12.12.11, Filosa and Papio, eds. Boccaccio in America

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Janet Smarr

The Medieval Review 12.12.11

Filosa, Elsa and Michael Papio. Boccaccio in America. Memoria del tempo 35. Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2012. Pp. 286. ISBN: 978-88-8063-704-2.

Reviewed by:
Janet Smarr
UC San Diego

This volume publishes a selection of conference papers on Boccaccio from a very successful international conference held in the spring of 2010 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, by the American Boccaccio Association. A complete conference program is included in the appendix. The editors grouped the papers, some in English and some in Italian, into five new sections, each with three essays: Boccaccio e i sensi: gusto, udito e olfatto; Boccaccio e Dante; Boccaccio e la filosofia; Boccaccio e il Decameron; Boccaccio e la tradizione letteraria. Obviously these categories overlap, but they each offer some internal coherence. The volume's introduction (in Italian), which explains the definition of the sections and presents the papers one by one, is followed by a brief history of the American Boccaccio Association (in Italian), an indication of its ongoing projects, and a reproduction of its very first newsletter, in which its mission was set forth. Unfortunately the url for the website of the association, given on p.22, contains a typographical error (the "l" before "online" should be omitted).

In the section on Boccaccio and the senses, Victoria Kirkham's "The Cook's Decameron, or, Boccaccio to the Rescue of the Dull British Diet" launches the volume with a series of amusing images tracing Boccaccio as an idea in popular culture: from comic book to opera, from massage parlor to wine bottle label. The witty essay focuses on a 1901 book by Mrs. W.G. Waters (the wife of a scholar of Italian literature and art) which recreated in Victorian style the gracious gathering of men and women for ten days of well-served dinners, mingling bits of narrative and character sketches with recipes and table-settings, and presented Boccaccio's masterpiece as a model for civilized good taste--in both its meanings. Francesco Ciabattoni, "Musica sacra e musica profana nel Decameron, analyzes the semantic role of musical instruments and genres played or sung either within the tales or by the narrators. Arguing for the importance of monodic rather than polyphonic music in the work's cultural ambience, he concludes that Boccaccio is not only distinguishing between religious music (especially laude) associated with simple- mindedness and secular music associated with intelligence, but also is consciously reversing the musical values of the Commedia, where Dante celebrates the salvific value of liturgy while rejecting secular song. Christopher Kleinhenz, "A Nose for Style," compares Dante and Boccaccio for their attention to smells, noting the differences in diction with which they handle sometimes indelicate descriptions.

In the section on Boccaccio and Dante, two essays focus on Boccaccio as an editor and transmitter of Dante's writings. Beatrice Arduini, "Il ruolo di Boccaccio e di Marsilio Ficino nella tradizione del Convivio di Dante," discusses the delayed diffusion of that work, which because of its incompleteness was not immediately made part of the early Dante canon. The study actually deals more with the Manetti brothers' decisive intervention in the history of this text than with either Boccaccio or Ficino, but offer a fascinating account of this textual history. In a slighter essay, Jelena Todorovic, "Nota sulla Vita Nova di Giovanni Boccaccio" seeks to understand why Boccaccio made the changes that influenced editions of this text for many subsequent centuries. She suggests that Boccaccio's repeated pairing of his own Trattatello with the Vita Nova presents the former as a vida to introduce the poetry. In a marginal note, Boccaccio attributes his editorial changes to Dante's own wish. Todd Boli, "Boccaccio's Biography, Dante's Biography, and How They Intersected," proposes that Boccaccio found in Dante not only models for his writing but also "a pattern for how his poetic calling should be lived out" (114). Boccaccio quotes, defends, and celebrates Dante to justify his own pursuit of a vernacular literary career.

