Voiceover: In a world where a deadly and terrifying plague stalks the city, a group of ten noble ladies and gentlemen flee for their lives. Their hope? Survival. Their chances? Only Fortune knows.
That's the basic plot device of Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century masterpiece, The Decameron, completed around 1352. Secluding themselves in a country estate, and telling stories to keep their minds happily occupied, the young gentlefolk leave their homes in Florence, hoping to keep the deadly contagion at bay and leave their fears behind, at least for a while. Think of The Decameron as the 14th century The Walking Dead. Replace the flesh-eating zombies with plague victims, and the guns with stories, and there you go. Boccaccio tells us that this catastrophe led to the total breakdown of society and that people began to act unnaturally toward each other (I.Intro.6). Victims died helplessly while their neighbors watched. No one trusted anyone. Parents wouldn't even take care of their sick children.
Florence, Italy of 1348 became like a post-zombie-apocalyptic society, except the dead stayed dead and the living went into hiding. More than half the people of Florence died in the epidemic. Boccaccio, who had personal experience with this plague (he lost his father and second stepmother to it), creates a mini-society of seven ladies and three gentlemen who hit the road in order to escape the physical danger, societal breakdown, and misery that comes with the loss of entire families.
Boccaccio uses the group's flight to the country as a "frame story" for one hundred short tales—he knew how much people loved telling and hearing stories. The brigata lieta—the happy band—as this young and beautiful group of people is called, settle into a palace in the countryside near Florence and devise a storytelling game to entertain themselves (and to keep from indulging in naughty deeds). The group elects a monarch each day who chooses a daily theme for storytelling and plans the fun. The ten storytellers tell one story each every day for ten days. That's 100 folktales, tragedies, fabliaux (bawdy stories), comedies, romances and moral tales (not to mention songs). They're stories about all kinds of adventures on all kinds of topics about all kinds of people: kings and knights, priests and pirates, painters and bakers, winners and losers in love—all subject to the ups and downs of fortune. Boccaccio's love of people in all their craziness shines through in his tales. They're some of the most gruesome, blasphemous, sexually explicit and absolutely hilarious stories you'll ever read. A New York Times critic called The Decameron "the dirtiest great book in the Western canon". It was put on the Catholic Church's first Index of Prohibited Books in 1564, and many editions were heavily censored.
Fortunately, the entire unexpurgated version is available to us today. So dive in and see how a group of wealthy twenty-somethings in 14th-century Italy passed the time and distracted themselves during the Black Death, somehow keeping themselves busy and happy without Angry Birds or HuffPost. Ten days of just talking—imagine that.
Shmoop must absolutely insist, for your own good of course, that you care about The Decameron. Why? Well, for starters it's one of the most famous and influential works in the history of literature. It's impossible to ignore the significance of Giovanni Boccaccio as a pivotal literary figure. You know Chaucer and Shakespeare? You'll recognize the influence of The Decameron in their works. And just to name-drop a little, Boccaccio was friends with that giant of medieval literature Petrarch (bonus points right there) and had posthumous brushes with Dante Alighieri (his stepmother was related to Dante's beloved Beatrice and Boccaccio met Dante's daughter in 1350). B's biographer Edward Hutton tells us that, with The Decameron, Boccaccio influenced all literature to come, destroyed the Middle Ages, and put an end to the "tyranny" of the Catholic Church (okay, he's a little biased) (source).
The language in The Decameron is beautiful and the stories earthy and hilarious. Boccaccio took a huge risk in writing this work in Italian vernacular (everyday language). That may not seem like much, but in a world where all serious literature was written in Latin, it was a total professional gamble. This gamble made it possible for other writers like Chaucer to give it a go in their own language. You know the Divergent Trilogy that you just can't put down? You might be reading it in Latin right now if writers like Boccaccio didn't take the first step.
If you're still not convinced that you should care about this epic and super-famous work just on its literary merits, consider this: Imagine you and everyone you know are faced with some kind of massively life-threatening situation—Ebola, zombies, alien invasion, nuclear fallout, floods, terrorists, whatever. The social fabric has totally broken down; people are freaked out; there's looting and panic in the streets; whole families have died and bodies are decomposing in the gutters. Worst of all, the internet and cellular grids are down. How would you react?
