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Some Aspects of the Genius
of Giovanni Boccaccio

Edward Hutton

[From the Proceeding* of the British Academy, Vol.


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner, E.G.

Price One Shilling and Sixpence net


Some Aspects of the Genius
of Giovanni Boccaccio

Edward Button

[From the Proceedings of tlie British Academy, VoL JT]


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner, E.G.



Read May 24, 1922

IT is my privilege to consider with you this afternoon some aspects
of the genius of Giovanni Boccaccio, of his genuis as shown and ex-
pressed quite as much in the man himself as in his work. Such
a subject, I hope, will not come amiss ; for the Annual Italian Lecture
last year was concerned, as you will remember, with ' Dante the Poet '
and it is surely not unfitting, therefore, that this year we should
consider Boccaccio, who was not only the first biographer of Dante
and the first public commentator upon the Divine Comedy, but the
first great Italian prose writer, even as Dante was the first great
Italian poet. Moreover, his most famous book, the Decameron has
had at least as great an influence upon European Literature and not
least upon English Literature as the Divine Comedy, and its author
therefore has a great claim upon our respect and, as I hope to show,
upon our affection.

Now in any consideration of Boccaccio, here in England especially,
I think we ought first to seize this fact in regard to him : namely, that
he wrote a great many books beside the Decameron : that his really
immense services to Literature and to Humanism are by no means
summed up in that ever-living book.

For Boccaccio was not only the great creative artist who finally
produced that vast Human Comedy the Decameron, he was also
a great and heroic soldier in the cause of Humanism, of the Revival
of Learning. Having spent half his life in the writing not of the
Decameron alone, but of eight or nine original works in the Tuscan
the Filocolo, the Filostrato, the Teseide, the Ameto, the Amorosa Visione,
the Fiammetta, the Ninfale Fiesolano and the Corbaccio, to say nothing
of his Sonnets and his Vita di Dante, the earliest biography of the
poet ; he turned, still with an immense enthusiasm and energy, to the
spade-work of learning, and not only produced in his Latin works
books of reference and information and criticism upon which learning
at that time came largely to depend, but took into his house a vagabond
and a rogue, and by his side day after day, month after month, with
long endeavour, self sacrifice and love, often in tears, often weary, but
never losing heart, procured for us the first translation of Homer, and
once more put us in possession of the greatest of all epic poems.

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5154. ,

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unly:pr.ejuclic,e:aHd- perhaps ignorance that can dismiss such
a man as a mere purveyor of doubtful stories : nor indeed can Boccaccio,
though he had done nothing but write the Decameron be reasonably
regarded in such a light. The work in which Chaucer, Sidney,
Shakespeare, Dryden, Keats, and Tennyson to name only a few among
our poets read with delight, finding there what they wanted, is
necessarily something living and splendid, and is still able to entrance
and to influence the noblest minds of our race.

Now in the life of this great and heroic man there were two decisive
experiences which influenced and even directed the whole of his work.
The two events were his meeting with, and love for Fiammetta Maria
d' Aquino that is, the bastard daughter of King Robert of Naples
and his meeting with and friendship for Petrarch.

He met Fiammetta at the age of twenty-three in 1336, and for twelve
years at least, till she died in the Black Death of 1348, under the
influence of his love for her, he is a great imaginative artist. It was
for her he wrote all his works, among them the first psychological
novel in the Italian language.

A period of bitterness and disillusion follows which had long been
preparing and which gives us that amazingly bitter and malicious
work II Corbaccio. To escape this he turns to religion and to the study
of Dante ; and then to save himself, perhaps from a sort of melancholy,
under the influence of his friend Petrarch, he throws himself with
renewed energy into scholarship, into the re-discovery and revival of
the learning of antiquity.

His legend, as the French say, has been built up by piecing together
the various accounts he himself gives of his love story, chiefly in the
Filocolo, the Ameto and the Fiammetta. Thus, we learn that he first
met Fiammetta in Naples in the Church of San Lorenzo of the
Franciscans on a certain Holy Saturday as scholarship has now
practically decided in the year 1336. He had gone to Mass it seems
about ten o'clock in the morning, the fashionable hour of the day,
rather to see the people than to attend the service, and there amid that
great throng of all sqrts and conditions of men, he first caught sight of
the woman who was so profoundly to influence his life and shape his work.

