The ruthless killer climbed walls, crossed moats, slipped through walls. So swiftly and fiercely did the disease strike that robust young men and women breakfasted with their parents in the morning and dined with their ancestors in the afterlife by night fall. Doctors and priests fell alongside those they tended. As bodies piled up, masked grave-diggers stacked the corpses of children atop their elders to bury in pits without so much as a final blessing.
The plague of 1348, the greatest disaster to befall Italy in a thousand years, killed a quarter of Florence’s citizens. Giovanni Boccaccio, the great raconteur who inspired storytellers from Chaucer to Dickens to Twain, responded to the daily horror with the most exuberant, entertaining, death-defying work of literature the world had seen: the Decameron, Italian’s first great prose narrative, hailed as “a book of the love of life.”
In Boccaccio’s tome, a group of seven young women and three young men, sheltering in a country villa, swap 100 tales of love, lust, mischief, and treachery. Contrary to the common perception, only about a quarter of these stories have bawdy themes, but all reflect Boccaccio’s bemused acceptance of all-too-human failings. Who could blame his shameless sinners? As one of his lascivious ladies declared to justify her transgressions, “It is impossible to defend oneself against the promptings of the flesh.”
While no sin goes unpunished in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s fallible characters get off with a wink and a smile. Take Filippa, whose husband caught her with a lover in Prato, which condemned adulterers to the stake. At her trial, she asks her husband if she had ever denied him sex. No, he concedes. “Well, then, what should I have done with the extra—thrown it to the dogs?” she demands. “Isn’t it better that a noble gentleman who loves me more than himself should have it, instead of it being lost or wasted?” Roaring in laughter, the townspeople repealed their harsh statute.
In another story, an abbess catches a nun in bed with a man. The young woman deftly defuses her superior’s wrath by pointing out that in her rush to get dressed, the abbess had thrown the black pants of her lover over her head instead of her veil.
Yet Boccaccio also appreciated the softer side of romance. In his most poignant tale, a young Florentine named Federigo, whose greatest pride is his noble falcon, spends his entire fortune trying to win the heart of a wealthy married woman, the virtuous Monna Giovanna. After her husband dies, the widow’s young son becomes grievously ill and entreats her for the one thing he thinks would make him well—Federigo’s prized bird.
Monna Giovanna, planning to beg for the falcon, arrives at Federigo’s house at lunchtime. Embarrassed that he has no food to offer, Federigo kills his cherished pet, roasts it on a spit, and serves it to his guest. Monna Giovanna’s son dies, but, moved by his selfless deed, she marries Federigo, rewarding his sacrifice with both wealth and happiness.
As the Decameron demonstrates, an omnipresent threat of death can intensify a passion for enjoying life to the fullest. Boccaccio’s life-affirming stories resonate within our own virus-ridden time. You can find English translations of the Decameron online at sites sponsored by Gutenberg and Google Books.
Watch a video tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci that I wrote and presented for the London-based Corona Crisis Collective, which is bringing together an international array of cultural and scientific contributors.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World, LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.