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Book Review: Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, Translated by J.G. Nichols

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It is a testament to the brilliance of Giovanni Boccaccio’s story-telling that his Decameron is still an entertaining read hundreds of years later. This new translation by J. G. Nichols is faithful to the original text, while making the sometimes archaic terms understandable to a modern reader.

Boccaccio sets his best-known work during the summer of 1348. Ten young people, seven women and three men, meet in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. They all share fears of the plague that is sweeping through their city, and agree to leave town together to spend the next two weeks in a villa in the country, in nearby Fiesole, to avoid contagion. The seven women are Pampinea, Fiammetta, Filomena, Emilia, Lauretta, Neifile, and Elissa; the three men are Panfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo.

Once there, each evening they gather around a fountain in the garden and spend their time telling stories. For ten days (Decameron means “ten days” in Greek) — each day ten stories are told, for a total of one hundred.

Boccaccio, like Shakespeare, used many sources for the stories in Decameron. As Nichols states in the introduction, “Few if any of these tales were of his own invention, but – this is often said about jokes – it is the way they are told that counts. . . . ”

Modern readers will find some of the tales, especially those intended to be moralistic, more than a little dated. But there are also so many great characters and so many stories that are full of humor that there is still much to entertain. Many of the stories are intentionally bawdy, concerning lusty priests and monks, or unfaithful husbands and wives. As misogynistic or sexist as some of the tales can be, there are just as many where the women get the best of the men. It would be wise while reading to keep the time-frame in context. Boccaccio wrote Decameron in the mid-14th century.

Some of the more memorable characters include the trio of Bruno, Buffalmacco, and the frequent butt of their jokes, Calandrino, who appear in four tales. Decameron also features real people from the time, including the painter Giotto, and the Muslim ruler Saladin and King William II of Sicily. Probably the most famous of the tales, and also the last one in the book, is the story of Griselda, a wife whose love and faith is cruelly tested by her husband. This is one of the hardest stories for a contemporary woman to reconcile, but it is also one of the closest in structure to a fairytale; Griselda’s husband first marries the peasant girl, a la Cinderella, and then proceeds to torture her by making her think he has killed their children, or taken a new wife (who happens to be their 12 year-old daughter). It’s so crazy that the reader can’t help but be pulled in, to see how it will all come out in the end.

The plague in Florence disappears quickly from the minds of the ten storytellers as well as the reader, as one story quickly follows another. Many are quite short in length, and a reader can dip into Decameron for just a few minutes or much longer, depending on their mood. There are many differences between our current world and that of Renaissance Italy, but some of the same things abound, such as a sense of humor, lust, passion, and the need to hear and tell a good story. Boccaccio’s Decameron fills the bill quite nicely still in that regard.

Images, from top:

Decameron, Anonymous, 15th century.

Griselda’s first Trial of Patience (Griseldas’ husband takes her child away from her), by Charles West Cope, 1848.

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