Boccaccio and His 'Decameron'
THE love which Dante so magisterially celebrated and to which Boccaccio was paying his faltering tribute in the Ameto was the mother, not of religion, but of culture. Christianity had turned the barbarian animal into one kind of man; romantic love was equally capable of turning him into another, and it was a perception of this fact which Boccaccio was expressing in his allegory of love, the civilizer of the new man. Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that he himself was aware of the utter disharmony of the Ameto and of the fact that that disharmony must somehow be resolved, for in his next work, L’Amorosa Visione, he strives to effect some sort of compromise with the theology of Dante which would leave him free to celebrate that earthly love which he was by no means ready to abandon for the love of God.
Here the form is once more that of an allegory, and the allegory is again borrowed from Dante. Like the master whom he had so inappropriately chosen, Boccaccio, too, finds himself lost somewhere near the midway of this mortal life and with an artistic soul to save. Thinking of Fiammetta and his love for her, he falls into a sweet sleep, and to him, as to Dante, there appears in a vision a guide. Offering to lead him to his eternal salvation, she points to an imposing but forbidding castle, and though at first there seems no entrance, she indicates at last a tiny door, narrow and low, which leads to a difficult stair. Over this door is written: ‘Entrance to Eternal Life.’ But Boccaccio turns to the right, where another door, wide and high, bears the following inscription: ‘Riches, honor, treasures, earthly glory, these are that which I give to those who enter me, promising them happiness and the joys of love’; and to the horror of his guide it is this door which Boccaccio enters. ‘That,’ she cries, ‘is the road to perdition,’ and ‘Quite so,’ he answers; but with that air at once sly and naïve which is so characteristic of him, he adds the doubtful assurance: ‘Presently we shall return to the narrow gate; meanwhile I should like to see for myself.’
Thus Boccaccio, breaking with Dante and the whole ascetic tradition, takes for the first time his own road in the full realization that he is taking it. In the vast secular world to which the broad and pleasant gate leads him he sees all the glories of the world, which his soul, rebelling against the mediæval doctrine, refuses to consider mere vanity and filth. Gazing upon huge allegorical pictures which symbolize respectively Science, Glory, Love, and Wealth, he recognizes the likeness of many resplendent figures, among them Virgil for Science, the heroes of King Arthur’s Table for Glory, Helen and Guinevere and Lancelot for Love — and at last he comes into the bodily presence of Fiammetta herself. The guide gives them one to the other, and then at last they enjoy in their perfect union the highest felicity of the soul. No atheist and no heretic, he does not reject the Church’s plan of salvation, but for the moment he is in no hurry to escape from this very pleasant world, which may be only an inn in which travelers repose upon their journey to eternity, but which is, nevertheless, a very delightful caravansary.
This turn to the right which Boccaccio took was the one which the generations immediately following took after him, and the compromise of Boccaccio was the compromise of the Renaissance. He showed how it might completely secularize itself without ceasing to be nominally Catholic, and how by according a nominal assent to religious and moral dogmas it could free itself from the necessity of concerning itself with them in the worldly life which it had completely detached.
Our immediate concern is, however, with the art of Boccaccio, and the effect of the clarification which L’Amorosa, Visione accomplished was immediately apparent. He is done now with that struggle to spiritualize himself which could result only in grotesque if unintentional parodies like the Ameto, and for the time being done with allegory too, which had served its purpose and led him to self-knowledge. Henceforward human experience is his theme and he will describe it in human terms.
But one thing now remained to be accomplished in the long unconscious preparation for the startling mutation which produced his and his generation’s masterpiece, the Decameron. Selfknowledge, laboriously and tortuously won, had made realism possible and had brought him to the place where he could deal with his own experience in terms genuinely appropriate to its quality; but though he could now be realistic, he was not yet objective. Fiammetta was still the centre of his universe, and it was still his personal experience which alone could furnish him the materials for his art. Hard upon the Amorosa Visione came, however, the prose work which he called by her name, and which not only constitutes an achievement in itself, but also marks the end of his apprenticeship.
In this work he represents Fiammetta as herself recounting the story of their love. The moment which he has chosen is that in which she, whom he represents deserted, not deserting, is at the full tide of her grief over her loss, and the method — in which there is no touch of allegory — is a method obviously no longer inspired by Dante, but borrowed from Ovid. The style is still rather precious and there are many classical allusions, ostentatiously paraded, but the background and the manners described are those of that real Naples upon whose sunny days and warm amorous nights he is looking back. Not since Ovid wrote had anyone so vividly portrayed the effects of a love which is neither the mere lust of the mediæval comic tale, nor the mysticism of Dante, nor the extravagant, finicky emotional posturings of the troubadours, but something at once full-blooded, powerful, and yet never coarse.
