then Tuscan vernacular takes over with the Poesia Cortese of Dante and the sonnets of Petrarch. Behind such a miracle there was always a woman as a source of inspiration and as the most tempting object of desire. The poet’s eye could transform her either in the angel of heaven or in the angel of death! But was she an angel at all?

Since poetry cannot give a satisfying answer to this question, I am not going to talk about a poet.  I’d rather introduce you to the black sheep of literature, the one who did not go with the flow, the one who portrayed real women in flesh and blood; please, meet his Royal Highness, Giovanni Boccaccio!

Only 48 years after the birth of Dante Alighieri and 10 from that of Petrarch, the unique Giovanni came to the world in Certaldo, a village nearby Florence. It was 1313. His father was a merchant who ran his business in cooperation with one of the richest families of Florence: the Bardi.  Giovanni’s mother is unknown, maybe because of her poor origins. As Caitlin Williams put it in an essay on Boccaccio and women “he was raised predominately by his mother […] and looked upon his father with some disdain”.i His resentment against the father grew stronger when the man married another woman. As far as we know, the young Giovanni rejected the moral conduct of his father, though, in his private life, Giovanni collected many illegitimate children.  It is true, like father like son!

Giovanni grew up in Naples, where his father held his business. The young man was surrounded by merchants. His destiny was already defined, though business did not suit him at all! He was crazy about literature, instead. He read every book he could find, all alone, without any guidance. Such an unconventional education gave Giovanni the literary skills to describe with accuracy both the wealthy aristocracy of the town and those who were providing the goods. Unfortunately,   Boccaccio did not win the hostility of his eminent colleagues, who accused him of writing second class literature. In 1340, during a plague epidemic in Florence his father died. This event gave Giovanni the freedom to follow his literary dream and the inspiration to write one of the best world masterpieces: The Decameron.

Giovanni Boccaccio was in love with the Greek language and he managed to learn it.  Decameron comes from Δέκα Ήμερων, meaning “of ten days”, the days of narration of tales called “novelle” recounted by 3 men and 7 women who took refuge in a country villa outside Florence escaping the threat of the Black Death. This group of young people, named “brigata” decided to give up all the social restrictions of their strict moral customs and felt free to tell stories full of explicit sexual references.

It is my intention to give an account of the main structure of the Decameron. Thus, I wish to explain the distance between female characters and the Courtesy model of the middle ages.

The structure of the Decameron is more complex than one can imagine. There is an external narrator, who introduces the main happenings of each day in a sort of “short sermons”. There are ten official narrators: Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, Emilia, Filostrato, Dioneo and Panfilo, who casually meet in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and decide to flee from the town together. Each day, for ten days, one of the participants is elected king or queen and he/she sets the theme of the tales that are going to be narrated. The only participant who is allowed to tell a story out of theme is Dioneo, because his tales are the spiciest ones!

In literary terms, the structure of the Decameron is a “cornice”, a frame, where a series of separated elements aim to render a perception of homogeneity, an idyllic bucolic scene where beautiful participants are banqueting, laughing and discussing about an ideal world. Boccaccio was fascinated by the aristocratic way of living that the rich merchants had adopted as a means to ascend the social ladder. As Vittore Brancaii cleverly argued, Boccaccio created the “epopea dei mercatanti”, that is to say a real epopee of self-made men who had substituted the old aristocratic values with materialistic ones.

The Decameron describes vices and virtues of the merchants, because it represents the new literature for bourgeois people who can afford to buy books, but who are not able to read Latin. Boccaccio writes in vernacular, the spoken dialect of Tuscany.  Let us remember that the books that circulated in the Fourteenth Century were manuscripts and most of the known literature had been written in Latin. Vernacular was considered as a poor language without grammar and syntax rules, while Latin was only written and could be understood by a small minority of scholars.

Boccaccio uses Love and Fortune as dominant themes, but those themes are charged with new meanings. For instance, love is seen as something burlesque or euphoric, and the name “love” is frequently applied to mere sexual satisfaction. Fortune is understood in the wider sense of “fate”, which gives and takes possessions to the protagonists of the tales, despite the effort they put in to avoid the setbacks.  Since the Decameron is tailored to a new kind of reader who wants to be entertained and amused, Boccaccio collects material from the oral tradition, like mottos, proverbs, and jokes that are an immediate source of enjoyment.

In the middle ages the word “copyright” had not been invented, yet. Boccaccio does not steal tales that circulate in his time, but he uses them to make us aware of his own view of the world and his literary taste. But his taste is not shared by his colleagues. For instance, Petrarch read the Decameron and judged it as low-quality literature, apart from the novella about Griselda that had been created by Boccaccio himself. Petrarch translated the novella into Latin and made it famous to the extent that Jeffry Chaucer included it in his Canterbury Tales, with a preface that attributed this marvelous novella to Petrarch! Time gave back the paternity of the novella to his legitimate father who had lost it without quarrelling.

The striking thing of the Decameron is that female characters are in absolute majority comparing to men.  But, as far as the narration of the tales shows, women use the same explicit language as their male colleagues and the same point of view!  This is to say that there are no differences about the description of copulation and embarrassing details between the two sexes.  This also shows that women’s social status in that particular society is limited to well known stereotypes like beauty, virginity, submission to man’s will, segregation from social life and insatiable sexual appetite!

