Fede's Reviews > The Decameron

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
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it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, italian, short-stories

Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron" is a huge monument to Italy and to Italians - mercilessly, hilariously portrayed as they really are; when it comes to vices and virtues very little has changed in my country in the last seven centuries, you know. It's a great human mosaic. It's like getting lost in the crowd of a street market, in a kaleidoscope of colours and smells and noises and people pushing, screaming, laughing, sweating... mind your bag, by the way - Boccaccio's heroes never miss the chance.

"Decameron": 'ten days'.
Florence, Anno Domini 1348.
The year of the Great Mortality.
The plague hasn't spared the Italian peninsula in its devastating journey from the Asian stepppes. Boccaccio happens to be among the witnesses of such dreadful interregnum of death and despair and - in his gorgoeus, unforgettable introduction - he depicts the scenes of insanity and fear taking place in the city: the desperate attempts to survive, the bursts of violence, the courage , the meanness. Most of all, he cries over the spreading amorality of many and praises the heroic generosity of a few kind souls still clinging to their humanity.
One day ten youths - three boys and seven girls, whose symbolic names are related to their peculiar qualities - meet in an unidentified Florentine church and decide to escape the city and its dreadful atmosphere. They reach the countryside, that marvellous Tuscan landscape of vineyards and cloisters and orchards, and settle in one of the girls' villa with plenty of flowers, exquisite food, music and games, determined not to be dragged down by the madness of the dying city.
As soon as they get there though, our friends have a very good idea: every afternoon they will meet in the garden, where each of them will tell the company a tale. The daily theme of such tales will be picked by the 'leader', a role to be played by everyone in turn. Thus for ten days - hence the title - the plague, the horrors, the decay are left behind and almost fofgotten: all that really matters is the spring, the sun, the cool stream flowing by and the birds singing and chirping all around.

As for the stories, the author explores any possible genre and subject... with a penchant for eroticism, of course.
One day is dedicated to happy-ending love adventures, to be followed by a gloomy day of love tragedies in which a grand-guignolesque atmosphere prevails. Then we find several tales of adventures, war, dangerous journeys, but also the praise of human industriousness and wit. One of the afternoons is indeed dedicated to the celebration of trickery: tales of adulterous affairs, commercial frauds, religious credulousness ruthlessly exploited by shrewd priests and friars... all quite familiar, isn't it?

All in all, Boccaccio seems to master just any narrative technique. Take his love tales, for instance: they range from the innocence of a teenage romance to lots of satirical blasphemy to the most hilarious obscenity.
His characters curse, insult each other, tell obscene jokes; their language is the true jargon of the streets. It's the hiss of a woman hiding his lover in a barrel, the whisper of a monk in the confessional, the screams of a raging prostitute and her drunken pimp.... the freshness and spontaneousness of his style are unique, far beyond any tradition - and this particular kind of heterogeneous collection has a very long one, even though only Chaucer will ever achieve, a few years later, such narrative perfection.

This book is funny, intriguing, historically interesting, anthropologically unparalleled. It's the gargantuan depiction of a whole people and culture. I guess any non-Italian reader will perceive the atmosphere of the narrow streets of Florence, Naples, Venice - the most recurrent settings of these tales, along with remote lands like China and the Middle East. Moreover, Boccaccio's writing style is so delightfully straightforward that I'm sure nothing gets lost in translation.

Forget our 'modern', stereotypical image of the late Middle Ages. Boccaccio's work shows how busy, hectic, lively those days were, when an ambitious middle class was already reshaping Europe: bankers, merchants, craftsmen, city officers were restlessly struggling to emerge and become the pivotal element of a radically new society - the beginning of the humanistic wave that would lead to the Renaissance in less than a century.
Perhaps the Middle Ages were not much more afflicted by dirt, violence, famine, religious fanaticism than today's world is, except that nowadays we have learnt either to make them part of the show-business or turn our head and pretend they don't exist. Which is much easier. What these tragedies and ills lack today is only the blatant form in which they were universally known back then. This book is the best example of an intellectually and morally honest attitude toward reality we seem to have lost and need to be reminded of.

In fact, no civil or religious institution is spared in these pages.
A depraved friar with fake wings fitted on his back introduces himself as an Archangel in order to seduce a Venetian lady; a preacher carries around a box full of ashes, telling the peasants they belonged to a martyr burned by the Romans; a landlord kills his daughter for loving a servant; a female monastery recruits a dumb, young and good-looking male worker for illicit purposes... definitely this book wasn't put on the Index for nothing.

This is Boccaccio's "Decameron", and so much more: a diabolically crowded fresco in which the reader loses himself like a time-travelling flaneur.

P.S. See also the great film version by Pasolini, set in Naples instead of Florence.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 8, 2018 – Shelved
January 8, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction
January 8, 2018 – Shelved as: italian
January 14, 2020 – Shelved as: short-stories

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Steven (new) - added it

Steven Godin I think when I get round to reading this, I will pick off a few stories at a time. It's sheer size is daunting. I generally don't do huge books, in fear of losing interest, thus wasting all that time.

Fede That's the best way to enjoy this book. There is no problem in doing so because each story is perfectly autonomous and accomplished in itself. You'll be surprised by how daring some of the tales are, considering they were written in the middle of the 14th century.

Fede Marita wrote: "A wonderful review, Fede. Have you seen the Italian film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani which was marketed here as “Wondrous Bocaccio”? It is based on some of the tales."
Thanks Marita! Yes, that film version is very good. The only good one, actually. At least a dozen film versions of the Decameron were made in the 70s and 80s, none of which (I hope!) ever circulated out of Italy... Gosh, they were so sleazy, and yet so funny... I would feel ashamed if you knew any of them! I must admit though that they render much of the true spirit in which the tales were written.

message 4: by Ilse (new)

Ilse Fabulous write-up, Fede - in my student days I read a transposition of Boccaccio's book to Soviet Russia which I enjoyed, The Women's Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya - however I have no idea what time did to it...

Fede Ilse wrote: "Fabulous write-up, Fede - in my student days I read a transposition of Boccaccio's book to Soviet Russia which I enjoyed, The Women's Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya - however I hav..."

Thanks! I didn't know about that book, it sounds interesting though. Well Boccaccio's erotic, hilarious tales are incredible. One keeps thinking: 'Wow, wasn't this the age of darkness and fear?' I suspect I would have had a great fun in those days! ;P

message 6: by FP (new) - rated it 4 stars

FP I love this book. These are tales that exhalt daily situations, problems and desires; at the same time, it also celebrates society's underbelly, its most basal attitudes and behaviors.

Fede FP wrote: "I love this book. These are tales that exhalt daily situations, problems and desires; at the same time, it also celebrates society's underbelly, its most basal attitudes and behaviors."

Yes, this is possibly the greatest masterpiece of Italian literature - along with Petrarch's poetry.

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