14.02.01, Review Essay: Boccaccio

Main Article Content

David Lummus

The Medieval Review 14.02.01

Quondam, Amedeo, Maurizio Fiorilla, and Giancarlo Alfano. Rico, Francisco. Decameron. Ritratti allo specchio (Boccaccio, Petrarca). Milan: Rome: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, Antenore, 2013. 2012. Pp. 1851. Pp. 160. ISBN: 978-88-17-06326-5.
ISBN: 978-88-8455-675-2.

Reviewed by:
David Lummus
Stanford University

After a year of celebrations and commemorations of the seven-hundredth anniversary of Boccaccio's birth, there is much anticipation of a renewal of the study of Boccaccio's life and works. Yet, within Boccaccio criticism a division seems to be emerging between a scholarship oriented toward establishing an intellectual autonomy for the Certaldese writer and a certain cultural revisionism that seeks to link Boccaccio to a Petrarchan view of culture. These two recent books, one a newly-annotated edition of the Decameron, the other a short collection of previously published essays on Boccaccio and Petrarch, are examples of the latter approach in that both propose an understanding of Boccaccio vis-รก-vis Petrarch that implies a clear hierarchy of value.

Francisco Rico's volume is a collection of six essays published between 2002 and 2010 concerning the personal and intellectual relationship between Boccaccio and Petrarch. Its main purpose is to revise the portrait of their friendship as drawn by Giuseppe Billanovich and Vittore Branca, which he rightly sees as too "rosy" and "idyllic" (12). It also contains a new Preface, as well as four pages of added notes and an appendix on the dates of composition of Boccaccio's De vita Francisci Petracchi and Notamentum. In the first essay, Rico provides a general portrait of the relationship between the two poets that reveals a proud and uncaring Petrarch who takes advantage of his servile and ignorant friend Boccaccio. The next three essays deal with what Boccaccio knew (or thought he knew about Petrarch), while the final two pieces treat Boccaccio's engagement with Petrarch's writings and "teachings" in his own works.

In the second and third essays, and in the appendix, Rico discusses Boccaccio's representation of Petrarch in the De vita and the Notamentum. In the second, in a reading of the manuscripts of the Notamentum, De vita, and Posteritati, he points out that Petrarch must have hidden his day of birth from Boccaccio until 1366. In the third, he argues that Boccaccio's reference to Petrarch's libido in the De vita is not to be taken as facetious, but as a serious reference to Petrarch's moral reaction to the temptations of the flesh. The appendix delves further into the penning of the De vita and Notamentum, showing how the two works must have been composed and emended independently of one another at different times, and that the one did not lead to the composition of the other. In the fourth essay, Rico briefly points out that Boccaccio's depiction of Vaucluse in Petrarch's codex of Pliny (Par. Lat. 6802) is not verisimilar, though it is possibly symbolic. Rico sees the drawing as Boccaccio's own mediocre invention and conjectures that we should not consider it the result of collaboration between the two friends. In the fifth, Rico returns to Petrarch's Pliny codex in order to compare the mountain-like designs around some toponyms in its marginalia to Boccaccio's De montibus. He imagines that Petrarch drew them while re-reading Pliny with the intention of critiquing Boccaccio. The final essay is a reading of Boccaccio's Corbaccio in the light of Petrarch's Secretum. Since Rico's analysis is rooted in the conviction that Petrarch disdainfully withheld his works and resources from Boccaccio, Rico works from the assumption that Boccaccio never actually read the Secretum, but that he knew its subject and ideas through conversation with and observation of Petrarch. All of this leads Rico back to the conventional understanding of the Corbaccio as a manifesto of Boccaccio's conversion to a moralistic Latin humanism, which he experienced thanks to Petrarch.