Most of the works, either in literature or in pictorial art, which survive to us from an age as remote, not merely in time but in mind, as that of the fourteenth century take much of the charm which they still have for us from a certain quaintness, but though the Fiammetta has its passages of quaint charm, it has something more substantial as well. Such is the strength of the emotion which gave it birth and such the art with which that emotion was described that one is still moved by a keen compassion for the sorrows of a fictitious woman upon whom was projected the anguish of a man dead these six centuries.
As an artist, Boccaccio was passing from the autobiographical to the objective stage. He was still too absorbed in his personal experiences to write about anything except them, but he was already moving toward the creation of character, and the plan of the Fiammetta afforded a compromise. The emotion which gives to the character its living warmth is his own, but it is projected upon a character not himself. Using his own feelings, he transfers them to Fiammetta, and, while still having himself to draw upon, he adapts his own emotions to the changed circumstances afforded by the change of sex and he uses his own soul in order to understand another.
Thus the Fiammetta serves to complete the education and training of Boccaccio as an artist. When he began it he had already learned to accept himself, and when he finished it he had learned also how to see not only himself but other people as well from the standpoint of his own view of the world. Fiammetta served as the bridge over which he passed from himself to the world, because in describing her he was at once describing himself and another. Moreover he had for the first time actually succeeded in what he had many times unsuccessfully attempted, — he had, that is to say, given adequate expression to his love and his pain, — and as a result he was freed from their obsessive weight. He could now look at the world around him with a penetration which he had learned in studying himself and describe it with a detachment to which he had earned the right by a final acceptance of his own tragedy. He was living now in his own naturalistic world and seeing others as well as himself in its terms.
For a century at least before Boccaccio began the Decameron, popular story-tellers had delighted their nonliterary audiences with anecdotes and tales. Some were merely brief records of practical jokes or popular witticisms; some revealed the memory of real comedies or tragedies acted by real Italian people; and some embodied the disjecta membra of Greek or Oriental stories which had survived in fragments from an earlier civilization. Neither Dante nor Petrarch would have deigned to notice them, but Boccaccio, when he had come to know himself, recognized the materials of a native art and he made them body forth a view of life which seemed to his contemporaries and successors the most adequate and the most sensible which had ever been given.
A hundred stories, ranging in plot from rude farce to romantic tragedy, and ranging in mood from Rabelaisian brutality to tender sentiment, compose the collection, and though it is not likely that he invented a single one of them, he did make each his own by realizing it completely and recognizing the unity which lay behind the apparently boundless diversity of the stories. He saw in the rough, boisterous comedy and the bloody tragedy, as well as in the romanticism which some of the popular tales embodied, a crude expression of the Italian temperament — something quite different from the classical modes of feeling which the learned were attempting to revive, but something completely comprehensible to him. Ceasing for the time being to aspire, he devoted himself to the task of making them art by giving them perfect form.
Everyone is familiar with the famous setting. A plague, the worst of the many that preyed upon the people of the Middle Ages, has descended upon Florence. In a few brief paragraphs whose vivid unadorned force is both extraordinary in itself and doubly surprising when compared with the diffuseness which marks all Boccaccio’s previous writing, he describes the terror and despair which the visitation brought with it, and then, like a man whose concern is with the bright things of life and who is completely devoid of any impulse to seek life’s meaning in its agonies, he turns his attention to a group of young men whose sole concern is to escape from a threatened danger. To them, gay with a new sense of the pleasantness of life, the possibility of leaving the world suggests nothing except the duty of using whatever days may be left to them, and they plan with their ladies a retreat to a villa among the hills. Upon each day of their sojourn each member of the company shall entertain the others with a story, and each day a newly appointed queen shall set the general subject with which these stories shall deal.
And so, with a sense of well-being which the realization of a danger escaped serves only to heighten, they seat themselves upon one of the sunny upland meadows below which the pest is raging and there they unlock their minds, pouring forth the tales which in idle moments they have heard and embellishing them with sly wit or tender sentiment. Unorthodox in morality and philosophy most of the tales turn out to be, but such is the company’s sense of safety and freedom that there are few signs of the bitterness which so generally marks a protestant literature. The tone is rather of tolerant satire than of anything approaching invective, and the stories throughout reveal all the suppleness and variety of a mind keenly receptive but little concerned with any conscious doctrine to be proved or illustrated.