The love story thus begun, if we interpret his own accounts aright,
may be divided into four periods. The first of these ends twelve days
after the first meeting and is the period of uncertainty. The second
is that in which he is accepted as a courtier, as it were on trial. The
third begins when his lady, moved by long service and repeated proofs
of devotion, returns his love ; it is the period of 'dolce signoria' and


lasts 135 days, at the end of which she gives herself to him and they are
happy through a whole summer. The fourth begins with jealousy and
ends with open rupture, the cause of which he always declares he never
knew; his betrayal and desertion by Fiammetta. His love affair was at
an end and was never renewed ; but it fills his whole life and inspires
every book he wrote before the Ninfale Fiesolano and the Decameron.

He came back into the delicate and strong Florentine country
really to lose himself in work. But during his love affair with
Fiammetta in Naples he had already begun three works and probably
finished two of them : the Filocolo, the Filostrato and the Teseide.

His state of mind is visible in his work which is so extraordinarily
personal. A single thought seems to fill his mind : he had loved a
princess and had been loved in return ; she had forsaken him ; but
she remained in spite of everything the lode-star of his life. He
writes really of nothing else but this. Full of her he sets himself to
enchant her with stories, to glorify her, to tell over and over again
his own story.

It was the story of Florin and Biancofiore which had charmed
Fiammetta at first hearing, when Giovanni told it to her in the
convent parlour at Sanf Arcangelo a Baiano, and it is round this tale
that the Filocolo is written. As he tells us himself in the first page
this was the first book he made to please her. As we have it it is the
longest of his works after the Decameron, and the weakest of all.
Boccaccio seems to have felt this for he abandoned the work upon it
in Naples at the end of the third book the work consists of seven
either for this cause or because his love affair had changed in charac-
ter and he felt the need of expressing what he was suffering. What
this was is very obvious to us in his next work the Filostrato in which
he tells, using ottava rima for the first time in Italian literature, the
story of Troilus and Cressida.

' You are gone suddenly to Samnium ' he writes in the dedication
to Fiammetta ' and ... I have sought in the old histories what person-
age I might choose as messenger of my secret and unhappy love, and
I have found Troilus son of Priam who loved Criseyde. His miseries
are my history. I have sung them in light rhymes and in my own
Tuscan, and so when you read the lamentations of Troilus and his
sorrow at the departure of his love, you shall know my tears, my sighs,
my agonies, and if I vaunt the beauties and the charms of Criseyde
you will know that I dream of yours.' Well, the intention of the
poem is just that. It is an expression of his love. He is tremendously
interested in what he has suffered ; he wishes her to know of it, he is
eager to tell of his experiences, his pains and joys. The story is the


merest excuse, a means of self-expression. And yet in its exquisite
beauty of sentiment and verse it is one of the loveliest and most
spontaneous of his works. One too which has a special interest for
us, for Chaucer drew upon it very largely for his Troilus ; no less than
2700 lines, nearly half the Italian poem being literally translated by
Chaucer into English. This is about a third of Chaucer's poem.

If we had any doubt as to Boccaccio's state of mind, his next work
the Teseide would make it clear to us. It is full of the agonies of his
jealousy. It is prefaced by a letter to Fiammetta in which he tells
her he has written this poem to please her * thinking of past joy in
present misery/ As for the content it will be enough here to say
that it provided Chaucer with his 'Knight's Tale' in the Canterbury
Tales. It is the second of Boccaccio's epic poems. It was begun in
the shadow of Virgil's tomb, and to some extent was modelled upon
the Aeneid, though Boccaccio borrowed too from Statius and from the
Roman de Thebes. It is written like the Aeneid in twelve books and
has precisely the same number of lines as Virgil's great poem, (9896).
It is, therefore, about twice as long as the Filostrato.

Had he some idea of winning back her love by this stupendous
manuscript ? How charming and how naive, how like Giovanni too ;
but how absurd to dream of thus influencing a woman. Did she
ever read these nine thousand odd verses ? Chaucer read it, however,
and translated it or rather paraphrased it for the Knight's Tale-
first of the Canterbury Tales.