Published in the Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli Classici series and in collaboration with the Associazione degli italianisti, the 2013 edition of the Decameron, is aimed at the contemporary Italian reader, whose linguistic and cultural abilities evidently no longer allow him/her to read with pleasure or engage competently with the medieval work. It is a tool for students intended to allow for a new retrieval of Boccaccio's masterpiece from the depths of history. To this end, Maurizio Fiorilla's critical edition and explanatory notes work very well. Fiorilla makes a number of welcome revisions to the text and restores the capital letters present in the autograph manuscript. His notes work to translate Boccaccio's language into a modern idiom. Likewise, Giancarlo Alfano's "schede," or introductory notes, to the work as a whole, and to each day and each tale, provide an ancillary frame that both facilitates the reader's approach to a single day or tale and allows for a possibly more fruitful intratextual reading of the work as a dynamic system. The schede are grouped together at the beginning of each day and provide a balanced presentation of the material of the text, each noting clearly at the outset the storyteller, the main characters, the chronology, and the setting of each tale. Among the front matter, Alfano also provides a synthetic biographical note for readers unfamiliar with Boccaccio's life, while Fiorilla contributes a note on the text that explains his editorial decisions and his reading of the manuscript tradition. As the editors admit, this edition does not attempt to provide an apparatus to or discussion of the sources of the novellas or the citations of other works. Such omissions are of little concern to the intended audience of the edition, but they will likely limit the usefulness of the volume for a scholarly readership.

Amedeo Quondam's contributions to the new edition both open and close the volume. The innovative concluding section on the vocabulary of the Decameron, "The things [and words] of the world," counts and catalogues the words and their frequencies in the work, in an effort to facilitate close reading of the text according to the words' original meanings and cultural contexts. This tool is indeed useful, though it would have been more accessible and versatile in an online, searchable format rather than in its current discursive form. Its catalogue is divided into "anthropological" groupings such as "The world, God, and religion," "Culture," and "Fortune," which reflect more a modern than a medieval worldview. Quondam's introduction feigns itself a prolonged comment on the sentence from the Preface to the Decameron that begins, "Intendo di raccontare cento novelle, o favole o parabole o istorie..." ("I intend to recount one hundred novellas, or fables or parables or histories..."). In it, he seeks to de-familiarize the text for Italian readers who may feel a false sense of continuity with world and language of the work. While his introduction succeeds in communicating the cultural and linguistic alterity of the Decameron, it unfortunately fails to recognize any coherence or autonomy of thought in the work, other than its scandalous display of human sexuality.

In the space that remains, I will discuss more in detail the model proposed by Quondam's and Rico's respective introductory essays, with an eye to their significance for Boccaccio Studies after the centenary. Quondam presents the Decameron as a series of experimentations in form bound together by the rhetorical unity of the frame. For him, the Decameron represents an infertile exercise in creating a literature of the lowly, a literature that could have been, but never was. In sum, he presents it as a splendid failure, whose fragility and contradictions doomed Boccaccio to irrelevance. Quondam's introduction is saturated by a bizarre tone of superiority when treating the apparent shortcomings of Boccaccio's lowly tales in comparison with Petrarch's sublime vision for Italian literary culture. It is interspersed with references to Boccaccio's supposed conversion to seriousness after the Decameron. By incessantly repeating to the reader that Boccaccio gave up on the Decameron after meeting with Petrarch, Quondam detracts from the importance of the Decameron in Boccaccio's contribution to Western literature. The resulting portrait is a distorted, if not completely unfaithful, rendition of Boccaccio and his work: a Boccaccio whose failure in the Decameron led him to surrender intellectually to the stronger paradigm of culture represented by Petrarch.