No incident is too vulgar, none too romantic, to concern these young people, who are willing to consider with an equal and almost childlike delight both the witty trick played by one peasant upon another and the high adventures of noble dukes in war and love. No mystics — save perhaps those who have been made such by love — appear. For these people nothing ineffable, nothing transcendent, exists. They know no character more exalted than that of the honnête homme. But within the limits of the purely human their interest and their sympathy are all-inclusive. For them only the sensual world exists, but that world is present in all its variety.
Before the profusion of this collection, whose individual stories came to Boccaccio from many sources, one stands for a time bewildered. It seems hopeless to attempt to characterize anything whose parts are so diverse, and one is tempted to say that the absence of an informing view of the world is the only thing which will serve to explain such catholicity in the choice of subject matter. But such is not indeed the case. Various as the individual stories are, the greatness of the whole consists in the fact that a unity of mood pervades it and that that mood is the one which the experience of Boccaccio with his world had generated.
If one searches the apparently boundless diversity for some story which may be taken as typical and which will illuminate the rest, one cannot, perhaps, do better than to light upon that tale of Cymon and Iphigenia, which was foreshadowed in the cumbersome allegory of the Ameto. The fact that it is given a position (first story of the fifth day) in the middle of the collection and that it is told on the day when Fiammetta is queen might lead us to suspect that to Boccaccio himself it was the key to his work, and its symbolism is transparent.
Cymon, we are told, was the dull and oafish son of a man of great wealth and distinction in the island of Cyprus. His brutish nature had resisted every effort to instruct it and he remained so completely without manners or learning that the citizens of the island had bestowed upon him the name of Beast. But, wandering one day in the woods, he came upon a beautiful woman sleeping there, and then he who had been insensible to all else felt the power of love. Suddenly, in the rude, uncivilized breast which had hitherto been incapable of receiving the least impression of politeness, a thought arose which seemed to intimate to his gross and shallow understanding that this was the most agreeable sight that was ever seen.
Love having thus pierced his heart, when no other lesson of any kind could find admittance, in a little time his way of thinking and behavior were so far changed, that his father and his friends were strangely surprised at it, as well as everybody that knew him. First of all, then, he asked his father to let him have clothes like his brethren: to which his father very willingly consented. Conversing too with young gentlemen of character, and observing their ways and manner of behavior, in a very short time he not only got over the rudiments of learning, but attained some knowledge of philosophy. Afterwards, his love for Iphigenia being the sole cause of it, his rude and rustic speech was changed into a tone more agreeable and civilized: he grew also a master of music; and with regard to the military art, as well by sea as by land, he became as expert and gallant as the best. . . . What, then, most gracious ladies, shall we say of Cymon? Surely nothing less than this: that all the noble qualities that had been infused by Heaven into his generous soul were shut up as it were by invidious fortune, and bound fast with the strongest fetters in a small corner of his heart, till Love broke the enchantment, and drove with all its might these virtues out of that cruel obscurity, to which they had been long doomed, to a clear and open day; plainly showing from whence it draws those spirits that are its votaries, and whither its mighty influence conducts them.
The meaning of this story is explicit, enough and it illuminates the whole collection. Not only are most of the tales concerned with secular love, but love is regarded once more as the mother of all things. Not only does it flower in brave and gallant deeds, but it is the beginning of all civilization. It makes possible art and learning and courtesy. Without it man is a beast, but when it descends upon him he is reborn with the power to become human. Moreover, this love is not something esoteric or aristocratic, but something which works in every man, moving the peasant in peasant-like ways and the courtier in ways which befit the refinement of his nature. It inspires the rude trick of the country gallant bent upon cuckolding his stupid neighbor as well as the romantic passion which sends the hero overseas in pursuit of the mistress whom pirates have ravished. Because of it the tricky priest deludes the rustic maid with his story of how the Devil must be put in Hell, and because of it Isabella dies of grief. But such variety is only a proof of the universality of the power. Working everywhere, in high and low, it moves the world and gives it its significance.
