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Boccaccio, Decameron: Days 1-4
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Boccaccio: Resources
Check out the following:
(1) DecameronWeb homepage at Brown University, including
(2) timeline of Boccaccio's life and works to 1350 (the Decameron).

Just for orientation purposes, here are some dates:

  • 1265 Birth of Dante
  • 1300 Dante's "trip" to the afterlife
  • 1308-1321 Dante writing the Divine Comedy
  • 1313 Birth of Boccaccio (son of merchant, meant to succeed him in the trade)
  • 1321 Death of Dante
  • 1327 Boccaccio moves to Naples to study law, is surrounded by litterati
  • 1340 Boccaccio moves back to Florence, experiments (as writer) with all known
             genres of literature
  • 1342 Birth of Chaucer
  • 1348 Plague in Florence
  • ca. 1350 The Decameron
  • 1351 Boccaccio becomes friends with Petrarch; from now until his death, becomes
             leading Dante scholar and critic
  • 1375 Death of Boccaccio
  • 1390s Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
  • 1400 Death of Chaucer.

I've included Dante's and Chaucer's dates here so you can see how Boccaccio's life forms a temporal bridge between the two. We will not be reading any Chaucer in this class, but it is generally considered that the Decameron served as one source for the Canterbury Tales.

A more relevant and interesting question from our point of view will be the relationship between Dante and Boccaccio. For example: the Divine Comedy has [3 parts] x [33 cantos each] + [1 extra canto in Inferno] = 100 cantos. The Decameron, true to its name, has [10 days] + [10 stories per day] = 100 stories. Coincidence? In addition, at the top of p. 1 we learn that Boccaccio has subtitled his work "Prince Galahalt," a clear reference to Inferno V.137. What is Boccaccio trying to imply with this subtitle, and to what end? Be on the lookout for other Dante subversions.

  • In what ways can the Decameron be read as a response to the Divine Comedy (based on the 1/3 of the Comedy that we've read)?

Study Questions
Some more specific questions based on the first day's reading.

  1. We identified a lot of Augustinian moves in Dante: the appropriation/assimilation of pagan intellectual history into Christian thought; the combination of Greco-Roman "quest" narrative with Christian exemplum (a historical or mythological story used to support a particular moral/philosophical conclusion); the use of a projected "self" as both narrator and questing hero; the deep anxiety about the role of literature in the examined life. Can you identify an Augustinian subtext in Boccaccio? (For example, are there ways in which we could interpret the Decameron as a "deep reading" of Augustine, in competition with Dante's reading?) --More broadly, what intertexts (from the Lit. Hum. syllabus generally) do you feel operating within the Decameron?
  2. Boccaccio's proemio (Prologue) begins,
          Umana cosa è l'aver compassione agli affliti...
          [A human thing it is to have compassion for the afflicted...]
    Thus, the first word of the book is umana --human. How will the concept of "humanity" or "humanness" inform Boccaccio's work? What are its defining characteristics?
  3. The first sentence of the proemio also introduces the themes of "compassion" (compassione) and "comfort" (conforto). How are these themes implemented in what follows?
  4. Who is (are) the boo's intended audience?
  5. What is the relationship between the frame narrative (retreat of the brigata from plague-stricken Florence; their storytelling to pass the time) and the inner narrative (the stories they tell)? What does the frame narrative do for the book (i.e., why not just have the 100 stories by themselves)?
          --Really, of course, there are two frames: "Boccaccio"'s "autobiographical" prologue and epilogue (my, that's a lot of hedging quotation marks), and the brigata narrative. How do these frames interact with each other and with the inner narrative to produce the overall meaning of the book? What do they teach us about how to read the inner narrative?
  6. Track the topography of the brigata's journey. Where do they start out from and where do they go? What's the significance of the settings where the stories are told? We will have more to say about this next week, when we've finished (in our own abridged way) the book.
  7. What is the importance, in the Decameron, of the following:
    wit, ingenuity (ingegno)
    luck, fortune (fortuna)
    love (amore)
    deception and disguise (including verbal disguise!)
    words vs. facts
    reading, stories, literature, art
    ignorance vs. knowledge
  8. What are women, in this book? What things (themes, ideas, concepts) do women represent? What role do they play vis-à-vis men?
  9. Where is God in this book?
  10. Where is Boccaccio in this book?

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