The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio
Italy, 1350-53
Translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013

Several things spring to mind at the mention of The Decameron: plague, sex, and corrupt priests. While the latter two items are abundant in the 100 stories that make up the pages of The Decameron, there is less of the Black Death than its reputation might suggest.

Written in the mid-1300s, Boccaccio’s collection of tales has a strong framing organization that divides the tales into sets of ten, told over a series of ten days. Each day also has a introduction and a conclusion and an Author’s Preface and Conclusion round out the book. It is in the Day 1 Introduction that one of the most famous passages, that describing the effects of the plague–which devastated Florence, Italy in 1348–is found. Interestingly, according to the Introduction of the edition I read, many of Boccaccio’s details come from an 8th century work, Historia Longobardorum by Paulus Diaconus, although Boccaccio’s father was also involved in organizing relief for the Florentines and may have shared what he witnessed with his son, who is believed to have been outside the city at the time. (It is also interesting to me to learn that the plague still exists, but is readily treated by antibiotics.)  Regardless of the exact sourcing, Boccaccio’s description of the devastation caused by the plague and the subsequent civic and moral decay is harrowing. The gruesome infection, mass burials, abandonment of friends and family, abandonment of all social, moral and ethical principles–such was the state of 1348 Florence.

Moreover, since they themselves, when they were well, had set the example for those who were not yet infected, they, too, were almost completely abandoned by everyone as they languished away. And leaving aside the fact that the citizens avoided one another, that almost no one took care of his neighbors, and that relatives visited one another infrequently, if ever, and always kept their distance, the tribulation of the plague had put such fear into the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned their brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and very often wives their husbands. In fact, what is even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.

Day 1, Introduction

Against this backdrop, Boccaccio sets his collection. A group of young Florentines, seven women and three men, feeling abandoned by family and friend, though yet healthy themselves, gather at Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Florence and decide to leave the city, embarking a few miles away to the countryside, to “hav[e] as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way” (Day 1, Introduction). This is the last the plague is mentioned, as we enter into a world of feasting, dancing, nature and storytelling.

Painting by John William Waterhoues of a group of young women and men  women in late Medieval/early Italian Renaissance clothing sitting in a garden and conversing.
A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

It is quickly established by the young people that they will select a “queen” or “king” to order their existence on each day, with the first queen, Pampinea, setting the rhythm for the days that follow: they spend the mornings in gardens or meadows, a midday luncheon followed by music, dance and rest before finally gathering in a shaded spot during the hottest part of the day to tell their stories, one each. They deviate from the schedule only on Fridays and Saturdays for religious observance and personal hygiene. It is an idealized world they find themselves in, without intrusion of the outer world or its concerns. On one day, they visit a garden of such pristine beauty and isolation, that it seems as if it is meant to represent Eden. They are separate from–and we as readers in turn are separate from–all outside consideration or care.

Although on Days 1 and 9 the storytellers are allowed to give free reign to share whatever they wish, the remaining eight days are each themed, on stories ranging from tragic love to love overcoming all, from tricks played on others or wit employed against other to get something the trickster or wit desires to stories of liberality or magnificence of wealth and deed. Some are humorous while some are tragic. Intelligence and wit are roundly celebrated while foolishness and ignorance are punished or denounced. And yes, there is plenty of sex–and while early English translations altered or omitted some of the most scandalous tales, in general Boccaccio sticks with tame statements (embracing, sleeping with) or euphemism. I was put in mind of the bawdy humor of Shakespeare.

I was also reminded of Shakespeare by the style or themes of some of the tales, especially those dealing with lovers and confused identities. This isn’t perhaps surprising; although there were about 250 years between them, they had some of the same, or similar sources to reference, and it is believed that Shakespeare took a portion of the plot of Cymbeline from Day 2, Story 9 and As You Like it from Day 3, Story 9 (likely by way of a French translation).

What is perhaps more surprising–although not unprecedented, as Dante’s Inferno places not a few clergymen in the torments of Hell–is the number of stories featuring a corrupt or immoral priest, nun, or other religious figure. Clearly, even well before Martin Luther’s famous 16th century critique of the Catholic church, those outside of it–but still of the Catholic faith–saw hypocrisy, avarice, and lust within. (Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising in an era in which the Church might be chosen as an occupation, not out of faith, but due to poverty or lack of other opportunity, or that might be chosen for a child by their parent.) However, the context of the stories–and especially within the framing introductions and conclusions–makes clear that the humor at the expense of the clergy is not reflective of any disbelief in the Christian faith, even if perhaps it expresses a cynicism at the honesty and integrity of the faith leaders.