In Naples, in the shadow of Virgil's tomb, in a classic country still
full of that old renown, Boccaccio had followed classic models, had
begun two epics and a romance in the manner of Apuleius ; but in
Tuscany the country of Dante and Petrarch he came under the
influence of different work, and we find him writing a sort of
Dantesque allegory of prose scattered with verses. The action of
the Ameto takes place in the country about Florence, under the
hills of Fiesole in the woods there above Corbignano where his father
had a villa and podere. The book looks backward and forward like
the Filocolo. It is as autobiographical and more self-revealing than
that romance, and we seem to gather that he has still some hope of
winning back Fiammetta. She indeed appears as Hope and he as
Despair in the most significant part of the work, where we see
a reunion of seven nymphs and shepherds disguised as the cardinal
and theological virtues and their affinities, to discuss questions of
love and to tell stories. Here again, as in a scene, the Questioni
d?Amore of the second part of the Filocolo, is the scheme of the
Decameron in the making.


There follows the Amorosa Visione which was almost certainly
begun immediately after the Ameto. It recalls the happier time of
his love, and Fiammetta is the very soul of the poem which is dedicated
to her in an acrostic to be solved by reading the initial letters of the
first verse of each terzina, the result being two sonnets and a ballata.
The name Madonna Maria is formed by the initials of the twelfth
to the twenty-second terzina of Capitolo X, arid the name ' Fiamma '
by those of the twenty-fifth to the thirty-first of Capitolo XIII.
The last three lines of the first sonnet thus obtained read: 'Dear
Fiamma for whom my heart burns he who sends you this Vision is
Giovanni di Boccaccio da Certaldo/

This poem, as the title proclaims, is a vision a vision which Love
discovers to the poet-lover. Therein he sees four Triumphs of
Wisdom, of Fame, of Love and of Fortune. These Trionfi, the
first of the kind in Italian literature, are said to have been written
before the more famous Trionfi of Petrarch ; they owe nothing to
Petrarch,- but the whole poem shows us that Boccaccio was already
studying the Divine Comedy very closely. Written in the same form
of verse as Dante's great work, the Amorosa Visione derives from it
too, in all probability, the precision of its construction. It consists
of fifty capitoli, each composed of twenty-nine terzine and a verse of
chiusa, that is of eighty-eight verses in each.

Let us now turn to the Fiammetta for a moment : the last work
directly concerned with his passion for Maria d 1 Aquino. The action
is very simple, but it is remarkable in this. Here we have the love
story of Boccaccio told by Fiammetta as though it were her auto-
biography. It is, in fact, the first psychological novel of Europe.
And in some sort it is his revenge upon her : for here it is she who
is deserted not he. It is she who weeps and Giovanni who laughs or
is indifferent.

As a work of art the Fiammetta is the best thing Boccaccio has
done up to this time. The psychology is subtle and full of insight,
but not so dramatic nor indeed so profound as in the Filostrato.
We see Fiammetta's continual doubts of herself for he gives her his
gift of introspection. We see her soul tormented as his had been,
the fury of jealousy that had been his. The work is absolutely
original the crowning work of his youth. And in a sense it freed
him. He writes no more of his love story. He turns away from all
that misery and writes a delicious idyll the Ninfale Fiesolano, the
most mature of his poems. He shows himself there to be a poet
indeed, and though the theme is still love the loves of Aftrico and
Mensola, two small streams that flowed by his father's house at



Corbignano, all the bitterness of that theme for him is lost in music.
He describes with the greatest affection and enthusiasm this country
he loved best between the village of Settignano and Fiesole, north
and east of Florence, as though he can never forget the lines of just
those hills, the shadows on the woods there, the darkness of the
cypresses over the olives. This is the third poem he wrote in ottave,
a form of which he is certainly the first real exponent.

