Sunday, June 5, 2016

Boccaccio’s Generosity

It being year 10 of my ten-year reading plan, I find myself often experiencing a sense of accomplishment these days. In January I finished reading all of Plato and all the extant works of ancient Greek theater. In February I finished rereading all of Dickens’s novels. In April, I finished reading Orlando Furioso, the title that started my quest for a self-earned liberal education.

May brought two journeys to completion: rereading all the major works of Immanuel Kant, and reading (for the first time) all of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Going over Kant again worked exactly the way I had hoped it would. The margin notes I took the first time through helped me actually understand what I was reading the second time. Kant makes five times more sense to me now than he did a decade ago. He would probably make at least twice as much sense if I read it all again in the next ten years, but I’ve decided to forego that experiment.

Boccaccio having arranged the one-hundred stories of the Decameron in ten days of ten stories each, and my reading plan being ten years long, I decided a decade ago to read one set of ten stories per year, so, according to the delicate rules of mathematics, I read the novellae of day 10 this year, that last day of Boccaccio’s collection centering on the theme of generosity. The plague refugees who tell each other these stories put in every effort to outdo each other on this last fling. The magnanimity of the heroes of their tales inflates past all human capability. They freely give up lands, treasures, thrones, dignity, wives, and lives. They have no Christian right to donate their wives, of course, and since the character who offers his life does so with no thought of any benefit that might result other than the display of willingness, his example doesn’t inspire me, either. But the other examples did, I suppose, what their authors (under which umbrella term I include the original producers, Boccaccio’s fictional narrators, and Boccaccio himself) intended; that is, they afforded the reader with examples of humility and sacrifice.

The greatest display of generosity in the Decameron, though, is the book itself. One-hundred stories: most of them interesting, some of them extremely good. With his tales of fools and princes, judges and thieves, wives and monks, Boccaccio lifts up a picture of humanity as a whole: the good and the bad, the high and the low, the selfish and the heroic come together to fill his pages. He gives all sorts and conditions the dignity of a reader’s attention and takes from no class of people the potential for either greatness or ridicule. And that equalizing treatment of humanity was one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. The Encyclopedia Britannica goes so far as to say, “Without Boccaccio, the literary culmination of the Italian Renaissance would be historically incomprehensible.”

I’ve read that Boccaccio’s language did for Italian prose what Dante had done for Italian poetry. Consider this opening sentence from the randomly chosen story 7 on day 10:
When Fiammetta was come to the end of her story, and not a little praise had been accorded to the virile magnificence of King Charles, albeit one there was of the ladies, who, being a Ghibelline, joined not therein, Pampinea, having received the king's command, thus began.
The complexity far surpasses anything required for a language of the streets. Just take the words “being a Ghibelline.” It begins with a participle (itself a thing of wondrous beauty fast disappearing from our own vernacular) – a participle modifying “who.” That word, in turn begins a relative clause saying more about “one of the ladies.” That lovely group’s own subordinate clause starts a long parenthesis decorating the main action of Fiammetta yielding the floor to Pampinea. So at “being a Ghibelline,” we’re three whole levels below the surface.

Then there’s the whole influencing-Chaucer-and-Shakespeare thing. Yeah, Boccaccio gave us a lot.

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