Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio

Boccaccio is the most recent of the three “great minds” of 14th-century Italian humanism, after Dante Alighieri and Petrarch. He was a poet, a scientist, and, most important, a creator of the early modern short story genre. Boccaccio’s ancestors were peasants, but his father became a wealthy merchant in Florence not long before his son’s birth. Boccaccio’s mother is unknown.

Some reports suggest the writer’s birthplace was Paris, but most historians agree that it was either Florence or Certaldo (Tuscany). Born illegitimately, Boccaccio was nevertheless officially recognized by his father, who was reported to have been a crude and ill-mannered man.

Wishing Giovanni to enter business, his father sent him to Naples to learn the profession. Soon, however, it became evident that the boy had no aspiration to follow in his father’s footsteps and greatly disliked mercantile business. He was then ordered to study canon law, but this discipline was equally incompatible with Boccaccio’s demeanor, which was better suited to the vocation of poetry and letters.

His father’s money and position gave Boccaccio access to Naples’s high society and introduced him into the literary-scientific circle gathered around King Robert of Anjou. Naples of the first half of the 14th century was one of the largest cultural centers of western Europe, and Boccaccio’s affiliation with it, as well as his love affair with the king’s daughter Fiammetta, greatly stimulated the young man’s literary and poetic talent.

During this first Neapolitan period of creativity, Boccaccio wrote numerous poems eulogizing Fiammetta, then produced the novel Filocolo (1336–39) and two lengthy poems, Filostrato and Teseida (both finished in 1340). Today almost forgotten, these works were widely read by Boccaccio’s contemporaries and played an important role in the development of Italian literature.

In 1333–34 Boccaccio was first exposed to the poetry of Petrarch, whose verses began to reach Naples. After having heard Petrarch’s sonnets for the first time, Boccaccio went home and burned all his youthful works, disgusted with his own “petty” attempts at verse composition.

In 1340 two major Florentine banks collapsed, and Boccaccio’s father lost almost all his savings; the young poet returned to Florence to assist his suddenly poor family. The Black Death of 1348, which took the lives of his father, stepmother, and numerous friends, crashed Boccaccio emotionally and took what was left of his family’s money. In spite (or maybe because of) these disasters, the Florentine period was especially productive for Boccaccio.

In Florence he created his most important works:
  • Comedia Ninfe (1341–42), also known as the Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine (dedicated to Niccolò di Bartolo Del Buono);
  • the first draft of De vita et moribus domini Francisci Petracchi;
  • the first version of the Amorosa visione (1342–43);
  • Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343–44);
  • Ninfale fiesolano (1344–45);
  • and, finally, the Decameron (1349–51), Boccaccio’s most mature masterpiece of witty satire that greatly influenced further development of Italian literature.

From the 1350s Boccaccio fell increasingly under the influence of Petrarch and began to write more in Latin and more on religious, devotional, and philosophical subjects. His last years were dedicated to Dante, whose works he studied and conducted a series of lectures on the Divine Comedy. Italian humanism is greatly indebted to the author of the Decameron. Boccaccio died on December 21, 1375 in Certaldo.