All that bright world about Florence among the woods of Vincig-
liata under Fiesole and the olive gardens and pode.re of Corbignano,
on the banks of Affrico and Mensola, so full of voices for Boccaccio,
where his earliest years had been spent, as we may think, and which
he celebrates and expresses so exquisitely in the Nwfale, was presently
silenced by the most appalling calamity that has perhaps ever befallen
Europe the Black Death of 1348. Three out of every five persons
died in Florence. The grass grew in the streets. ' So completely
were all obligations of blood and of affection forgotten, 1 Filippo Vil-
lani tells us, 'that men left their nearest and dearest to die alone
rather than incur the dangers of infection.' People said the end of
the world had come. In a sense they were right. It was the end
of the Middle Age.

In Florence there perished among the rest Giovanni Villani the
great chronicler, and Bice the second wife of Boccaccio. In Naples
it seems certain that Fiammetta died.

We do not know where Boccaccio was at this time. He was not
in Florence. Did he perhaps close Fiammetta's eyes and bear her to
the grave ? If he did he was soon recalled to Florence by his father's
death. And there, after that vengeance whether of God or of out-
raged nature in which all those he loved or cared for had been lost
to him, he set himself to put in order that great Human Comedy
which has given him immortality.

In the very opening page of the Decameron^ we see that even after
writing six works in prose and verse about her, even now she is dead
he cannot forget Fiammetta. The great Proem opens with her
unspoken name and closes too in the same fashion. Moreover, of
those seven ladies and four youths who are the protagonists of the
Decameron^ it is only she named Fiammetta who lives. The others
are without any personality at all, mere lay figures. As for Boccaccio
himself you will scarcely find him in all the hundred tales of the

It is strange that the work which best represents his genius, his
humour and wide tolerance and love of mankind, should in this be so
opposite to all his other works in the vulgar tongue, which are


inextricably involved with his own personal affairs, his view of things,
his love, his contempt, his hatred.

He speaks to us there once or twice, but always outside the stories,
and his whole treatment of the various and infinite plots, incidents,
and characters of his great work is as impersonal as life itself.

The Decameron is an absolute work of art, as ' detached ' as a play
by Shakespeare or a portrait by Velasquez. The scheme is formal
and immutable, a miracle of design in which almost everything can be
expressed. To compare it with the plan of the Arabian Nights is
to demonstrate its superiority. There you have a sleepless king, to
whom a woman tells a thousand and one stories in order to save her
life which this same king would have taken. You have, then, but two
protagonists and an anxiety which touches but one of them, the fear
of death on the part of the woman, soon forgotten in the excitement
of the stories. In the Decameron, on the other hand, you have ten
protagonists, three youths and seven ladies, and the horror which is
designed to set off' the stories is an universal pestilence which has
already half depopulated the city of Florence, and from which they
are fled away to the exquisite seclusion and delight of a great villa-
garden on the slopes under Fiesole, where they spend their time in
telling the stories that have made this work immortal.

Such is the incomparable design which the Decameron fills, beside
which the mere haphazard telling of The Hundred Merry Tales seems
barbarous, the setting of The Thousand and One Nights inadequate.
That Boccaccio's design has indeed ever been bettered might well be
denied, but in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer certainly equalled it.
If the occasion there is not so dramatic, nor the surroundings at
once so poignant and so beautiful, the pilgrimage progresses with the
tales and allows of such a dramatic entry as that of the Canon and
the Canon's yeoman at Boughton-under-Blee. That entry was most
fitting and opportune, right in every way, and though there is no
inherent reason why the Decameron itself should not have been
similarly broken in upon, the very stillness of that garden in the sun-
shine would have made any such interruption less acceptable. 1 The
true weakness_oj:jgiej3lan_^^ in comparison with that

ofThe Canterbury Tales is not a, weakness-of design but_of character^
Each of ^Chaucer's pilgrims is a comple*-** h""ian being ; they~all live
for us more vividly than any jother-Jolk, realtor imagined, of the
fourteenth century in England, and each is different from the others,

1 The only interruption of the Decameron, if so it can be called is the introduc-
tion of Tindaro and Licisca at the beginning of the sixth day. The diversion,
however, has very little consequence.


a perfect human character and personality. But in the protagonists
of the Decameron it is not so. There is nothing, or almost nothing,
to choose between them. Lauretta is not different from Filomena,
and may even be confused with Dioneo or Filostrato. We know
nothing of them ; they are without any character or personality, and
indeed the only one of them all who stands out in any way is she called
Fiammetta, and that because she never appears but Boccaccio inter-
venes to tell us something of her or to describe her beauty.

