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from The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)
Written by Joseph Dunn
The earliest, longest, and perhaps the weakest of Boccaccio's works is the "Filocolo", written between 1338 and 1340; it is a version of the story, widespread in the Middle Ages, of Floire and Blanchefleur, and contains a curious admixture of pagan myths and Christian legends. The "Ameto", written in the two following years, is an allegorical novel, telling, among other love-adventures, the sad story of the life of Boccaccio's mother. The "Amorosa Vision", in praise of love, dates from about the year 1342, and consists of fifty cantos in terzine, and the initial letters of the verses form an acrostic of two sonnets and one ballata. The "Teseide", probably of the year 1341, is the first artistic work in ottava rima. It contains many imitations of antiquity, and was widely read up to the sixteenth century. Tasso thought so highly of it that he annotated it. The subject is the story of Palemon and Arcite which Chaucer used for his "Knight's Tale".
The "Filostrato", written in the same year and likewise in ottava rima, tells of the love of Troilus for Chryseis. The subject may have been suggested to Boccaccio by his adventure with Fiammetta. The "Ninfale Fiesolano", a short poem in ottava rima, is the best, in style and invention, of the minor works of Boccaccio. The "Fiammetta" is one of the best written of his works, the most original and the most personal. Panfilo, the hero and lover of Fiammetta, is supposed to represent Boccaccio himself. The "Corbaccio" (1354) has had its admirers, but it is one of the most bitter and indecent satires ever written against woman. The "Vita di Dante" (about 1364), based chiefly on information furnished by contemporaries of Dante, remains one of the best lives of the poet. The "Commento sopra la Commedia", the fruit of his public lectures on Dante, was planned to be a colossal work, but Boccaccio had commented only upon the first seventeen cantos when it was broken off by his death.
Boccaccio shares with Petrarch the honor of being the earliest humanist. In their time there were not a dozen men in Italy who could read the works of the Greek authors in the original. Boccaccio had to support at his house for three years a teacher of Greek, with whom he read the poems of Homer. Of Boccaccio's Latin works the following are to be mentioned: "De genealogiis deorum gentilium" (between 1350 and 1360), but published first in 1373. This dictionary of classical mythology shows remarkably wide reading and a very good understanding of the works of the ancients and, in spite of errors which it could not but contain, it continued for several hundred years to be an authority for the student of classical antiquity. Two biographical works: "De claris mulieribus" and "De casibus virorum illustrium" (between 1357 and 1363) are of little interest, since they tell of men and women of ancient times and but rarely of the author's contemporaries. There remain the Latin letters and eclogues, which are not of much worth, and eight or ten unimportant works which have been ascribed to Boccaccio.
The book with which Boccaccio's name is inseparably linked is the "Decameron", which was finished in 1353, but part of which had probably been written before the "Black Death" reached its height in 1348. The "Decameron" opens with a masterly description of the terrors of the pest, and we are then introduced to a gay company of seven ladies and three young men who have come together at a villa outside Naples to while away the time and to escape the epidemic. Each in turn presides for a day over the company and on each of the ten days each of the company tells a story, so that at the end one hundred stories have been told. It is difficult to say whether such a company as Boccaccio describes ever met. At all events, he says that he has taken pains to conceal the real names of the persons mentioned in the stories. There are reasons to believe, however, that Fiammetta is the same lady to whom Boccaccio has given that name in other works, while Dioneo may well represent Boccaccio himself.
The great charm of the "Decameron" lies in the wonderful richness and variety of the adventures which he relates, in the many types of character and the close analysis of all shades of feeling and passion, from the basest to the noblest. The style is now Ciceronian, now that of the everyday speech of Florence. The sentence-structure is, to be sure, often involved and inverted, and it often requires several readings to enjoy a full understanding of the phrase. Boccaccio found the germs of his novelle in other literatures, in historic events, and in tradition, but, like Shakespeare, whatever he borrowed he made his own and living, by placing the adventures in the lives of his contemporaries. The indecency which is the greatest blot on the "Decameron", but to which it undoubtedly owes not a little of its celebrity, is no greater than is to be found elsewhere in medieval literature, and is due as much to the time and the circle in which the work was written as to the temperament of the author. He himself in his later years expressed deep repentance for the too free works of his youth; moreover, his jibes and anecdotes at the expense of clerics did not impair his belief in the teachings of the Church. Boccaccio's character was by no means a despicable one. He was a steadfast friend, a son who felt tenderly for his mother and never forgave his father for having abandoned her. He speaks with affection of his daughters who had died in childhood; it is not known who their mother was. He was a scholar of the first rank for his time, a man of independent character, and a good patriot.
No autograph copy of the "Decameron" exists, but there are three manuscript copies dating from the fourteenth century. The first edition was not printed until 1470 in Venice, and since then numerous editions have appeared, but there is as yet no critical edition. Of the modern editions P. Fanfani's is convenient (2 vols., reprinted Florence, 1904). An excellent school edition of selected novelle with notes is that of R. Fornaciari (Florence, 1890). The "Decameron" has been translated into nearly every European tongue; the first complete English edition dates from 1620.
The best edition of the Italian works of BOCCACCIO is MOUTIER, Opere volgari di Giovanni Boccaccio corrette su i testi a penna (Florence, 1827-34). For sources of the Decameron, LANDAU, Die Quellen des Dekameron (Stuttgart, 1884); for BOCCACCIO'S life and works in general, LANDAU, Giovanni Boccaccio, sein Leben u. seine Werke (Stuttgart, 1877); CRESCINI, Contributo agli studi sul Bocc. (Turin, 1887); see also FERRARI, Bibliografia Boccaccesca (Florence, 1888).