Most of you would have choices. You could arm yourself to the teeth and hunker down in the safest place you could find, ala Rick Grimes and company. You could let loose and live it up because hey, you could be dead tomorrow. You might do selfless acts like the Doctors Without Borders and put yourself in harm's way to help your dying neighbors. Boccaccio's happy band choose to retreat to a country estate because they could. They have the youth and the financial means to do it, and they defend their choice as the only moral thing to do. They even bring a few lucky servants with them. Most of the working class, we assume, were stuck in the plague-ridden city waiting to die. If something like this happened today—oh, wait, it is happening today—you know which social classes have the higher mortality rates and which have access to lifesaving medical care.
These kinds of crises challenge us all to define our choices. The frame story of The Decameron makes it clear that escapism is the choice of the brigata. Boccaccio really doesn't blame them, though. They're young, they're scared, they're virgins, they're not ready to die. What's so bad about a two-week spa vacation to calm down and forget your troubles? Who wouldn't want to spend the next pandemic at Canyon Ranch?
What would you do?
The Decameron Rises
Oekolos Productions hosts a yearly, modernized re-enactment of the storytelling game established in The Decameron. Visit this site—it's very cool.
All Things Decameron
Brown University's Department of Italian Studies hosts an awesomely comprehensive website for Boccaccio's major work. It includes timelines, studies of the storytellers, historical and cultural facts, maps and much more.
Naughty Lovers, Adapted
This is an adaptation of the bed swapping Pinuccio and Niccolosa (IX.6), rendered in terza rima verses, no longer than a twitter-ready 140 characters. The poet took first place in the Boccaccio AfterLife Award competition for the category of adaptations in writing.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's highly erotic adaptation of ten tales from The Decameron. Don't rely on these entertaining versions to get you through any exams, though—they've been freely interpreted from the original.
Four famous Italian directors (including Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti) create four "modern" tales inspired by The Decameron. Stars include Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg, who features in a trippy vignette about an overly moral man pushed over the edge by a billboard advertisement for milk.
Decameron Nights (1924 and 1953)
There are two films of the same name that attempt adaptations of Boccaccio's work. The 1924 version stars Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore's granddaddy) as Saladin. The 1953 adaptation of some of the tales also has some serious star power behind it: Joan Collins as Pampinea and Joan Fontaine as Bartolomea, Fiammetta and others. How Hollywood is that? B would have loved it.
Plague Burial Near the Uffizi
Dating to the 5th century A.D., this cemetery pre-dates our author by many centuries. However, the visuals and information in the article will give you a good sense of the sheer volume of human life lost during such an epidemic.
Patiently Restoring Griselda
Three wooden panels painted in the 15th century depict the story of patient Griselda (X.10)—but they were in need of some serious restoration. This article discusses the use of technology in the repair of this artwork.
We Can Never Get Enough
An unknown manuscript of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium was found at a university library in Manchester during the summer of 2013. The manuscript comes from Paris and is a 15th century French translation of the work.
Students from Liceo Canopoleno in Sassari, Sardegna, Italy created a multi-lingual adaptation of Boccaccio's "Griselda" that took first place in the theater adaptation category of the Boccaccio AfterLife Award competition.
Although it's not the best quality video, this site offers you a peek at the 1971 adaptation of some of the tales of The Decameron. Warning: not suitable for super young audiences. Subtitles available.
Boccaccio for the Orecchie
Eyes too tired for a 700+ page read? This website thoughtfully provides sound files for the complete work, catalogued by day and story.
Happy 700th Birthday, Big B
The BBC Night Waves show celebrated Boccaccio's big day with a discussion on the relevance of Boccaccio's work in our day. Hosts include the founder of The Decameron Web, a Boccaccio scholar and a man who shares his love for Boccaccio with inner city children.
The Decameron, in Technicolor
The Bodleian Library provides brilliant images for some leaves of MS. Holkham Misc. 49, a 15th century presentation manuscript of The Decameron. Check it out—we know you've been dying to know what Neifile looked like.
The Decameron, Embroidered
Mary Mazziotti created a series of embroidered panels entitled "Sex and Death in The Decameron" for the Boccaccio AfterLife Award competition at Brown University. The panels deal with sexual violence in Boccaccio's work. You may have realized by now that the Brownians are obsessed with Boccaccio.
Santa Maria Novella
Take a 2-D tour of the Dominican church that was the starting and ending point for the journey in The Decameron.
Ambrogiuolo, Bernabò and Ginevra
This 15th century panel depicting the ninth story of Day Two is located at the National Galleries Scotland.
Painter John William Waterhouse imagines the rapt storytellers together in the garden. They are incomparable ladies.
The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti
Sandro Botticelli recreates The Decameron V.8, the story of a man who convinces his disdainful lover to marry him by forcing her to witness the eternal torment of souls that haunt the land. Botticelli tells the story in various panels.