21 December 2020

Giovanni Boccaccio – writer and scholar

Renaissance humanist who changed literature

Boccaccio's Decameron influenced Chaucer and De Cervantes
Boccaccio's Decameron influenced
Chaucer and De Cervantes

One of the most important literary figures of the 14th century in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio, died on this day in 1375 in Certaldo in Tuscany.

The greatest prose writer of his time in Europe, Boccaccio is still remembered as the writer of The Decameron, a collection of short stories and poetry, which influenced not only Italian literary development but that of the rest of Europe as well, including Geoffrey Chaucer in England and Miguel de Cervantes in Spain.

With the writers Dante Alighieri (Dante) and Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Boccaccio is considered one of the three most important figures in the history of Italian literature and, along with Petrarch, he raised vernacular literature to the level and status of the classics of antiquity.

Boccaccio is thought to have been born in about 1313.  He was the son of a merchant in Florence, Boccaccino di Chellino, and an unknown woman. His father later married Margherita dei Mardoli who came from a well off family. Boccaccio received a good education and an early introduction to the works of Dante from a tutor.

His father was appointed head of a bank in 1326 and the family moved to live in Naples.

Boccaccio was appointed an apprentice at the bank but disliked the work and persuaded his father to let him study law at the University of Naples instead. Although he did not enjoy the study of law it gave him the opportunity to also study literature and science and to meet other scholars.

At that time, he is thought to have fallen in love with Maria, a married daughter of the King of Naples, Robert the Wise, and that he later portrayed her as Fiammetta in his prose romances.

Boccaccio's contemporary and friend, Petrarch
Boccaccio's contemporary
and friend, Petrarch
While in Naples, he began writing poetry and produced Il Filostrato and Teseida, which Chaucer used as sources for his Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale. He also wrote La caccia di Diana, a poem in terza rima, a rhyming verse form invented by Dante.

Boccaccio returned to Florence in 1341 where he wrote Comedia delle ninfe fiorentine, which was a mixture of prose and poetry. He then wrote a 50-canto poem, Amorosa visione and his novel, Fiammetta.

In 1348 Florence was hit by the Black Death, which killed three-quarters of the population. Boccaccio later featured the plague in The Decameron, although he may have been away in Ravenna at that time.

He began work on The Decameron in about 1349 and completed it in 1352. It was one of his last works written in Tuscan vernacular and it is regarded as his masterpiece.  He revised and rewrote it in 1370 and this manuscript has survived to the present day.

Afterwards he became more closely involved with the development of Italian humanism and started working for the government of Florence, visiting the Romagna, Brandenburg, Milan and Avignon.

In 1350 he was asked to greet Petrarch as he entered Florence and to have him as a guest at his home. The meeting was a great success and they became good friends, Boccaccio subsequently calling Petrarch his teacher.

An illustrated page from a 15th century copy of The Decameron
An illustrated page from a 15th
century copy of The Decameron
Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio to study Greek and Latin literature and as a result Boccaccio wrote Genealogia deorum gentilium, which was considered to be an important reference work on classical mythology that would be consulted for the next 400 years.

Boccaccio and Petrarch believed that much could be learned from antiquity and as a result the revival of classical works became important during the Renaissance.

In 1365 Boccaccio travelled to Venice where he met up with Petrarch again at his residence in Palazzo Molina on the Riva degli Schiavoni, where the poet kept his extensive library.

Boccaccio gave a series of lectures on Dante in 1373 and wrote his final major work, Esposizioni sopra la Commedia di Dante.

When Petrarch died in 1374, Boccaccio wrote a commemorative poem to mark the occasion, which he included in his collection, the Rime.

He became ill himself in 1375 and died on 21 December in his hometown of Certaldo where he is buried in the Church of Saints Jacopo and Filippo.

His entire collection of books was given to the monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence, but after the suppression of the monasteries by the French in the 19th century, many valuable works were lost, including Boccaccio's.

In 1971, the director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a film based on Boccaccio’s Decameron.

The Via Boccaccio in the picturesque town of Certaldo in Tuscany
The Via Boccaccio in the picturesque
town of Certaldo in Tuscany
Travel tip:

Certaldo, a town of Etruscan and Roman origins about 35km (22 miles) southwest of Florence, commemorates Boccaccio with a statue in the Piazza Boccaccio in Certaldo Basso, the lower part of a town of two halves, the other being Certaldo Alto, the elevated oldest part of the town in which Boccaccio lived, in what is now Via Boccaccio, at the end of which is the church of Saints Jacopo and Filippo, where he is buried.  Another feature of the picturesque upper town, which is accessed via a funicular railway from Certaldo Basso, is Palazzo Pretorio, also known as the Vicariale, the residence of the Florentine governors, which has been restored to its original condition with a facade adorned with ceramic coats of arms. 

Palazzo Molina on the Riva degli Schiavoni was Petrarch's home in Venice
Palazzo Molina on the Riva degli Schiavoni was
Petrarch's home in Venice
Travel tip:

Palazzo Molina, which has at different times been known as the Palazzo de Due Torri or Palazzo Navager, and locally as Casa di Petrarca, is a Gothic style palace that can be found a short distance from St Mark’s Square on Venice’s Riva degli Schiavoni, next to the Ponte del Sepolcro. Petrarch lived there with his daughter Francesca, her husband Francescuolo da Brossano and their family for about five years, having moved to Venice through his deep admiration for the city, where he had many friends. 

More reading:

Why Dante remains in exile from Florence

How Petrarch's work inspired the modern Italian language

Pier Paolo Pasolini - controversial director who met a violent death

Also on this day:

69: Vespasian becomes Emperor of Rome

1401: The birth of Renaissance artist Masaccio

1872: The birth of priest and composer Lorenzo Perosi

1931: The birth of circus owner and actress Moira Orfei


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