Authors: Giovanni Boccaccio

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Italian short-story writer and poet

June or July, 1313

Florence or Certaldo (now in Italy)

December 21, 1375

Certaldo (now in Italy)


Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KAHCH-eeoh) was born in 1313, probably in Florence or Certaldo (but possibly in Paris), and he may have been the illegitimate son of a respectable Florentine merchant then living in France. Boccaccio called himself a citizen of Florence. His father reared him well, giving him a sound education. He studied with Giovanni da Strada, a celebrated grammarian in Florence, and by his own account he was from his earliest years devoted to poetry. He said that he was writing verses at the age of seven. Very early, however, he was apprenticed to an eminent merchant with whom he remained for six years and with whom he seems to have traveled about Italy and France. Because the boy was deeply interested in studies, his father next apprenticed him to a professor of canon law, again for six years. Boccaccio was still dissatisfied; he still desired to study literature, and he believed that the entire twelve years were ill spent. {$I[AN]9810000360} {$I[A]Boccaccio, Giovanni} {$I[geo]ITALY;Boccaccio, Giovanni} {$I[tim]1313;Boccaccio, Giovanni}

Giovanni Boccaccio

(Library of Congress)

In the late 1320s or early 1330s, he went to Naples, apparently to resume preparation for a mercantile career, for by that time he had given up the study of law. In Naples, he lived in an atmosphere of gaiety emanating from the court of King Robert of Anjou. King Robert had an interest in the arts and kept about him many men of letters, Petrarch among them, though Boccaccio did not meet the great poet until a later time.

About 1341, Boccaccio reluctantly returned to Florence, apparently to be with his aged father. Between 1340 and 1344, when he was able through the intercession of a friend to go back to Naples, Boccaccio wrote three works dealing with a female character named Fiammetta: L’amorosa visione, Il ninfale d’Ameto, and The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta. The last work appears to be the semifictional account of his association with a woman named Maria, thought by some scholars to be Maria D’Aquino, the natural daughter of King Robert and the wife of a count of Aquino.

In 1344, Boccaccio returned to Naples, then ruled by Giovanna, granddaughter of King Robert, and was warmly received because of his literary reputation. It is doubtful whether he was in Florence during the plague of 1348, but about that time the death of his father called him back to Florence, and he entered the diplomatic service of the republic. Boccaccio’s acquaintance with Petrarch dated from 1350, when as a diplomat he entertained the great scholar-poet during the latter’s visit to Florence. The two became good friends, and until Petrarch’s death Boccaccio considered the elder man his mentor as well as his friend.

By 1353, the Decameron, begun in 1348, was completed, and this work earned for Boccaccio the title of father of Italian prose. The work consists of one hundred stories supposed to have been told at the rate of ten a day over a period of ten days by seven young ladies and three young men driven from Florence by a plague to take refuge in an abandoned villa near the city. The young people pass the time in their exile by playing games, taking walks, reading, and, in the evenings, telling stories. Each day, a ruler is chosen to govern the group that day and to pass judgment on the tales told that evening.

The one hundred stories range from highest pathos to coarsest licentiousness. Many of them were borrowed from other literatures, especially French, but they became Boccaccio’s own. A description of the plague precedes the stories; it is a masterpiece of epic grandeur and vividness. The prose of the Decameron is flexible, tender, supple, and precise. It renders all the shades of feeling of the Italian nation, from the coarse laugh of cynicism to the pathetic sigh of hopeless love. This prose has had great influence on later Italian writers, notably Niccolò Machiavelli and Matteo Bandello. The stories themselves have permeated Western literature. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, adapted much of Boccaccio’s stories and plot structure for his poetic masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). Other English writers influenced by Boccaccio’s artistry include John Lydgate, John Dryden, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, all of whom used the Decameron as a source.

After 1360, Boccaccio’s writings were in Latin, and his reputation grew to rank him second only to Petrarch by the time of his death on December 21, 1375, at Certaldo. He was buried there in the Church of Saints Jacopo and Filippo.

