Saturday, 23 May 2020

Boccaccio's Plague

London, British Library, MS Harl. 5383, f. 7r

In the last post we look at the way that the Decameron’s multiple narrative frames gave Boccaccio an enormous amount of authorial freedom, allowing him to move in and out of frames in a manner almost imperciptible to the reader.

In this short post I’d like to think further about one aspect of the metaliterary quality of the Decameron. In the Introduction to Day I the narrator assures readers that he has witnessed with his own eyes the terrible events that he is describing:

Maravigliosa cosa è a udire quello che io debbo dire: il che, se dagli occhi di molti e da’ miei non fosse stato veduto, appena che io ardissi di crederlo, non che di scriverlo, quantunque da fededegna udito l’avessi. (Dec. I Intro, 16)
(‘It is a remarkable story that I have to relate. And were it not for the fact that I am one of many people who saw it with their own eyes, I would scarcely dare to believe it, let alone commit it to paper, even though I had heard it from a person whose word I could trust.’ trans. McWilliams)

Vittore Branca published a short chapter, ‘Un modello medievale per l’Introduzione’ in Boccaccio medievale ([1946] 1996, pp. 381-387) in which he identified Boccaccio’s use of Paul the Deacon’s History of the Longobards, and in particular the description of the sixth-century plague in the time of Narses (II 4). So Boccaccio’s eye-witness account becomes also a piece of prose with a Latin source. It would be an error to think that this lessens the authority of Boccaccio’s account. Rather, it layers his personal experience with a further, historical, resonance. Dante defines an auctoritas as one worthy of faith, ‘degno di fede’ (Convivio IV vi 5), and here Boccaccio presents both Paul the Deacon and his Decameron as degni di fede.

Branca notes in the essay cited above, and in the notes to edition of the Decameron, that Boccaccio makes repeated use of Paul the Deacon throughout his other work. And we now know that Boccaccio actually copied this work out in his own hand. The manuscript has been divided up, and is currently: Firenze, Biblioteca Riccardiana 627 and 2795, and British Library, MS Harley 5383. Teresa De Robertis’s entry, nr. 62, in Boccaccio autore e copista (pp. 343-346), gives a full and utterly fascinating account of the reconstruction of the manuscript, due to the work of Emanuele Casamassima (and Salomone Morpurgo before him), Teresa De Robertis, and Laura Pani, all across several decades.

In the London fragment, only identified by Pani in 2012, we find the relevant section describing the plague (History of the Longobards, II 4). In the margins Boccaccio has written a note:

Anno Domini MCCCXLVIII simillima pestis Forentie et quasi per universum orbem

There is much to say here about Boccaccio’s obsession with books, with copying texts, and with how he writes things in the margins. In the present context I want to say one thing in particular. In reading an historical account of a plague by an Eighth-century auctor, Boccaccio has been struck by similarity, the similarity between events of the past and the present. Not only that, but in observing the sheer scale of the plague, he draws another connection between Florence and the rest of the world. Florence, that is, can be thought of as a microcosm, a distillation of all that happens in the world. The Decameron, then, can be thought of as a kind of declaration ‘urbi et orbi’, ‘to the city and to the world’.



Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, ed. by Vittore Branca (Torino: Einaudi, 1992); The Decameron, trans. G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 2nd edn (London: Penguin, 1995).

Vittore Branca, Boccaccio medievale e nuovi studi sul Decameron, Saggi Sansoni (Firenze: Sansoni, 1996).

Emanuele Casamassima, in Mostra di manoscritti, documenti e edizioni. VI Centenario della Morte di Giovanni Boccaccio, Firenze - Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, 22 maggio-31 agosto 1975, 2 vols (Certaldo: A cura del Comitato promotore, 1975), I, pp. 133-134, nr. 107.

Teresa De Robertis, ‘Restauro di un autografo di Boccaccio (con una nota su Pasquale Romano)’, Studi sul Boccaccio, XXIX (2001), 215-227.

Laura Pani, ‘«Propriis manibus ipse transcripsit». Il manoscritto London, British Library, Harley 5383’, Scrineum Rivista, 9 (2012), 305-325.

Teresa De Robertis, Carla Maria Monti, Marco Petoletti, Giuliano Tanturli, and Stefano Zamponi (eds), Boccaccio autore e copista (Firenze: Mandragora, 2013).

