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Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in the year 1313 in Tuscany (either Certaldo or Florence) to an unknown French woman and the wealthy merchant Boccaccino di Chellino. Boccaccio spent most of his childhood in Florence, studying with the private tutor Giovanni di Domenico Mazzuoli da Strada, with whom he learned the “seven” liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. At fifteen, Boccaccio was sent to Naples to study business, finance, and law. His father had connections to the wealthy Bardi family, which resulted in Boccaccio’s introduction to many influential scholars, as well as to Petrarch’s early work. In Naples, he also met and fell in love with a woman named Fiammetta, whose presence dominates his work, including The Decameron. Through these connections and experiences in Naples, Boccaccio began to write poetry. He is known as one of the “three jewels,” of Italian literature, along with Petrarch and Dante Alighieri, as well as a founder of Renaissance Humanism. Boccaccio promoted the use of the Tuscan vernacular in the written form, rather than the traditional Latin. He was known for his experimental use of Tuscan and his promotion of ottava rima, eight-line stanzas with eleven-syllable lines.

Boccaccio’s best-known work is The Decameron (composed between 1348–52; revised, 1370–71), a masterpiece of Italian literature in which which ten young Florentines, who have fled to the nearby town of Fiesole to escape the Black Plague, tell each other stories, culminating in one hundred tales. The book opens with a proem, and each day of storytelling ends with a canzone—a lyric poem of medieval Italian or Provençal origin. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was influenced by The Decameron, particularly “Il Filostrato” (1338), which was the inspiration for Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde,” and the epic poem “Teseida,” (1340–41), which formed the basis for “The Knightes Tale.” Much of Boccaccio’s most notable work was composed when he was in Naples, between 1335 and 1341. Other notable poems include “L’amorosa visione” (“The Amorous Vision”) (1342, revised c. 1365), a narrative poem in fifty cantos, composed in terza rima; and “Il ninfale d’Ameto” (“Ameto’s Story of the Nymphs”) (1341–42), a pastoral allegory composed in both prose and nineteen cantos in terza rima. Boccaccio’s earliest vernacular composition, “La caccia di Diana” (“Diana’s Hunt”), was composed between 1333 and 1334. The 1,047-line poem, which was not officially attributed to Boccaccio until 1938, is the first known Italian imitation of Dante’s terza rima.

In 1350, Boccaccio became an emissary for the Florentine government and their support of Italian Humanism. He traveled widely to counsel various papal courts and to greet important figures in his role as ambassador for Florence. This work led to Boccaccio and Petrarch’s first meeting in 1351. Boccaccio led a group of established literary figures to greet Petrarch as the poet entered Florence. The two became friends and frequent correspondents, which encouraged Boccaccio to pursue Humanist scholarship, particularly his extensive writing on Dante and Greek antiquity. Boccaccio’s last major work was Eposizioni sopra la Commedia di Dante (a commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy) (1373–74), which was based on a series of public lectures on Dante that Boccaccio gave in the Santo Stefano church in 1373.

Between 1360 and 1374, Boccaccio collected over one hundred biographies of notable women throughout history. De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women) is regarded as the first collection of biographies dedicated to women in Western literature. Another significant contribution to Humanist studies was his Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods). Scholar Ernest Hatch Wilkins described it as “the chief monument of Boccaccio’s faithful and eager industry as Humanist [sic] […] a mythological encyclopedia in Latin prose, divided into a general proem and fifteen books.” Boccaccio started writing the Genealogia in 1350. Between 1370 and 1371, after allowing a friend to make a copy of the manuscript, numerous copies of the book were made without the consent of Boccaccio, who did not yet regard the Genealogia as complete. While there are between thirty and forty extant manuscripts of the Genealogia, all of which were printed between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the one currently housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris is regarded as the best. The Genealogia was first printed for the masses in Venice in 1472. Seven later editions, all based on this first printing, were released in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. 

Boccaccio died on December 21, 1375 in Certaldo.  

Giovanni Boccaccio
Portrait by Raffaello Morghen, c. 1822