Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who was in the Decameron

Tales from the Decameron
Painted by John William Waterhouse
Year - 1916

The Decameron begins with the flight of 10 young people (7 women and 3 men) from plague-stricken Florence in 1348. They retire to a rich, well-watered countryside, where, in the course of a fortnight, each member of the party has a turn as king or queen over the others, deciding in detail how their day shall be spent and directing their leisurely walks, their outdoor conversations, their dances and songs, and, above all, their alternate storytelling.

This storytelling occupies 10 days of the fortnight (the rest being set aside for personal adornment or for religious devotions); hence the title of the book itself, Decameron, or "Ten Days' Work." The stories thus amount to 100 in all. Each of the days, moreover, ends with a canzone (song) for dancing sung by one of the storytellers, and these canzoni include some of Boccaccio's finest lyric poetry.

In addition to the 100 stories, Boccaccio has a master theme, namely, the way of life of the refined bourgeoisie, who combined respect for conventions with an open-minded attitude to personal behaviour.

The Brigata from the Decameron Web

There has been much discussion concerning the significance of the names Boccaccio has given to his narrators - allegorical representations of the seven virtues, symbols of other moral qualities, or just characters that have populated Boccaccio's earlier works.

Pampinea, the eldest of the seven lady narrators at twenty-seven years of age, is the natural leader among them. In Italian her name means "la rigogliosa" which could be translated as "the flourishing one." It was her suggestion for the group to move to the countryside and her initiative that brought the three men into their plans. In return, she was made Queen of the first day.


Neifile seems to represent a certain Ghibelline sensibility within the brigata, regularly favoring authority figures (fathers, guardians, masters, podestà, kings and so on). This attitude is reflected as well in her perspective on the duty to respect one's ruler or superior (sons, daughters, servants, wives, knights, et al.) in particular and to revere the ordered and established societal institutions and traditions (hierarchy of power in family, clan and country) in general.

Several scholars of Boccaccio like to believe that the Fiammetta of the brigata was based upon a real woman, Maria d'Aquino, with whom Boccaccio fell in love. "Fiammetta" is a recurring character in a number of Boccaccio's works (e.g., The Filocolo and L'elegia di Madonna Fiammetta ) and is generally described in consistent terms: "[her hair] is so blonde that the world holds nothing like it; it shades a white forehead of noble width, beneath which are the curves of two black and most slender eyebrows ... and under these two roguish eyes ... cheeks of no other colour than milk."

In the Decameron, Fiammetta is one of the most assertive women. She often engages Filostrato and others in competitive storytelling about the nature of love. She is a clever, independent and resourceful woman who admires these same qualities in others. Fiammetta often tells stories about tricksters and delights in tales about strong female characters.

The first glimpse of Elissa's character comes in the Introduction of the First Day in which Pampinea has suggested to the other women her plan for fleeing the city in order in an attempt to save their own lives and to return to a somewhat ordered and rational existence. Filomena agrees that this is a good idea but she believes since they are all women and, by nature, "fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened," they will never succeed in their venture.

It is here that Elissa speaks up: she agrees that women are unsuited and unable to act without male guidance but, she wonders, where will they find suitable male companions. She fears for the safety of the group and is concerned about any possible scandal related to traveling with a group of men.

It has been said that Elissa represents either "hope" (Kirkham) or "justice" (Ferrante) and also that she is very young and dominated by a violent passion. Paden suggests that she is the sole recognizable Ghibelline of the group

Lauretta, the name given by Boccaccio to one of the female narrators, implies Justice. The defining characteristic of Lauretta is the way in which that Justice is meted out. In her world view, women should obey men.

Lauretta serves as a vocal reminder of the male dominance of medieval society. She counters the novellas of the "empowered" members of the brigata with tales grounded in the brutal realities of their society. On her day as Queen, she responds to Dioneo's transgressive theme. As ruler of the Seventh day, Dioneo requested stories regarding the tricks which women play on their husbands. These stories clash directly with conventional gender roles and social orders, which dictate that women never should cross their husbands. Having listened to the tales, Dioneo then presents the crown to Lauretta, practically taunting her to respond to his theme's attack upon the traditional power structure.

On the first day, Queen Pampinea, granting Dioneo's request to tell whatever story he pleases and, in exchange, to be the last storyteller of each day, reflects that "if the company should grow weary of hearing people talk, he could enliven the proceedings with some story that would move them to laughter" (First Day, Conclusion).

Similarly, on the Ninth Day, Queen Emilia reinforces the micro-society's laws by suggesting that storytellers rest from the restraints of a proposed topic. She compares the storytellers to "oxen" and comments: "I consider that it would be both appropriate and useful for us to wander at large for a while, and in so doing recover the strength for returning once again beneath the yoke" (Eighth Day, Conclusion). As in the case of Dioneo, Emilia's "transgression" ultimately encourages a strengthening of the micro-society's structure.


In his introduction to I.4, the first story he tells, Dioneo expresses the opinion "that each must be allowed [...] to tell whatever story we think most likely to amuse." Consequently he will be granted the privilege not to follow the theme of the day and to tell instead the story that most pleases him, regardless of its consonance or dissonance with the others told in that day. In exchange, he will be the last of the ten narrators to tell a story. This positioning is significant because it is meant not to interfere with the pattern developed in a given day; on the contrary, Dioneo's privilege grants him a role of transgressor while at the same time, as an exception, reinforces the (narrative) rule that governs the Decameron.

Panfilo is in love with love, in love with joy. Though it would at first appear that Panfilo is in the brigata simply to fulfill the slap-happy-fool-in-love role, a second look at his novelle reveals another side of Panfilo. Panfilo repeatedly emphasizes the need to look deeper into the stories of the brigata by presenting characters and situations which hide their true nature. Indeed, Panfilo acts as an almost direct voice of Boccaccio, in that he reminds us that the Decameron is not simply a collection of entertaining stories. It is Boccaccio's intention that we look deeper into the stories of the Decameron, so that it becomes a vehicle from which "useful advice" can be gleaned.

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