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22.01.23 Forni/Bragantini (eds.), The Decameron: A Critical Lexicon

22.01.23 Forni/Bragantini (eds.), The Decameron: A Critical Lexicon

Michael Papio’s excellent English translation of this important volume is fundamental for anyone wishing to approach the complex narrative structure of the Decameron. This collection of essays analyzes Giovanni Boccaccio’s masterpiece not exclusively through the reading of individual novellas, but by looking at the whole work through the lens of a number of central concepts: “Rhetoric,” “Parody,” “Communication,” “Memory,” “Representation,” and “Laughter” are some of the keys offered by the authors to access the text and understand its narrative configurations.

In this volume, the Decameron is analyzed according to its architecture and narrative actions, the dialogue between characters, their irony and their behavior, the language they use to express themselves, humor, their vision of the sacred and society, and the contrast between reality and truth in Boccaccio’s time. These notions inform the study of a vast work, in terms of the number of both novellas and characters, and in the possible connections among stories, days, and frames organizing the narration into episodes.

Published in Italian in 1995 (Lessico critico decameroniano. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri), the joint project of the editors, Renzo Bragantini (University of Rome “La Sapienza”) and the late Pier Massimo Forni (Johns Hopkins University), was to satisfy the desire for a dialogue among Italian, European, and American scholars with the intention of defining a common critical lexicon for literary criticism, philology, and textual culture. The aim was, as it is today once again, to establish a new vocabulary of inquiry, shared on both sides of the ocean to facilitate intellectual exchange and start a new interpretative discourse. Both editors, one from each side of the Atlantic Ocean, have for years been closely associated with the American Boccaccio Association, founded in 1974 and today more active than ever. In addition to confirming the exegetical need for studies about the Italian Middle Ages, this new edition in English offers significant innovations: after a brief note by the American editor, Christopher Kleinhenz, the book re-proposes the original Foreword, which is a methodological manifesto stating the needs for readers and scholars alike to understand that “the rhetorical and philosophical seriousness that informs the text is not necessarily undermined (quite the contrary!) by formalities and mimetic tranches de vie that arise from the comic” (xi). Here the text emphasizes the centrality of the Decameron in the study of medieval and modern literary production that engages different disciplines, from classical rhetoric to fourteenth-century philosophy, from classical grammar to Indian, Persian, and Middle Eastern narrative, as well as French and Occitanic prose and poetry. Other originalities appear at the end of the volume: the reprint of an essay by the esteemed scholar Vittore Branca (“On the History of the Text of the Decameron,” along with the addition “With an Update on the History of the Text” by Renzo Bragantini), accompanied by paleographic elements useful for the analysis of both text and context, with the aim of reconstructing the textual history, the manuscript and the editorial tradition, as well as the characteristics of owners and readers of the first Western novel. The volume closes with “Boccaccio and the Decameron in North-American Criticism” by Christopher Kleinhenz, which assesses the state of Boccaccio Studies by offering an updated bibliography up to the seventh centenary in 2013.

Students and scholars from any field will benefit from the essays collected in the volume, which sheds light on the functioning of the work from different perspectives, paying attention to both general patterns and narrative details studied through the different approaches of literary criticism. Il lessico critico, now also titled Critical Lexicon, is considered a classic of Italian literary criticism thanks to the breadth of its theoretical perspectives, the solidity of its interpretative system, and the modernity of its suggestions. The volume deals first with the analysis of the narrative structure of the Decameron as a whole, and then delves into the particular mechanisms that make the several parts of the work function. These two scopes are interrelated, thus creating an “Architecture” in which “the author stands outside this structure, at its entrance; we the readers also find ourselves outside it, but on the other side” (2). Franco Fido analyzes the narrative structure of the Decameron as a system of intersections in which the scholar identifies ancient Indian and Arabic sources at the basis of the novelistic form. The narrators are also considered according to the role they play in the overall structure of the work, as well as according to their function in each single day or in the stories they tell. Boccaccio’s project “is a laboratory in which the happy and doleful cases of life become edifying, enjoyable tales, but also in which open spaces stretch across a panorama that is filled with all the signifiers of those tales that await us” (20).

Michelangelo Picone analyzes the intrinsic “Author / Narrators” relationship, by identifying one with the others, as if we were listening to a single voice--the voice of Boccaccio, who intends the work not as a simple collection of stories, but as the result of a “complex theory of storytelling” (23). Picone identifies three narrative levels in the Decameron: the level of the author, the level of the narrators, and the level of the characters. To these he adds a fourth one: the level of the characters-narrators, thus analyzing the metadiegetic plane that leads from the “narration to the narrated, from the discussed world to the narrated world” (26).

