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. Giovanni Boccaccio
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.