Author Works Short Fiction: Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto, 1349–1351 (The Decameron, 1620) Poetry: Elegia di Constanza, 1330s Rime, ca. 1330–1340 La caccia di Diana, ca. 1334 Il filostrato, ca. 1335 (The Filostrato, 1873) Il filocolo, ca. 1336 (Labor of Love, 1566) Teseida delle nozze di Emilia, 1340–1341 (The Book of Theseus, 1974) Il ninfale d’Ameto, 1341–1342 (also known as Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine and Comedia Ninfe) L’amorosa visione, 1342–1343 (English translation, 1986) Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, 1343–1344 (Amorous Fiammetta, 1587, better known as The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta) Il ninfale fiesolano, 1344–1346 (The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597) Buccolicum carmen, ca. 1351–1366 (Boccaccio’s Olympia, 1913) Nonfiction: Allegorica mitologica, 1330s De Canaria, ca. 1341–1345 De vita et moribus Domini Francisci Petracchi, ca. 1348–1350 De genealogia deorum gentilium libri, ca. 1350–1375 Trattatello in laude di Dante, 1351, 1360, 1373 (Life of Dante, 1898) Zibaldone Magliabechiano, ca. 1351–1356 Il Corbaccio, ca. 1355 (The Corbaccio, 1975) De casibus virorum illustrium, 1355–1374 (The Fall of Princes, 1431–1438) De montibus, silvis, fontibus lacubus, fluminubus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominbus maris, ca. 1355–1374 Vita sanctissimi patris Petri Damiani heremite et demum episcopi hostiensis ac romane ecclesie cardinalis, 1361–1362 De mulieribus claris, 1362 (Concerning Famous Women, 1943) Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, 1373–1374 Bibliography Ainsworth, Peter F. Jean Froissart and the Fabric of History: Truth, Myth, and Fiction in the “Chroniques.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. An impressive, comprehensive account of Froissart’ ability to weave an intricate narrative out of diverse strands of information. Archambault, Paul. Seven French Chroniclers: Witnesses to History. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1974. This work contains an instructive essay on Froissart that places him within the context of the French annalist tradition and delineates the trajectory of French chronicle writing from 1200 to 1500, demonstrating that Froissart’ emergence coincided with a transitional phase in secular historiography. Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent general introduction to Boccaccio. It begins with a historical background to Florentine life in the fourteenth century and proceeds to delineate the life of the author with emphasis on the major influences on his work. The early works are analyzed individually for their own merit and for their relationship to The Decameron. Contains lengthy but lucid discussion of The Decameron followed by notes and a useful list of works. Branca, Vittore. Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1976. The definitive biography of Boccaccio by an eminent scholar in the field of medieval literature. Branca analyzes Boccaccio from a historical perspective, provides an overview of the Middle Ages, discusses Florentine life during the period of the emerging merchant middle class, and focuses on the episode of the horrendous Black Plague. Branca offers many scholarly insights into Boccaccio’s prose production within a readable style that is accessible to the general public. Caporello-Szykman, C. The Boccaccian Novella: The Creation and Waning of a Genre. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Defines the novella as a form that existed only between Boccaccio and Cervantes. Discusses generic characteristics of the Decameron, Boccacio’s narrative theory, and the novella’s place within the oral tradition. Cottino-Jones, Marga. An Anatomy of Boccaccio’s Style. Napoli, Italy: Cymba, 1968. While the influence of Boccaccio on prose literature and the novel is of major importance, his linguistic contribution cannot be ignored. Boccaccio’s style was to be emulated by the writers of ensuing generations, and in the Renaissance he officially became the model for all Italian prose. Cottino-Jones analyzes the style of Boccaccio, its mixture of Latin and Florentine idioms, and illustrates how a study of its linguistic peculiarities can offer interesting insights into an interpretation of The Decameron. Coulton, George Gordon. The Chroniclers of European Chivalry. Reprint. Philadelphia: Richard West, 1978. A compelling analysis of Froissart’ keen interest in the history of the Low Countries. Dahmus, Joseph. Seven Medieval Historians. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982. A well-researched, fairly comprehensive study of the way in which Froissart conceived of history as a conflict of interests among individuals of prominent rank and prestige. The chapter on Froissart includes generous extracts from Chronicles. De Looze, Laurence. Pseudo-autobiography in the Fourteenth Century: Juan Ruiz, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Looks at Froissart’ work in the context of other autobiographical writings of the Middle Ages. Edwards, Robert R. Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Examines the influence of Boccaccio on Chaucer. Figg, Kristen M., trans. and ed. Jean Froissart: An Anthology of Narrative and Lyric Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2001. Translated selections of Froissart’ poetry and prose writings. Forni, Pier Massimo. Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Examines Boccaccio’s style in his seminal work. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Fowler, Kenneth. The Age of Plantagenet and Valois: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1328-1498. New York: Putnam, 1967. An attempt to explain the numerous complexities of war neurosis during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Also includes an informative discussion of the social and artistic life of France, England, and Burgundy. Hollander, Robert. Boccaccio’s Two Venuses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. A thorough analysis of all Boccaccio’s works except The Decameron. The author contrasts classical and Christian influences in Boccaccio’s work and concludes that, although the latter predominates in the later works, even in the earlier prose the classical Venus is tempered by the use of irony. Concludes that Boccaccio is a moral philosopher who, unlike Dante, is not concerned with human appetites that lead to a spiritual death but with their negative effects in this world. More than one hundred pages of notes provide a tool for further research. Huot, Sylvia. “Reading Across Genres: Froissart’ Joli Buisson de Jonece and Machaut’ motets.” French Studies 57, no. 1 (January, 2003). A scholarly study of parallels between Froissart’ poem and three of Machaut’ motets. Moe, Nelson. “Not a Love Story: Sexual Aggression, Law and Order in Decameron X 4.” Romanic Review 86 (November, 1995): 623–638. Discusses the fourth tale of the tenth day as a reworking of an earlier Boccaccio treatment; examines his reformulation of the social significance of sexual transgression that is at the center of both versions of the tale. Argues that the revision transforms a tale of passion into a tale of property and discusses the use of legal discourse in the revision. Shears, Frederick S. Froissart: Chronicler and Poet. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1930. A definitive biography and a sympathetic defense of Froissart’ proficiency as a historian. Explores the connection between Froissart’ fourteen-thousand-line poetic masterpiece of 1370, Méliador, and the literary style of the Chronicles. Stierle, Karlheinz. “Three Moments in the Crisis of Exemplarity: Boccaccio-Petrarch, Montaigne, and Cervantes.” Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (October, 1998): 581-595. Discusses Boccaccio’s response to the exemplum as a form of narration that presumes more similarity in human behavior than diversity; analyzes Boccaccio’s turn from exemplum to novella as a shift that indicates a crisis of exemplarity. Wright, Herbert G. Boccaccio in England, from Chaucer to Tennyson. London: Athlone Press, 1957. Boccaccio’s fame is not limited to Italy, and it is particularly in England that his works had a major impact. This book analyzes the influence of Boccaccio on well-known authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with an especially lengthy and perspicacious discussion of the presence of Boccaccio in The Canterbury Tales. This volume is also a fine introduction to the comparative study of literatures, and it illustrates how masterpieces of literature in any language belong to the world community.

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