The Decameron

By Givonni Boccaccio [Bo-cahtch-chee-o]

No book has been ever been plagiarized more often or by more authors than The Decameron, which loosely means ten days in Greek. Written in 1353, it provides 100 novellas, as told (ten each) by seven young women and three young men, who fled the Black Plague to Fiesole, a then rural community near Florence, Italy, where the Plague reared its grotesque head. As the author states, each of the ten characters is assigned a name that reveals that character’s allegorical significance (Fiammetta for small flame, Filomena for faithful in love, Emilia for rival, Lauretta for wise and crowned with laurels, Neifile for cloudy, Elissa for God is my vow, Pampinea for flourishing one, Panfilo for friend, Filostrato for beaten by love and Dioneo for of God). The author’s prologue is a gruesome account of The Plague (which is said to have killed 30% of Europe’s population in some four years), revealing its horrors as graphically as words permit.

The Decameron’s literary style and dialogue are stunningly contemporary to this day, and it covers tales of love, from the erotic to the tragic, from comedies to adventures, some which end with O’Henry-like twists (possibly the greatest short story writer of the 19th Century). Boccaccio develops his characters brilliantly, through their dialogue to the point that their actions are predictable. The Decameron is so well done that it has been plagiarized or adapted in myriad forms by many of the greatest writers (Shakespeare, Voltaire, Swift, Moliere, Martin Luther, Keats, George Eliot, Shelley, Tennyson, and many others). In some cases, multiple stories have been combined to form the novels or plays of others. (Boccaccio, too, is said to have borrowed many of the plots from even older tales, sourced from Europe, Asia, India and the Middle East, dating back centuries.) The stories themselves are fascinating and easy reading. The themes are more subtle and ingenious, grounded in satire and poking fun at the mores of the day, and The Church and, most of all, at the often licentious and corrupt clergy. Between the lines, the reader will find a touch of fatalism, a belief that Lady Luck has much to do with success and failure, and that many people experience both, repeatedly, and often with little or no forewarning. His view is not grounded in envy but rather in an existential view of the universe.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian writer of fiction and poetry, a biographer, an erstwhile lawyer, an important Renaissance humanist and a very close friend of Petrarch (the renowned poet who is credited with perfecting and largely creating the sonnet as a art form, who was the first to dub the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages”, and who is said to be the father of humanism). Boccaccio is believed to have been the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, no surprise, he fathered several illegitimate children of his own, although he ultimately enjoyed a loving marriage; he received the best education, became a lawyer but eschewed that for his first love, poetry. The Decamereon remains his best known legacy, which remains atop the lists of classics, despite the passage of 700 years since its creation. He died, in near poverty, at age 63. Petrarch bought Boccaccio’s library and personal works and preserved them for posterity.

If all adventurous readers return to the classics, then, The Decameron is not to be missed.