Saturday, 23 May 2020

Boccaccio's Plague

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

In the last post we looked 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. McWilliam)

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).

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