The Decameron and COVID-19

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Ital. 63, f. 9v

The rapid and alarming spread of COVID-19 around the world, and the  consequent lockdowns imposed in one country after another, have led to a good deal of commentary on how people have dealt with outbreaks of contagious diseases in the past. Perhaps it was inevitable that the fourteenth-century example of the Black Death would be raised, but it was less expected that copies of the Decameron would sell out on Indeed, it is becoming increasingly common to talk of the Decameron and COVID-19 - see here and here and here.

The Decameron of course is a text that emerges out of lockdown conditions. The ‘story’ of the story-collection is that ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, gather in the church of Santa Maria Novella during the plague of 1348, and agree to flee the city together and repair to a country villa, safely away from the noxious air of Florence. When they arrive at this villa they decide to tell each other stories to pass the time. One member of the brigata (‘group’) is nominated monarch for the day, and this person chooses the order in which the stories will be told (each person tells one story per day), and selects the theme for the following day’s stories. Each day closes with a ballata sung amidst decorous dancing and merry-making. So the Decameron is a ‘framed’ narrative, deploying a literary technique of mise en abyme: first the author presents his book in a ‘Proem’, which in turn frames the ‘Introduction’ to the First Day, introducing the story of the brigata, members which in turn tell their individual stories. The frame has the effect of keeping the stories at a certain distance from the author, and allows for the author to offer further commentary on the stories. This happens, for example, in the ‘Introduction’ to the Fourth Day.

Let’s return to the beginning of the Decameron, since the technique of framing necessitates the reader to pass over several thresholds, namely, the Proem and the Introduction, and consequently to draw connections between them.

In the ‘Proem’ the author explains how he came to write the work. As a young man, such was the immoderate intensity of love that he experienced, that he frequently benefited from the sympathy of friends. Wishing to be grateful, the author proposes to offer these stories for the benefit of those who are currently in distress. Lovesick women suffer in particular because, unlike men who can go out hunting with their male friends for distraction, they must remain indoors to protect their honour. Women, that is, are subjected to a continuous lockdown because of their gender, and, under such conditions, are prone to noia, an anxious mental state that is not equivalent to what that word means in present-day Italian, ‘boredom’, but rather something much more akin to what we would call depression. Thus 
‘in soccorso e rifugio di quelle che amano, per ciò che all’altre è assai l’ago e ’l fuso e l’arcolaio, intendo di raccontare cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie che dire le vogliamo’ (Dec. Proemio 13)

(‘I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies, but only for those who are in love, since the others can make do with their needles, their reels and their spindles. I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you choose to call them’, trans. McWilliam). 
A couple of things are very striking about this: the Decameron is directed at a restricted audience, those women who are suffering; and the kinds of stories that will be included cover a very wide range of genres. Indeed, the paratactic phrasing ‘novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie’ flattens out the distinction between them, perhaps suggesting that the genre of the stories in the Decameron won’t be easy to define with traditional terms.

The ‘fictional’ story of the frame then begins, set during the real plague of 1348. We know that Boccaccio was in Florence when the plague broke out (March-April, 1348), and his father had an official role in the city as one of the ‘Otto di Abbondanza’, whose duties included food rationing and public hygiene (Branca, Boccaccio: profilo biografico [1977], p. 78 n. 41). We would probably call such a role now a ‘front line service’. He appears to have been appointed to this role between June 1347 and August 1348, when he succumbed to the contagion. Boccaccio also lost his stepmother, and a host of friends and acquaintances.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Ital. 63, f. 6r – the ‘triumph’ of Death

The first half of the Introduction (§§1-48) is given over to a description of the plague in Florence. It details the first signs of the disease, the symptoms, the immediate response of the citizens of Florence, one is to ignore the problem, the other is to completely isolate, and others still chose a middle path between the too. It made little difference to the outcome, and those who showed symptoms were inevitably dead within three days. The social consequences of this destruction are then outlined, with people left in neglect through fear of becoming sick, the obsequies of the dead being too short, and many unscrupulous types taking advantage of people’s fear with quack remedies. What would have once been considered utterly inappropriate in terms of modesty has become normal. And the narrator then closes this account by observing that even those in the countryside, in less densely populated areas, fared no better.

This is the context in which seven young ladies find themselves in Santa Maria Novella, and begin to wonder if getting out of the city might not be a good idea. They are joined by three handsome young men, who at first think their invitation to join them in the countryside is a joke, and thus the second half of the Introduction Day I continues.