In Chaucer the tales often w r eary us, but the tellers never do ; in
Boccaccio the tales never weary us, but the tellers always do. The
tales never weary us. The Decameron is a world in itself, and its
effect upon us who read it is the effect of life which includes, for its
own good, things moral and immoral. The book has the variety of
the world, and is full of an infinity of people, who represent for us
the fourteenth century in Italy, in all its fullness, almost. It deals
with man as life does, never taking him very seriously, or without
a certain indifference, a certain irony and laughter. Yet it is full
too of a love of courtesy, of luck, of all sorts of adventures, both
gallant and sad. In details, at any rate, it is true and realistic,
crammed with observations of those customs and types wKich made
up the life of the time. It is dramatic, ironic, comic, tragic> philo-
sophic, and even lyrical ; full of indulgence for human error, an
absolutely human book beyond any work of Dante's or Petrarch's
or Froissart's. Even Chaucer is not so complete in his humanism,
his love of all sorts and conditions of men. Perfect in construction
and in freedom, each of these tales is in some sort a living part of
life, and a criticism of it. And almost any one could be treated by
a modern writer in his own way, and remain fundamentally the same
and fundamentally true. What immorality there is, is rather owing to
the French sources of some of the tales, than to any invention on the
part of Boccaccio, who softened much of their original grossness, and
later came to deplore what remained.

But it is in its extraordinary variety of contents and character
that the Decameron is chiefly remarkable. We are involved in
a multitude of adventures, are introduced to innumerable people
,of every class, and each class shows us its most characteristic qualities.
Yet such is Boccaccio's art, the stories were not originally, or even
as they are, ostensibly studies of character at all but rather anecdotes,
tales of adventure, stories of illicit love, good stories about the Friars
and the clergy, and women, told for amusement because they are full
of laughter or are witty, or contain a brief and ready reply with
which one has rebuked another or saved himself from danger.


Whatever they may be, and they are often of the best, of the most
universal, they are not, for the real lover of the Decameron, the true
reason why he goes to it always with the certainty of a new joy.
The book is full of people, of living people that is the secret of its
immortality. Fra Cipolla, whom I especially love, Celandrino whom
I seem always to have known, poor Monna Tezza his wife whom at
last he so outrageously gives away, Griselda, Cisti the Florentine
baker, the joyous Madonna Filippa or Monna Belcolore should be as
dear to us as any character in any book not by Shakespeare himself.
They live for ever. And yet it must be confessed that while the
book is a mirror of the world, and doubtless as true to the life of
its time as any book that was ever written, it lacks a certain idealism,
a certain moral sense, which even from a purely aesthetic point of
view would have given a balance, a sense of proportion to the book
which it has sometimes seemed to me it lacks.

But after all when we compare it even with the Divine Comedy, it
holds its own because of its humanity, and we may claim for it that
it is the greatest as it is the first prose work in the Tuscan tongne.

With the Decameron, Boccaccio's work as a creative artist comes
to an end. It is true that we have that mysterious and savage satire
the Corbaccw, begun immediately after the Decameron was finished,
that is to say, about 1353 ; but the passion which had given him
expression, inspired everything he had done and made him a great
creative artist has there turned sour sneers, as it were, at itself, and
we get that wild invective, laughable in its wildness and unmeasured
malice, against Woman which characterizes it. It was written he
said to open the eyes of the young to the horror of woman. From
this time he was more than forty years old he ceases to be a
creative artist. Fiammetta is dead, and what henceforth fills his life
is friendship friendship for Petrarch, which with all its comfort left
him still with that vain shadow, that emptiness in his heart
'The grief which I have borne since she is dead.'

But before he gave himself wholly to his friend he turned for con-
solation to the study of his great predecessor Dante. As soon as the

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Online LibraryEdward HuttonSome aspects of the genius of Giovanni Boccaccio → online text (page 1 of 3)