At times the stories can feel a bit tedious or a bit repetitive. Although there is a wide variety of stories,  a group of 9 or 10 stories on a topic (the tenth storyteller, Dioneo, doesn’t always stick with the program) can sometimes make it feel as if one story is blending into the next. And even between the different topics, many of the stories somehow still end up about love (or lust). With 100 total stories, it is also easy to forget many of them by the time the book is completed. That is not to say there aren’t memorable stories. I especially found amusing the handful of stories from Day 8 and 9 that featured the (real) Florentine Calandrino. Portrayed in this context as a gullible dupe, his friends were constantly playing practical jokes on him. In general, in fact, the stories of Day 8 were some of my favorites, as many were amusing tales of tricks people play on one another, although there are other stories throughout that are laugh-out-loud as well. There are also some rather sweet stories in Day 2, of people who have suffered great misfortunes only to wind up with a happy ending.

However, we are also reminded that these stories are very much of their time–women as property, the nobility as far superior to those low-born (and therefore subject to different rules). Additionally, while most of the stories are grounded in the real world (if occasionally a bit far fetched), at times moments arrive that remind us that The Decameron was still a Medieval work, although one tiptoeing on the edges of the Italian Renaissance. We are starting to see the influence of learning and intellect, but there also remains the evidence of courtly love, chivalric behavior, and even on occasion a bit of magic.

There is another way The Decameron took me back in time. Many of the stories, especially in the second half of the book, are set in Florence, a city I know well, having spent four months there as part of my university course. The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, near where our storytellers gather at the beginning and disperse in the end, is very familiar, as we passed through almost daily on our way to classes. An endnote for the third story of Day Eight sent me down a Google maps rabbit hole: it identified the location of Calandrino’s house as being near the corner of present day Via Ginori and Via Guelfa–which is where our apartment was (although in a 19th century building). Another story has the protagonist walking along Via della Scala, another familiar street: it was where our classes were located at the time. It was an unexpected jaunt down memory lane, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I picked up The Decameron as part of my libri Italiani project list, but also greatly inspired by Cleo’s (Classical Carousel) plans to read it this fall/winter. I’d previously read several of the stories for a college course, and it was fun to return to them. The edition I read was translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, and while I generally found it very readable, I did find his decision to use words such as “guy” and “buddy” to represent common speech a bit jarring. On the other hand, Rebhorn provided a contextualizing introduction and copious endnotes providing information on Boccaccio’s sources, translation decisions or explanations (such as puns that don’t translate), and historical background, all of which can be useful to the reader. (Depending on your reading preferences–I found reading each note as I came to it too interrupting, so I took to reading all of the notes for a story before starting it.) Generally speaking, regardless of whether the reader wants all that sort of extra material, this is a book where it’s perhaps best to use one of the newer translations (there are a couple to choose from), as the older editions are often incomplete or bowdlerized.

Completed: The Adventures of Pinocchio

Cover: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, NYRB ed., trans. Geoffrey BrockThe Adventures of Pinocchio
Carlo Collodi
(1881-1883, serialized; published 1883, Italy)
Translated Geoffrey Brock
Introduction by Umberto Eco
Afterward by Rebecca West

After walking half the day, they came to a city called Chumptrap. Entering the city, Pinocchio saw that the streets were full of mangy dogs yawning from hunger, fleeced sheep shivering from cold, hens with no combs or wattles begging for kernels of corn, large butterflies who could no longer fly because there had sold their beautiful wings, tailless peacocks who were ashamed to be seen, and pheasants who toddled quietly about, mourning their glittering gold-and-silver feathers, now lost forever.

From time to time there passed, through that throng of beggars and shamefaced poor, opulent carriages containing Foxes, or thieving Magpies, or nasty Birds of Prey.(Ch. 18)

This sight filled poor Pinocchio with such great and unexpected happiness that he was just a whit away from becoming delirious. He wanted to laugh, he wanted to cry, he wanted to say a mountain of things. But instead he whimpered confusedly and stammered out a few broken and incoherent words. Finally he managed to let loose a shout of joy, and, opening his arms wide and flinging them around the little old man’s neck, he began to yell, “Oh, my dear daddy! I’ve finally found you again!” (Ch. 35)

Had I actually put any thought into it at all, I would have realized that 1) January means snow (= much lengthier driving commutes = less reading time) and 2) I had two crazy-making work deadlines to end January and so I really should have started The Adventures of Pinocchio in December, so that I, the RAL host, wouldn’t be the last one to get a post written. (Eeking it out the last day of January!) Had I had any foresight I would have read The Adventures of Pinocchio last June, mulled it over for a while, and then reread it again for the RAL.