The section on Boccaccio and Philosophy comprises three varied approaches. Michael Papio, "Boccaccio: Mythographer, Philosopher, Theologian," inquires what these terms could have meant for Boccaccio and how they affected Boccaccio's interpretations of both ancient myth and Dante's Comedy. Papio indicates some of the many places where Boccaccio cites Boethius's opening line of 3 met. 9, especially its use by pagan characters, as a way of linking poetry to a pre- Christian theology based on the observation of an orderly cosmos; then he points to its reappearance in Boccaccio's own recitation of the credo as a connection of Christian and pre-Christian metaphysics through philosophical reflections on nature. This dense essay emphasizes Boccaccio's use of the Platonic tradition to link his theorizations of mythology as a theological poetry in the Genealogia with his Esposizioni on Dante. In an equally rich essay, Susanna Barsella, "I Marginalia di Boccaccio all'Etica Nicomachea di Aristotele," turns us from Plato to Aristotle, whose Ethics Barsella sees as central to the Decameron's concern: the pursuit of a harmonious civic life. Agreeing with Franco Cardini that Aristotle's virtues of magnanimity and liberality are called into play on the Decameron's tenth day to rebalance a society slipping away from those chivalric values towards a mercantile ethic of calculation and exchange, she looks at the manuscript in which a young Boccaccio copied Aquinas's commentary around Aristotle's text with additional marginalia of his own, and notes Boccaccio's special interest in the ideas of friendship and happiness: both link the individual to the common good and to a civic life which needs to be reconstructed after the plague. (On these issues, see also Michael Sherberg's book on The Governance of Friendship: Law and Gender in the Decameron, published simultaneously.) Finally she analyzes Boccaccio's gloss on the definition of "amicitia" as a new interpretation that draws on Cicero's concept of "honestum" and sheds light on crucial terms of the Decameron. Filippo Andrei follows with a converging study on "The Variants of the Honestum: Practical Philosophy in the Decameron." While somewhat prolix and unclear, it points usefully in two directions: to Cicero's identification of honestum with decorum and to Aquinas's definition of honestum with the good-in-itself, quod per se desideratur.

The section on Boccaccio and the Decameron contains three essays focused on specific tales. Renzo Bragantini's "Appunti sull'ordine dei racconti e l'organizzazione testuale del Decameron," comes at the question of the work's unifying organization through a discussion of 1.3; by setting the existing tale of three rings into another layer of narrative, Boccaccio shifts our attention from its lesson about religions to Filomena's lesson about responding cautiously to tricky questions. This shift not only connects 1.3 to 1.4 and other tales on Day 1, but also sets up a reader's approach to the whole Decameron via an emphasis on problems of communication (rather than of religion). Bragantini argues for taking seriously the brigata's comments about how to read the tales. Marilyn Migiel, "Some Restrictions Apply: Testing the Reader in Decameron III, 8," uses an excellent analysis of problematic features of this tale as one example to demonstrate how Boccaccio's phrasing tests us. Our reading experience invites us to become aware of "how complex human behavior and motivation is" and how quickly we allow ourselves to be blinded by the propositions we construct. Laurie Shepard, "Guido Cavalcanti among the Tombstones," analyzes the relation of Dante to Cavalcanti in the Vita Nova in order to answer the question of why Boccaccio's description of Cavalcanti in 6.9 omits his being a poet. She suggests that Boccaccio saw how Dante, while praising his friend, was also criticizing his failures at understanding Dante's poetry. At the same time, she suggests that Boccaccio sympathizes with Cavalcanti's scorn for the unintellectual fools who try to corner him.

The final section, Boccaccio and the Literary Tradition, looks both backwards and forwards. Igor Candido, "Venus Duplex: Apuleio dal Teseida alla Comedia delle Ninfe Fiorentine," demonstrates the importance of Apuleius to Boccaccio, tracing Boccaccio's combined references to Apuleius's Psyche and Eros fable, De Magia, and De dogmate Platonis together with the Aristotelian commentary of Dino del Garbo on Donna mi prega, in an intricate interweaving of Platonic and Aristotelian threads which resonated throughout Boccaccio's career. Giuseppe Velli, "Giovanni Boccaccio, Centonatore/Recreator, or On the Free Use of the Written Word," argues more broadly, as he has done in "Memoria" (Lessico critico decameroniano), that "a praxis of centonism pervades the writer's entire corpus (both vernacular and Latin)" and offers an assortment of examples. Roberto Fedi, "Agnizioni di Lettura, da Boccaccio a Verga," turns to the influence of Decameron 7.5 on Verga's Cavalleria rusticana, with a single phrase opening the way to a wider comparison.

All essays include scholarly references, conveniently appearing at the bottom of the pages as well as being gathered into one unified bibliography. The editors have not tried to enforce consistency with regard to editions or translations. The contributors use various editions of Boccaccio's works. Given the bilingual nature of this volume, one expects Italian citations not to be translated, but occasionally they are. Similarly Latin citations are sometimes translated and sometimes not, although their meaning, when untranslated, may be made clear in the surrounding text. This is a collection aimed not at American undergraduates but at international scholars of Boccaccio (and Dante). The general level of the contributions is high, and the volume offers a valuable contribution to Boccaccio studies.

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Author Biography

Janet Smarr

UC San Diego