It should be already clear  that a parallel is being drawn between two different kinds of illness: lovesickness, and the plague. A remedy for one, amusing distraction and keeping oneself entertained, is also a remedy for the other. The multiple frames of the Decameron allow for these several perspectives to be in play at the same time.

So the many stories that are now in circulation on ‘heartbreak’ in lockdown, where those who have just broken up are stuck at home and cannot move on, might take some solace in the Decameron and in the knowledge that it is a book written more or less just for them.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts: Image, Vision, and the Vernacular (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016), xvi + 228 pp. ISBN 978-0-88844-206-2. €85/$85.

In this enjoyable volume Kathryn McKinley seeks to examine the House of Fame and its sources, arguing in particular that a greater prominence be given to Boccaccio’s Amorosa visione (AV). This early dream-vision is written in terza rima, under the influence of Dante, and divided into a modest ‘half-Comedy’ of fifty ‘cantos’, kissing the steps of the great poem but not emulating it. Chaucerians, she rightly points out, have been quick to dismiss the AV as having offered the English poet no more than a passing detail here and there. McKinley re-examines the AV and suggests that its rich and insistent recourse to ekphrasis, its flawed and unauthoritative guide-figure, and its complex representation of Fame, all provided Chaucer with an opportunity to reflect upon those key concerns of the House of Fame: poetics, literary self-representation, and the aleatory nature of one’s literary future. One of the core polemics of the book is that in the AV Boccaccio was resisting Dante, offering an alternative to the sublime, divine poem, in something more earthly and human. Boccaccio, then, in such a reading, become a very important point of reference for a Chaucer coming under the influence of Italian poetics. It is through Boccaccio that Chaucer’s poetry is not burned up like Semele in response to the genius of Dante.

After a detailed summary of the AV in Chapter One, ‘Boccaccio’s Narrative Arts: Text, Ekphrasis, Image’, and some brief remarks on the manuscript tradition and its second redaction written late in Boccaccio’s life, McKinley looks at some of the wider visual contexts in which to consider the poem, especially large-scale fresco cycles that were in demand in Italy in the fourteenth century. This serves to focus attention on Boccaccio’s acute interest in the visual, in ekphrasis, in the life of artists, discernible in the AV, the Teseida, and the Decameron.

The rest of the book might be described as a close-reading of the House of Fame, with its Books 1 and 2 being analyzed in chapters 2 and 3, and the long final book of the poem given over to two chapters, 4 and 5. The generous space for such a reading makes for an unhurried journey through the poem, and the opportunity to become acquainted or reacquainted with Chaucer’s extroardinary dream-vision is one to be relished. McKinley pays especial attention to parallels, analogues, and lexical echoes in the AV, with a series of tables setting out comparative passages for the reader’s convenience. Boccaccio’s technique of synthesizing his sources is highlighted. For example, in his treatment of Dido in AV cantos 28-29, Boccaccio combines lines from both the Heroides and the Aeneid, joining Ovid and Virgil together; McKinley suggests that this may have ‘helped shape Chaucer choice to feature alternating Virgilian and Ovidian depictions of the heroine in House of Fame, Book 1’ (p. 86). The eagle in HF Book 2 provokes a series of reflections on wing imagery in Boethius, Dante and Boccaccio, focussing especially on a passage opening Book 6 of the De casibus in which the narrator explains he does not have the wings to bring him sufficiently high to access arcane knowledge nor does he have the language to describe such elevated material. The passage echoes Dante’s warning in De vulgari eloquentia (II iv 11) about matching style and subject-matter, and tempering one’s ambitions so as not to be like the ‘star-seaking eagle’ (astripetam aquilam). This trope of declaring oneself not entirely up to the task is echoed in Chaucer’s worrying about his verse being ‘lyght and lewed’, metrically failing ‘in a sillable’ (1096-1098), and ‘embodied’ in the figure of the talkative, comic eagle; the only ‘gravitas’ Geffrey can boast of is literal rather than stylistic, as the eagle complains about how the effort required to carry his (over) weighty body. The final chapter reflects upon the figure of Fame and how Boccaccio represents Wordly Glory in the AV, proposing that the densely packed gallery in canto 6 provided Chaucer with a source for his own list of petitioners before the goddess.