In order to dismantle fully any claim to a Boccaccian cultural program, Quondam does not relinquish the chance to critique Vittore Branca's reading the Decameron as a mercantile epic. Without ever naming Branca outright and without properly arguing the point, Quondam claims that, besides their quantitative presence in the work, there is not a single novella that represents a merchant qua merchant (30). While Branca's famous reading of the Decameron may require revision, it nevertheless deserves the dignity of being discussed openly. Yet his mercantile Boccaccio is quietly dismissed as a part of a "paranoid and sad" myth of Italian history between the Middle Ages and Renaissance that sees a crisis of municipal freedoms and values caused by the subsequent rise of tyrannical signorie (31). Quondam's questionable counter-claim is that Boccaccio never felt any affinity with the world of merchants, but was instead drawn more to the values of courtly society. It becomes clear, though, that this is just another way of subjugating Boccaccio to Petrarch's worldview; precisely the tendency that Branca's work endeavored to prevent. Just as the narrative of Boccaccio's conversion to a Petrarchan model of "serious" literary culture distorts his achievements both before and after it, so the interpretation of the Decameron as a book underwritten by courtly values helps to undo Boccaccio's autonomy as a cultural, literary, and political thinker.

The presentation of the Decameron as an exceptional but failed literary experiment, which "flies low" and aims solely at pleasure, and of Boccaccio himself as a "pleasant bungler" ("simpatico pasticcione"), with no real literary talent, leads to the conclusion that after the Decameron Boccaccio gave up his cultural vision to embrace that of Petrarch "with joyous enthusiasm" (58). As Quondam reveals at the end of his essay, Petrarch was the true father and patriarch of Italian literature specifically and of modern literature generally. There is nothing that readers can do or say, he writes, "to restore the Decameron to the Library of Serious and Respectable Books," except, that is, "to give credit to Petrarch's disdainful gesture" of translating the last of its tales and transforming it into a lasting literary artifact (60-61). Whether or not Petrarch's translation was really an act of disdain is a question that cannot be fully addressed here, but it is worth noting that Quondam's restrictive view of literature is striking in this context. The introduction engages with the Decameron from a reactionary point of view that prefers the heavy moralism of Petrarch's Griselda over Boccaccio's ambiguous "vaghe donne." Quondam even seems to agree with the superficially reconstructed Petrarchan idea that "the new 'literature' can never be a thing for the crowd and even less for women, it must be a thing for literati" (61), since throughout the introduction he scandalously ignores the questions raised about the Decameron by feminist criticism and gender studies, and in general the Anglophone critical context in which these ideologies thrive. Leaving aside the critical oversights, however, if Quondam shares this idea of what literature should be, how are we to interpret his enterprise in this presentation of the Decameron?

A similarly limited vision of literary culture also informs Francisco Rico's volume on the Boccaccio-Petrarch nexus. Like Quondam, Rico feels compelled to revise one of the main scholarly commonplaces regarding Boccaccio from the previous century: the portrait of the friendship between Boccaccio and Petrarch as composed by Branca and Billanovich. While many would not disagree with this impulse, Rico also seems driven to uphold Petrarch's intellectual and poetic superiority to Boccaccio. For example, he concludes the Preface by stating his "conviction" that Boccaccio "read little and poorly, or...in a hurry and without the necessary penetration" Petrarch's books of old age, likening Boccaccio to a "laborious worker" in Petrarch's humanistic program (24).

Rico insists on reading between the lines of Petrarch's correspondence with Boccaccio a tone of condescension and abuse: their epistolary exchange, he says, lets us catch a glimpse of "the chiaroscuro of their relations and suggests splendidly how the elder one considered the younger one. He looked at him with authentic affection, he kept him in mind and turned to him when ever he needed him, as if to a family member or a life-long friend: but a friend...who was somewhat disposable [usa e getta]. Petrarch behaved with him...if not with arrogance or desire to hurt him, then with lack of care; never as an equal" (20). Yet he continues to read literally Boccaccio's self-consciously humble and falsely modest self-presentation with respect to Petrarch: "In Petrarch, the story-teller sees rather a 'pater et dominus,' 'master and father,' to whom he owes everything that he is...Since illustris, venerabilis, inclitus, preclarissimus, sublimis...seem not to be enough, lacking other adjectives he turns frequently to sacred vocabulary: 'divinus homo,' 'celestis homo profecto,' 'celesti ingenio,' etc. ...what Boccaccio professes is a religion..." (10). What is missing here is the due recognition that Boccaccio is fashioning himself as individual, scholar, and poet--especially in the later Latin works and letters--in opposition to Petrarch, not transcribing any reality of himself as Petrarch's underling. What Boccaccio scholars need to ask (and, in fact, are asking) is: What does this two-way interaction have to say about Boccaccio's literary-cultural program? Rico never poses this question because he is convinced that Boccaccio is simply a worker-bee in Petrarch's hive. Yet, what he reads as Boccaccio's subservience could just as easily be understood in terms of differentiation, irony, or satire.