Nevertheless, in the opening of the first day, the seven ladies are portrayed according to the canons of the “modello cortese”, which imposed a rigid division of sexes, to the extent that it would be inconvenient inviting or even talking to a man in public. The extreme necessity makes the young ladies put their reputation at stake, because they are convinced of being fragile creatures.  Filomena, one of the female narrators, says in the church:

“Ricordivi che noi siamo tutte femine, e non ce n’ha niuna sì fanciulla, che non possa ben conoscere come le femine sien ragionate insieme e senza la provedenza d’alcuno uomo si sappiano regolare. Noi siamo mobili, riottose, sospettose, pusillanime e paurose; per le quali cose io dubito forte, se noi alcuna altra guida non prendiamo che la nostra, che questa compagnia non si dissolva troppo più tosto, e con meno onor di noi, che non ci bisognerebbe; e per ciò è buono a provederci avanti che cominciamo.”


“Bethink you that we are all women; nor are there any here so young, but she is of years to understand how women are minded towards one another, when they are alone together, and how ill they are able to rule themselves without the guidance of some man. We are sensitive, perverse, suspicious, pusillanimous and timid; wherefore I much misdoubt, that, if we find no other guidance than our own, this company is like to break up sooner, and with less credit to us, than it should.”

Elissa, who seems to be the younger one, adds:

“Veramente gli uomini sono delle femine capo e senza l’ordine loro rare volte riesce alcuna nostra opera a laudevole fine; ma come possiam noi aver questi uomini?”


“Without doubt man is woman’s head, and, without man’s governance, it is seldom that aught that we do is brought to a commendable conclusion. But how are we to come by the men?”

Pampinea, the elder one, finds the courage to approach the three men in the church because one of them is a family relative. Let us see the men’s reaction:

“I giovani si credettero primieramente essere beffati;”
“At first the young men thought she was mocking them;”

They could not believe to their ears! A lady asking for the company of three gentlemen was completely unconceivable, even when half of the population of the town had died!

Boccaccio declares in the proem of the Decameron that his work is mainly addressed to women, because men find their satisfaction outside home, while the ladies have no other distractions to pass their time. And what kind of distraction does he offer?

I will show you the main themes that are present in particular tales and the recurrence of female narrators in each section according to the Decameron Webiii:
The themes that I collected contemplate the following issues:

It seems quite clear that we are not talking about the Galateo of Monsignor della Casa! Boccaccio uses his novellas as paradigms that will help women to survive the male hegemony. The strategies are not dictated by religious behaviors, they come from the experience in preventing the scorn of being deceived.

I found interesting results concerning “men tricking women into sex” and “sex as an affair”. In the first instance, the novellas narrated by women show a predominance of men who try to steal something from them, either their virginity or their good faith.  While the tales in which male narrators are predominant show that men do not disdain sex as a matter of liaison. In this selection thirteen stories are narrated by men and only twelve by women! I do not need to remind you that the male speakers were only three!

For sure Boccaccio did not like prostitution and clergy tricking women into sex, because they are filthy ways to get one’s satisfaction by selling a fraud. Boccaccio was extremely ironic towards clergy men who tried to take sexual advantage of naïve female believers.

In concluding my modest contribution to a better understanding of the Decameron and its female characters, I would like to make a reflection on the topic we are discussing today by asking an open question that I would appreciate to answer with your help. The question is: – Erotic literature has always been considered as a low quality branch of the official literary production, but it never stopped being published and read. What makes it so special and what kind of readers is it addressed to nowadays?

In the case of Boccaccio I am temped to say that he was inspired to write a “libro galeotto” by Dante’s fifth canto of the Inferno, where Francesca mentioned a book about the adultery passion between Sir Lancelot and Guinevere and accused it of being the cause of her own adultery with Paolo, her husband’s brother. Francesca had been condemned to stay perpetually in Hell, though she got married to Gianciotto Malatesta without even knowing him. Paolo had been sent to the wedding as a representative of the family. She made no other mistake other than falling in love with the wrong person!

Women were not allowed to choose the one they loved, but Boccaccio in some ways repaired this mistake by giving women some sort of dignity and power to subvert their destiny. Dante’s legacy is crucial for understanding the fight between do’s and don’ts, what is moral and what is immoral. The things that are usually determined and condemned by the church are seen as normal in the Decameron.

And about the question:  who this literature is addressed to? I am tempted to say to everybody, because Boccaccio was interested in the human nature. As Francesco De Sanctis called it, the Decameron is the “Terrestre Commedia” the “Terrestrial Comedy” opposed to the “Divine”.  In representing his time, Dante pulled out fears, mysteries and the ascetic ecstasy that were inside the Middle Age spirit. Boccaccio reshaped his times following an epicurean point of view, where satisfaction had to be achieved on earth. Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of fate, was the only supernatural creature who could influence the accomplishment of all sorts of pleasure!

We will remember this man as an uncomfortable exception, who is still underestimated for reasons that are not connected with his literary value. On his grave Giovanni wanted the following inscription “Studium fuit alma poesis” that means: “His passion was noble poetry”. This statement sounds like a sort of apology, the last one to the society of literates who were not able to appreciate his talent.    He regretted being the author of the Decameron in public several times, but he never stopped writing and correcting it, because he liked it, as we like it today!