Boccaccio was born in Certaldo (Florence) in 1313 ie 700 years ago, and died there in 1375. At the age of 1 he was promised in marriage to Margherita di Gian Donato de’ Martoli. He had a child with his wife and three other children outside marriage.
Boccaccio is a giant in the field of Italian literature because, together with Dante and Petrarch, instead of Latin he used the language of the people (referred to as ‘vulgar’, from the Latin word vulgus = people) in his written works so as to make them more accessible to the common man.
It was a delight to hear Gino Moliterno’s talk on 7 March about this great man. Gino started with a brief overview of the evolution of language in Italy following the fall of the Roman empire, and in light of various influences and foreign dominations. He spoke of the city states that became prosperous and powerful and in which particular dialects developed. While Latin was still spoken in these city states, the need arose for a common tongue. Dante (1265-1321) was the first to identify a spoken language that would have been suitable for his great work The Divine Comedy (1302-3). Thus Italian was born.
Petrarch and Boccaccio are part of the next generation of great literary figures. Petrarch (1304-1374) composed his great poetry in the same language. Meanwhile, Boccaccio wrote a linguistic analysis of dialects used – De vulgari eloquentia in which he reviewed the various dialects.
Boccaccio was a great admirer of Dante and his Commedia and used to lectures on the Inferno in a church in Florence. However, given that both Dante and Petrarch had excelled in poetry, he decided to adopt the new language for his prose. He also distinguished himself from the ‘sommo poeta’ in the purpose of his work. Whereas Dante was inspired by moral/noble principles in creating a universe in which God was its centre, being more pragmatic and realistic Boccaccio (who was a humanist) simply presented the human comedy: life is multifarious and human beings are either lucky or unlucky. In particular, Boccaccio privileges human ingenuity (uman ingegno) and people can have good fortune for a while then they might fall. His was a portrayal of the human comedy as distinct from Dante’s divine comedy.
Admiring the clear structure adopted by Dante for his Commedia, Boccaccio conceived a similarly clever structure for the Decamerone. Given that the plague had hit Florence in 1348, killing a third of its population, Boccaccio imagined seven noblewomen and three noblemen leaving the city to find a safer place in a castle for ten days. To wile away the time, the group decides that each day one of them would be king or queen for the day and choose a topic about which each person would then tell a story. This then adds up to 100 stories.
Gino explained that Boccaccio really liked and admired women. Not only did he dedicate Il Decamerone to women (who according to him have the upper hand just as much as men in sexual exploits) but also he had more women than men among the ten noble people to escape Florence.
Gino concluded his talk on Boccaccio by reading and translating for us one of the ‘novelle’, a really amusing short story which measures the wits of a Venetian cook (Chichibio) with those of his master Currado Gianfigliazzi.
Gino returned on 18 April to present Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Il Decamerone released in 1970. While Gino had intended showing us only four of the stories, he actually allowed the film to run to the end, and a number of us stayed until then despite the late hour.
Pasolini (described by Gino as a “courageous” and even “crazy” film director of the sixties and seventies) had selected nine short stories for his film, most of them dealing with the theme of sex – Boccaccio, after all, had a very “modern attitude” towards sex believing that human sexual appetite was very natural. Pasolini’s portrayal of male and female nudity, and of lovemaking, shocked Italy at the time, and his film was censored.
The film director had chosen Naples for the setting of most of the stories, often among the underclass. Gino described Pasolini as a great artist – many of his scenes seem wonderfully composed paintings. In the film itself, Pasolini plays the role of a disciple of the painter Giotto commissioned to paint a church fresco.
The two presentations by Gino Moliterno made us better appreciate Boccaccio’s place among the greats of Italian literature, his role at the dawn of the Italian language, and his pragmatic acknowledgment of human frailties while emphasising women’s strength and initiative. We also had a taste of Pasolini’s unique cinematographic style.