Boccaccio and Dante: The miracle of free speech

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17 & 18 October 2017
Kortrijk, Belgium

One of the many wonderful aspects of Boccaccio’s genius is his relationship with Dante. Bocaccio greatly admired Dante: he knew him, he wrote a biography of him, and he lectured on The Divine Comedy – becoming in the process the first person in the late Middle Ages to lecture formally on a contemporary author. He realized, however, that his own nature was entirely different from that of Dante, and that Dante’s worldview, however insightful it might be, was one to which he could not subscribe.

Thus while promoting the work of Dante, Boccaccio wrote his own riposte, which references Dante only through one formal element: The Divine Comedy comprises 100 cantos, and The Decameron comprises 100 stories. There the comparison ends. Whereas Dante ‘enlists’ the ghost of Virgil to accompany him through Hell and into Purgatory, Boccaccio ‘enlists’ ten young unknown Florentines to narrate his project – seven young women and three young men. Whereas Dante puts himself literally through Hell to explore the human condition – now, in the past, and for eternity – Boccaccio removes his young people from the hell of a Florence in the grip of the plague and provides them with the ideal setting for an extended story-telling game.

‘The Decameron’, John William Waterhouse, 1916.


Compassion and tolerance

Boccaccio is extraordinarily kind. In his preface to The Decameron, he is kind towards his former, lovestruck self. He is kind towards those who have suffered similar torments. He is profoundly compassionate towards those who are afflicted by the plague in Florence and are destined for death. And in The Decameron itself, he is extraordinarily generous to those whose sex drive has got them into trouble – as long as they do not deliberately harm others in the process. For the lecherous and hypocritical clerics and the bigoted and bullying patriarchs, Boccaccio has no sympathy: they receive their come-uppance time and time again, and in terms that are as memorable as they are ridiculous. But Boccaccio is always kind to his young lovers, be they lusty or bashful: he is deeply forgiving of the errors to which the procreative instinct gives rise. The unspoken irony, of course, is that the stories told by the young Florentines who have escaped their plague-ridden city are set against an apocalyptic background in which life is rendered meaningless by the Black Death.

Decorum and honesty

One of Boccaccio’s masterstrokes in The Decameron is his enlistment of narrators. These are ten young people, seven women and three men, who have fled their native Florence to escape the plague. Given their youth, and the fact that the population of Florence is being wiped out by the Black Death, one might expect them to give themselves over to sexual licence ‒ as did so many at the time, according to Boccaccio’s account in the book’s preface, in view of the almost certain death imminently confronting them. On the contrary, their behaviour is a model of decorum and good taste, a living celebration of all the values of civilisation that are being wiped out in the city from which they have fled.


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) by Domenico di Michelino.


Precisely because they have jointly determined to conduct themselves chastely ‒ as one of the characters argues ‒ they have every right to tell each other stories about the pleasures and foibles they have forbidden themselves. And so these well-bred and well-mannered young people can talk about anything ‒ infidelity, adultery, deception and sexual enslavement, as well as sexual pleasure and, indeed, ecstasy. No detail is spared: we encounter men who would rather sleep with handsome youths then with their wives, men who would rather spend the evening with the bottle than their wives, women who demand sexual satisfaction from their negligent husbands, priests who commit blasphemous deceptions to have sex with married women, young people who copulate with such intensity that they surfeit themselves and desperately crave a respite: every possible permutation and combination seems to be covered in the hundred stories.


Nowhere can the views expressed be directly identified with Boccaccio himself. More than this, precisely because the whole work is based on a highly formal and, indeed, idyllic concept, the Boccaccio who intervenes to hold the entire work together can speak all the more freely when he takes his turn. It is amazing that Boccaccio did not end up in irons in the dungeon of some ultra-orthodox bishop. But he did not. Like Cervantes after him, and like his great master Dante before him, Boccaccio managed to reveal the entirety of his being and the entirety of the world in which he lived without being clapped in jail or suffering some much worse fate. This achievement is an act of genius on the part of all three.


View of the Duomo in Florence today. Photo: Jo Wilson.

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