Many of the parallels and echoes between the AV and the HF are based around catalogues of names and are not quite as clear-cut as to constitute a firm source; naturally, these echoes sound a bit different every time one revisits them. That said: McKinley’s assertion that Chaucer’s reference to ‘cruel Achilles’ (HF 1463) is close Boccaccio’s line del teban mal, d’Achille ’l vigor raro (AV canto 5, line 36), which is only found in the hypothesized second redaction, does not sound close, especially given that in Purgatory 21, where Dante calls Statius a ‘Tholosaun’, we find the name Achilles given the prominence of rhyme position (line 92), a prominence it has in HF. The kind of reworking Chaucer does with Boccaccio is often not conducive to definitive statements about sources. While the Decameron seems an obvious analogue for the Canterbury Tales, there are no very clear verbal echoes to suggest Chaucer worked from it directly. And when he clearly was reading Boccaccio, and translating the Filostrato line-by-line in Troilus and Criseyde, he attributed the work to someone else, almost seeming to refuse to name Boccaccio.

A few typos do creep in but none is misleading. One curious moment of inattention in the book (p. 120) leads McKinley to suggest that Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chig. L. V. 176 (a celebrated manuscript in the hand of Boccaccio, compiling a number of works by Dante and Petrarch) was in fact sent to Petrarch “some time…after 1351”, citing Martin Eisner’s 2013 monograph. The construction of this manuscript is very complex, and it is certainly in some sort of ideological dialogue with Petrarch, but it was never sent to him.

Kathryn McKinley in this book ensures that work on Boccaccio remains crucial to understanding what Italy meant to Chaucer.

[A shorter version of this review appeared in Medium Ævum LXXXVIII.1 (2019), pp. 167-168] 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

I'm not dead

I could offer any number of excuses, and they’d all be good ones. Research, teaching, marking, administration, living, sleeping. But I miss this blog, and I shall endeavour to reprise fairly regular posts.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Nicola Gardini, Lacuna. Saggio sul non detto (Torino: Einaudi, 2014)

In this remarkable book, Nicola Gardini takes the theme of the unsaid, that which is omitted, avoided, skirted around, or suppressed. The opening sentence strikes a note that is maintained throughout the rest of the book: ‘Io sono innamorato della parola «lacuna»’; this passion drives what follows, with a rigorous attention accorded the very texture of the word. Gardini moves deftly deftly through a wide range of languages and literatures, and is careful to give both a micro and macro level of analysis, according to each moment of the argument.

It is an essay in the proper sense of the word (in the sense, that is, used by Montaigne, and in the sense used too infrequently now), a trying out of something, an attempt at exploring something. An essay should be risky. It should be uncertain. It should not be too sure of where it is going. And Gardini marshals all of these resources magnificently in this book. The sections are given strange titles, such as ‘Textus’, ‘La mente scultrice’, ‘Reliquie’, and ‘Il segreto di Octave’, and this estrangement is another important value in his prose. Some sections are very short, a couple of pages in length, and others range over fifteen or twenty pages. The result is a kind of pace that keeps you on your toes, but never leaves you at sea.

One of the book’s primary assertions is the importance of recognizing that which is unsaid, omitted, left out, and seeing how the partial points to completeness. As he says, on p. 5: ‘Occorre, in un certo senso, che diventiamo anche noi invisibili per riconoscere l’invisibile. Non c’è omissione testuale che non rimandi a una pienezza extratestuale; a questa sta al testo come l’ombra al corpo’. Thus the imperfect becomes replete with power and with potential.

The pages that follow then range over a dazzling array of authors, from the Ancient Greeks to the contemporary, weaving in and out with ease and conviction. The few passages on Dante are well worth chasing, but the attention to the detective story I found particularly enjoyable, a chapter (‘C’est du Sherlock Holmes’, pp. 145-167) that brings together Arthur Conan Doyle, Proust, Leopardi, Simenon, and Seneca.

The final chapter begins ‘A malincuore arrivo a chiudere questo libro’, and by then it is undoubtedly a sadness shared by the reader. Perhaps because of the unusual form of the essay, this final section, ‘Conclusioni’ discusses the composition of the book, explaining what he had set out to do, what changed when he began, and how he found himself rewriting the entire work. This final section is a kind of (anti)manifesto ‘On Method’, in which he shows how the intricacies of argument and experimentation are not easily planned in advance. Gardini leaves his readers with a cri de cœur, asserting forcefully that in this navigating of the said and the unsaid, literature is a paradigm of life, and its value is fundamental. ‘Le lacune della letteratura ci preparano, appunto, ad affrontare la nostra fine’: The lacunas of literature prepare us exactly to face our own end.

This is a great book.

Watch the book being presented here; and a previous post by me slobbers over his writing room in Milan, here.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


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