It was, in short, rather nothing like I expected. Different than Disney, yes, that goes without saying, but such a collection of the fantastic and bizarre and wild and religious and didactic and satiric (I think) and the cruel and dark and comic and heartwarming! I do not quite yet begin to know what I think.

Does it help me to know that Collodi originally ended the story at chapter 15, with Pinocchio’s death? Or that children’s literature as separate from adults’ was a relatively new form of writing in a relatively recently unified Italy? In the Afterward by Rebecca West, I learn that Collodi was “basically suspicious of any programs that codified conformity, seeing them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom.” No wonder we can’t make up our minds: is it a didactic book, teaching children obedience, or a subversive one, teaching them that rebellion might have a price but it’s a heck of a lot more fun? Maybe it is not children he is teaching, but rather their parents.

Then the allusions–it seems there are many. Religious, certainly. And West’s afterward points to Pinocchio‘s indebtedness to the great Italian literary tradition: Virgil and Boccaccio and Dante, and so on. I am not convinced I have read a children’s book. But I am not convinced that I haven’t. Maybe it goes over my head because I am not still a child. Maybe Collodi was still writing in an older tradition, one that didn’t separate the children and the adults.

But on the way he felt ill at ease–so ill at ease, in fact, that he took one step backward for every two steps forward. And all the while he was talking to himself: “How can I ever show my face to the good Fairy? What will she say when she sees me? Will she forgive me this second escapade? I bet she won’t forgive me! Oh, she certainly won’t forgive me! And it serves me right! Because I’m a rascal, always making promises to change my ways and never keeping them!” (Ch. 29)

Is Pinocchio fundamentally a religious text, reflecting humanity’s sinful nature in the image of a puppet who wants to do the right thing, who promises to do the right thing, but continually fails? Or is it a story of growing up, a bildungsroman? Is it neither? Amateur Reader (Tom), in his first post, posits that Pinocchio is “murdered” in the end. I am not entirely convinced that the puppet is alive at all in the final chapters of the story, or his friends for that matter. But I am perhaps reading that all wrong. Maybe it goes over my head because I am not still a child. I make it what it is not.

Many thanks to all those who joined me on this journey through The Adventures of Pinocchio. Not only the book, but your posts have given me plenty to think on.

The Adventures of Pinocchio RAL

PinocchioRAL_300

It’s here, time for discussion of our thoughts on Carlo Collodi’s  The Adventures of Pinocchio! Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below. My own post might be a bit delayed due to an unfortunate work deadline that has left me with very little reading time this week, but hopefully will be up sometime later this weekend.

If you’ve never read Pinocchio before (and were only familiar with the  Disney version, or another adaptation), was there anything that surprised you?

Completed: Inferno (Dan Brown)

Florence City Guides + Inferno

Inferno
Dan Brown
2013, U.S.

I wouldn’t particularly say I’m a Dan Brown fan. I’d only read Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, ages ago, back at the tail-end of the controversy over the latter. They were okay–nothing too exciting to me–not only is it difficult to get into a thriller when you pretty much know the end (as with Da Vinci Code), but I’m just not that into conspiracy theory stories. (In other words, I liked Angles and Demons the better of the two.) All that said, the moment I saw the cover of Inferno, his latest, I knew I was going to read it–if I have one bookish weakness, a la Book Riot’s “Genre Kryptonite,”  it is books, fiction or non-, set in Italy. Especially Florence.

Firenze

I was fortunate, when in college (university to non-Americans), to spend an entire semester in Florence, coming to know the streets of the old city nearly as well as my hometown–the sights, the smells, the textures. It is a map that remains well-imprinted in my memory, and with a little effort I can picture the paths I took from my apartment to the school or the market or various plazas or shops. (Which shops may or may not have included a number of bookstores. I may have kinda-sorta shipped home a box of winter clothes, some requests from my mom, and…books. Ahem.) Knowing the city so well, as well as a passing familiarity with other parts of central/northern Italy (I’ve been to Rome, Siena, Verona, San Gimignano, Fiesole, Como, Venice, Mantua, Vicenza, and Cinque Terre), I developed a fondness for books set in these locales. I can picture the settings, no effort required.

