Boccaccio’s Birthday

Now that I’ve made this big transition to chair of the History Department, I’m doing very little teaching: only one class (on the Renaissance and the Reformation) as opposed to the normal four-course-per-semester load. That’s just how administrative the job is. I’d much rather be teaching three more courses, frankly, but at the same time I have a renewed appreciation of the time I do get to spend in the classroom. The Ren/Ref course is an old standard, easy and fun to teach with its contrasting and continuous movements and its visual and theological drama, and my students are open and engaged and undemanding. It takes me a while to get into the period as the course has no prerequisites and most of them need some medieval footing in order to proceed; consequently we’ve just finished an examination of the late medieval crisis (intense famine, plague, war, schism, all at the same time) and the “worlds” of the “three crowns” of early Italian Renaissance literature:  Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. I usually focus almost exclusively on Petrarch as the key transitional figure in the emergence of the Renaissance humanist mentality, and this course was no exception, but all of the celebratory initiatives associated with the 700th anniversary of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s birth are making me reconsider my practice. Perhaps the Decameron, Boccaccio’s allegorical collection of 100 stories told by ten young Florentines seeking to distract themselves and pass the time while they wait out the Black Death in a deserted rural villa, should be read for more than its plague prologue.


Boccaccio, in the company of Petrarch, Dante, and three other Renaissance writers, in Giorgio Vasari’s Six Tuscan Poets, 1544, Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Boccaccio 2013” is a multi-disciplinary, multi-event happening in Italy, and Boccaccio is also being celebrated in Britain, where he has always been recognized as an inspiration for another essential late medieval work, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (as well as John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes). There was a major conference at the University of Manchester this summer, as well as a coincidental, and ongoing exhibition, focused on Boccaccio’s currency.  He endured because (like any true Renaissance man) he sought fame in his own time and among his contemporaries, but also because his accessible prose and format inspired a succession of authors, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, to Tennyson, Longfellow and Poe. Readers past and present also wanted to see those beautiful noblemen and -women telling their tales–as well as the characters in their tales–while the world was dying all around them, and so centuries of artists have been inspired by Boccaccio as well. Renaissance escapism:  modern and universal at the same time.


Decameron Crivelli Bodleian

Boccaccio Botticelli

Boccaccio Stothard 1825

Boccaccio after Stothard etching

Boccaccio Waterhouse

Boccaccio the author, in a French manuscirpt of his De Claris Mulieribus, 1440, British Library MS Royal 16 G V; Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die:  illustrations of the Decameron from Taddeo Crivelli’s 1467 manuscript edition, Bodleian Library MS Holkam mis. 49, and by Sandro Botticelli, the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti: The Banquet in the Pine Forest, 1483, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Thomas Stothard, c. 1820, British Museum; and John Williams Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916, Lady Lever Gallery, Liverpool.

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