Rico's prejudice is apparent even in the most philological of arguments of his book. When material evidence is lacking, for a date or for an exchange of knowledge or works, Rico always assumes, on the one hand, Boccaccio's subservience, ignorance, and/or incompetence, and, on the other, Petrarch's intellectual superiority and hostility. Thus, the limits of his revision of the Branca-Billanovich thesis become apparent: Along with them, Rico sees Boccaccio as having undergone a conversion to Petrarchan humanism after their meeting in 1350, but unlike them he does not view this conversion as bringing Boccaccio towards equality with Petrarch, but as confirming his subaltern status. While Petrarch's influence on Boccaccio is historically undeniable, the contours of their relationship have yet to be completely and satisfactorily defined. To mention just one problem with the picture painted by Rico: What of the political differences between the two that emerge almost immediately after their first meeting, with Petrarch's decision to move to Milan in 1353? Neither Rico nor Quondam once mention Boccaccio's playful, but scathing letter to Petrarch on this occasion (the tenth of his Latin epistles, known as "Ut huic epistole"). Although Rico establishes the fictional date of the Corbaccio in 1353, he sees no conflict at all in the conversion narrative supposedly staged in that text. Yet one could just as easily read Boccaccio's engagement with Petrarch in the Corbaccio as satirical, or as a confirmation, when he wrote it in the 1360s, of what he must have come to realize since that time: that is, if he was to have any real impact on the culture of his time or on that of the future, then he would have to come to terms with Petrarch and his divergent vision of culture.

Both Quondam and Rico demonstrate a bewildering reluctance to see Boccaccio as a complex literary and cultural thinker. Rico exhibits this clearly in his declaration that "we will not fool ourselves by thinking that the behaviors of the later Boccaccio were a pure and simple natural development of his earlier interests, but rather a way to draw himself closer to Petrarch, to permeate himself with Petrarch" (36). One wonders what exactly is at stake with their imbalanced view of Boccaccio, since, if the past fifty or more years of scholarship have shown anything, it is that Boccaccio was integral to the formation of Italian literary and humanistic culture. Perhaps their approach is inflected with a tinge of nostalgia for the aristocratic world of culture that Petrarch represents for them and that has been lost in the current cultural environment of the divulgation of knowledge across multiple media. If Branca's Boccaccio was somehow related to the surge in literary realism in the past century and to a turn towards the experience of the "everyman" in the twentieth-century cultural imagination, then perhaps the insistence on Boccaccio's subalternity and Petrarch's preeminence is really just an expression of their unease with the contemporary cultural climate.

Despite their shortcomings and ideological imbalances, these two volumes are significant contributions, which should be considered alongside and in contrast with the recent efforts by a few Anglo-American scholars to elucidate Boccaccio's role as an Early Modern cultural thinker. While the BUR Decameron as a whole admirably tries to render accessible in its original linguistic and formal complexity (if not in its complexity of thought) a medieval text that is at once both utterly alien and deceptively familiar to contemporary readers, Quondam's introductory essay comes up short with its distorted portrayal of the work and its author. Similarly, Rico's libellus provides a misleading representation of a complex intellectual and personal relationship at the foundation of Italian literary culture. If anything, the line taken on Boccaccio by Quondam and Rico, both eminent authorities on Petrarch, will provide a model to which scholars of Boccaccio must respond.

Article Details

Author Biography

David Lummus

Stanford University