Within this world, “Action” is the focus of Eduardo Saccone, who recalls an essay by the famous Italian novelist Alberto Moravia. In 1945, Moravia wrote that Boccaccio’s primary concern in his work is the concept of action, bereft of any implication or moral; the development of the action is, indeed, an autonomous literary mechanism that allows each part of it to properly function. Saccone, in agreement with Moravia, claims that the narrative of the Decameron is not, as much of the criticism has stated, a measure of the society of the time, or a work of realism. In the text, the modification of reality aims at describing a world of appearances, which is made concrete through the intertwining of words and plots.

Francesco Bruni focuses on “Communication” and underlines how Boccaccio, who was not familiar with linguistic doctrines or theories of communication, managed to make the narrative come alive by identifying “the importance of variables such as those related to the social status of characters who interact with one another and to the roles they play in their relationships” (57). On the other hand, his knowledge of rhetoric, the art of verbal and gestural communication, allows the medieval author to emphasize human sensibilities in a vivid way, for instance laughter or empathy. Thanks to writing that allows characters and situations to come alive, even misunderstanding has a profound meaning, because it triggers the motif of tricks, or the artifices used by several characters to prevail over others.

In this regard, Renzo Bragantini, one of the two editors of the original Italian edition, develops the concept of communication by delving into the “Dialogue,” carefully analyzing several works, from Filocolo to the Decameron. He examines various passages from the latter work with the aim to illustrate the compositional rules that underlie verbal exchange in Boccaccio’s texts. Part of these communicative exchanges in a tragic fourteenth-century pandemic is “Philogyny / Misogyny,” an ethical and behavioral contrast that, according to Claude Cazalé Bérard, leads the narrators to personal maturity through the liberating exercise of literature. In that historical moment and under Boccaccio’s pen, women played a fundamental role: “It is in fact to the women narrators--and not only to the men--that Boccaccio, in keeping with the rules of his combinatory and imitative game, entrusts the interplay of sources and models” (111).

In addition to being considered consolatory, Medieval literature is first of all pedagogical, because its sources constitute a bibliographic, and more generally cultural, labyrinth of fundamental importance to understand the work itself and the times in which it was composed. The study of the “Sources” carried out by Costanzo Di Girolamo and Charmaine Lee follows a textual methodology that considers the novella as “open”--an open source of extra-textual ideas, in which there is no lack of irony, parody, and antiphrasis. These are used to manipulate the conscience of the interlocutor within the narration, as specified in “Irony / Parody” by Carlo Delcorno. The scholar outlines the stratification of the Decameronand its diegetic levels, understood as condition and consequence of Boccaccio’s irony. The analysis of the “Language” of the Decameron is entrusted to Alfredo Stussi and his phonetic, morphological, and syntactic study of the text. Idiomatic expressions and various dialects used in the work mirror the regional varieties of Italy at the time, from North to South. Boccaccio’s language is more varied than Dante’s; the latter aimed at perfection, the former at a popular authenticity. As for cultural sources, “Memory” by Giuseppe Velli studies the use and function of classical sources both in late Latin works and in the Decameron. One of the terms that does not appear in the essay is “morality.” “Morals” is instead the title of the chapter by Victoria Kirkham, who once again looks at the Decameron in its entirety, and not as a succession of short stories. Giancarlo Mazzacurati deals with the term “Representation,” understood as the reception of a literary invention that becomes enjoyable thanks to Boccaccio’s treatment of the concepts of space and time: “Times, places, ancestors, neighborhoods, culture, professions, psyches, everything converges in a new sort of portraiture that puts the novella on two paths: one toward a dense representation of figures and social classes and one toward loans, letters of credit and conflict among competing groups, branches, and warehouses strewn ever farther afield, from Western Europe to the Near East” (241).

In his chapter “Reality / Truth,” Pier Massimo Forni tackles the issue of truth and verisimilitude, which he studies in relationship with rhetoric and idealism in the contrast between the man and the artist. The interaction between the real and the ideal “may be proposed as a primary component in the work’s makeup of raisons d’être and its comprehensive thematic, philosophical, and stylistic configuration” (282). The style, and therefore the “Rhetoric,” analyzed by Andrea Battistini, is a functional instrument of comfort and salvation, rather than just the logical form to follow for a correct and meaningful exposure, an art that prevails over medieval philosophy and religion, and manages to recover the Ciceronian rhetoric made up of inventio, actio, dispositio, elocutio, and memoria. Following the classic model, Boccaccio makes use of “Laughter,” as pointed out by Giulio Savelli, as a reaction to the inadequacy of a base and corrupt society. Throughout the work, a connection is established between the fiction of literature and the expectations of the readers. For them to experience a true connection with the world created in the stories, they need to be able to feel the different emotions life generates, from tears to happiness. The very act of writing, according to Paolo Valesio, corresponds to “The Sacred”; it is an act that makes the sacred apparent even in the degradation of the characters, and therefore in the degradation of the society represented by the author.

This volume of 1995, now available in English translation, has not lost its strength over the years that have passed since its first edition. It now proves anew the usefulness of studying the Decameron through different disciplines, giving as many people as possible the opportunity to read and study this literary work, just as Boccaccio intended.