Death was on everyone’s mind when the Great Plague rolled through Italy in 1348. In art, the most striking memories of those harrowing days are the powerful frescoes by the 'Master of the Triumph of Death' in Pisa’s Campo Santo. In literature, no account surpasses Boccaccio’s introduction to his masterpiece, The Decameron, the ‘human comedy’ that complements the Divine Comedy of his fellow Florentine Dante.
Boccaccio, the son of a prosperous banker, was the first great writer from the urban middle class. Born either in Florence or in the Florentine town of Certaldo in 1313, he spent much of his youth in the literate, art-loving court of Robert of Anjou in Naples. He returned to Florence shortly before 1348, when the sight of the bodies of plague victims piled in the street sent deep cracks into his belief about the divinely ordered medieval cosmos that he had been reared on and loved in The Divine Comedy.
Boccaccio’s great feat would be to disenchant Dante’s world in the most entertaining way possible. He takes a detached view of the great theatre of life from the very beginning of the Decameron. Despite the Church’s claims that the plague was ‘a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life’, Boccaccio notes that in fact it was a highly contagious disease that had come out of the East, and that fate and chance alone seemed to spare some Florentines while others were struck down whether they responded to the plague by praying for deliverance, hiding out, or living riotously as if there would be no tomorrow.
His ten young storytellers gather in Santa Maria Novella and escape the plague for a country villa, where they pass the days by telling tales. These stories sparkle with a secular, spunky vitality and sense of humour that is fresh and new; sex, for the first time in literature, becomes a pleasurable end in itself. Fate and chance, however, decide most of the plots and outcomes of the hundred tales they tell; with few exceptions, belief in the just outcome of human endeavour is an illusion.
In his old age Boccaccio wrote exclusively in Latin and earned himself a reputation as one of the great humanists of the 14th century, regretting the frivolity of the Decameron in his old age. As historian Giuliano Procacci wrote,
He put himself in the position of a calmly objective recorder of life’s dramas and chances; it was a difficult and exhausting mental standpoint, and a new one, demanding nervous energy and courage. Is it any wonder that Boccaccio too, in his premature old age, should have sought comfort and refuge in study and piety?
For a century after Boccaccio Florence led the world in humanistic thought. The horrors of the plague were forgotten as victories in diplomacy and the battlefield, a hitherto unknown prosperity, and tremendous strides in architecture, art and science made the city radiate confidence. The fatalism of the Decameron seemed unduly pessimistic by the end of the 15th century. The humanists were keenly aware of Florence’s special destiny, as described by Leonardo Bruni in his proud, patriotic Laudatio Florentinae Urbis, or in Coloccio Salutati’s
What city, not merely in Italy but in the whole world, is stronger within the circle of its walls, prouder in palaces, richer in temples, more lovely in buildings... Where is trade richer in its variety, abler in subtle understandings? Where are there more famous men?
These brave new words came before the mass neurotic religious revival orchestrated by Savonarola, and the return of the wrath of God as the world's prime mover. Even Pico della Mirandola, the most optimistic of humanists, himself fell under the fanatic’s spell. Florence was never the same, and the repercussions were dire: for a city that practically invented humanism to toss its books and art in the proto-Ayatollah’s bonfire of the vanities cast long shadows onto everyone’s future. Don’t forget that only in the 20th century has the Decameron been properly translated—complete with all the naughty bits.
Images by: Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, 1822, John William Waterhouse