Dan Brown’s Inferno had an extra bonus–the reference’s to Dante’s Inferno, which was one of my top reads of 2010 (wow–has it been that long already!?). Sure, Brown provides enough information/background that knowing the Dante isn’t necessary but it is fun to pick out the references before they are explained by the text.

However, although the Dante is a fun side-note, it is really the break-neck adventure through Florence that made the book for me. Sure, the writing is so-so–Brown has a habit of turning from adventure novel to guidebook when describing the scene, an annoyance I at first assumed to be noticeable only because of my familiarity with Florence, but a change of scene made it obvious that his tone does change at these spots–and the plot implausible, and quite frankly I’ve read books that were harder to put down (come to think of it, Hunger Games is a recent example), but the armchair tourism was great. Actually, there were a couple of spots protagonist Robert Langdon visits in Florence that I haven’t been to (or rather, in–why, I’m not sure at this point, seeing that I hit just about every church and museum in town…), but that didn’t prevent me from knowing just what exactly the buildings and landscape look like. I was completely transported back to Italy. My Italy semester was the highlight of college, so a revisit is a good thing. Seeing as it’s an early scene, I don’t think it spoils anything too much to say I about squealed with delight when the action moved into the Boboli Gardens, one of my absolutely favorite spots in Florence. Later, there was a plot development I could see coming, not because Brown telegraphed it or in any way gave it away, but purely because of my familiarity with the city. Fun!

All in all, this was a purely fun read, something I don’t seem to have done too much of in a while. It seems with all the other library books I’ve checked out this year, I’ve bumped uncomfortably up against the due date, while this one I returned early. Sometimes, it’s nice not to work so much while reading. However, it does bring to mind that despite my weakness for books set in Italy, I think I’ve yet to read one that is really top-notch. Any recommendations?

Completed: Dressed for Death

Venice in February 2013

Dressed for Death
Donna Leon
1994, U.S.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza and Ally of Snow Feathers are hosting Venice in February again this year, and although I didn’t have any particular plans for Venetian-set reading this year, I thought it as good an excuse as any to pick up another Commissario Brunetti mystery. This is the third I’ve read, and the third in the series–I’m going in order, but I don’t know if it’s particularly necessary–although, I don’t think I would start with this one. Truthfully, when it comes to most mystery series, and this one is no exception, once you’ve read a few you don’t find much new to say about subsequent entries. However, that won’t keep me from reading more of Leon’s mysteries, for the real appeal of the series is the setting. I’ve only ever spent two days in Venice, but I am transported back every time I pick up a Brunetti story.

Leon’s mysteries don’t seem to tie up neatly the way so many other mystery novels tend to do. It was only reading this one, however, that it dawned on me that this makes them truer to real life than other detective novels. In real life, when a suspect is taken to trial we don’t always know for sure that they are guilty, or we may, but the evidence may not be sufficient. A good lawyer may dismantle the prosecution’s case (or defense’s), allowing the jury to reach a verdict that isn’t actually true, but only as true as they can find it to be based on what they’ve been presented. Most mysteries don’t let us see this, but in Brunetti’s Venice, it is made plain for the reader that real life isn’t clean and neat, that politics and connections may trump truth. It is tempting to think, oh, that’s just Italy, they have all sorts of corruption, but one look at the local news  makes it obvious that I would delude myself to think so. The past few years of local news have been full of political scandal and corruption–to such an extent that the local Democrats actually appointed a Republican to a position that had been made vacant due to an embezzling case (long story). So no, the corruption and messy ends are not unique to Italy.

Also refreshing about the Leon novels, the detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, doesn’t have a tragic flawed past, isn’t an alcoholic, has a happy family life–in the third book his major personal conflict is whether he will solve the case in time to join his family on vacation. Nor are the cases solved quickly, with some miraculous piece of conclusive evidence or some spectacular deduction on the detective’s part. Grunt work, tedious slogs through piles of papers and computer files, and waiting, waiting, waiting–it somehow strikes me as more likely to be realistic than the TV crime procedurals I spend too much time watching, while not being too graphic or gritty. A series I can happily return to.

Odds ‘n Ends

  • I really should have posted earlier this week the results of the Classics Club Spin: number 14 was selected, which means I will be reading The Castle of Otranto. If I get it read (and it’s short, so yay), it will fill the Sensation! project slot for this year.
  • Speaking of yearly goals, the above post marks my successful completion of a reading challenge ON TIME! One goal down for the year and it’s only February.