If, then, a love which remains essentially sensuous even at its most romantic is the most nearly intangible value which the Decameron anywhere recognizes, the fact is of enormous significance both in its positive and in its negative aspects. On the one hand Boccaccio enthrones a purely natural force as the supreme power in the universe, and on the other he dispenses with all considerations which are not founded upon experience with nature. A certain lip service is, to be sure, paid to God and to religion; the characters sometimes refer in purely conventional terms to a life beyond this life or to powers which are outside of nature; but they do not really believe in either, and if their deification of love enables them sometimes to conceive of life in poetic terms, they see love merely as a refinement upon animality. It is not for them, as it was for Dante, an imperfection through which they are made aware of a Perfection existing above nature. By a sort of anticipation of the more scientific naturalism which was to follow, they regard man much as a modern rationalist would regard him, because for them, too, he is already a risen animal rather than a fallen angel, and one must look not at the sky but at the earth if one would explain him. Thus the spiritual centre of the universe is shifted. Nature replaces God, and romantic naturalism has begun. The divine spark planted in man is his power to love; it is under love’s influence that the soul develops; and in the enjoyment of love is the supreme felicity.
Such naturalism involves as its corollary an interest in common things and in vulgar men which had hitherto been regarded as unworthy the attention of the philosopher or the artist. To Dante, man at his greatest was the most imperfect thing worth considering; if one began with him, one had as a subject of contemplation all the realities which lie between him and God. But, to Boccaccio, man at his greatest was the end, not the beginning. In surveying the world one must go down, not up, from the point which man represents. Love working among the humblest makes them, too, significant, and so the Decameron is concerned with all the vulgar manifestations of human life which Dante would have scorned, while it leaves out nearly everything which would have seemed to him significant.
Both its subject matter and the manner of its treatment were novel, not merely for Boccaccio, but for any writer who was, like him, a self-conscious artist. In refusing for the moment to concern himself with either learning or spirituality he was turning his back upon the whole tradition of polite literature, and in deigning to treat the manners, appetites, and actions of vulgar life he was yielding himself to a spirit which had never before been considered worthy of a voice save in stories or poems which made no pretense to artistic finish.
It was the harmony existing only for the few brief years between Boccaccio’s instincts and his conscious effort which made the accomplishment possible and which explains the perfection which the Decameron alone among all Boccaccio’s works can be said to possess. Ceasing in it to concern himself with moral or philosophical abstractions, allowing free play to the skeptical common sense which was natural to him, and indulging without restraint his quick sympathy for human things, he seems suddenly to have cast off all spiritual affectations, and with them have disappeared also all affectations of style. All the tawdry ornament, all the inappropriate learning, and all the childish ingenuity which seem in his earlier works the signs of a mind conscious of a weakness for which it is desperately endeavoring to compensate have here been discarded. Boccaccio, who had seemed before so confused, so torn, and so uncertain, is now bitegrated and at his ease. He feels completely at home in the world with which he is dealing. Knowing what he has to say and knowing that he can say it, his simple, dignified prose marches forward with confident power.
The Decameron, so often called the Human Comedy of Boccaccio in contrast with the Divine Comedy of Dante, constitutes, it has been said, not an evolution but a revolution in literature. Perhaps the attempt which has here been made to trace the process by which Boccaccio, driven on by the intensity of his own secular experience, first broke through the mediæval tradition of otherworldliness in order to express his own emotions and then interpreted the society of his time from a similar point of view will make more easily understandable the spirit of his magnum opus, but its perfection must still seem the result of something not less than a mutation. And the generations which followed embraced it with an enthusiasm which revealed how clearly they recognized themselves in its unadulterated naturalism. Dante might become a revered classic and Petrarch be remembered as the perfect type of the literary man, but the liberated animality of Boccaccio continued to be the most perfect type of the norm of Renaissance character.
And never, be it added, was that character more amiably embodied. It may be that the road from the Decameron leads inevitably down to the abyss of Aretino unless it be quickly abandoned. But Boccaccio himself reveals only the sunny side of his qualities. In him the senses are not jaded, but still fresh and young. Their delights are newly discovered, and, as though escaped from the gloomy confines of a monastery, he looks with innocent eagerness upon the ‘fair new world that hath such creatures in it.’ Debauchery is possible only to those for whom pleasure has lost its freshness, and the Renaissance was to grow debauched, but Boccaccio never passed beyond the youth of his senses. Above all, he was never touched, even for a moment, by that lust of cruelty which grew as his successors debilitated themselves with indulgence. For centuries human life had been regarded as of no account in itself, and now he was among the first to embark upon it with fresh delight. He came into nature as to an inheritance, and his heritage seemed all that any heart could desire.
It would be pleasant to imagine that the harmony of the Decameron was for Boccaccio an enduring one and to suppose that he passed his life in a serenity so complete. Such, however, was not the case. As the book was, artistically, his one perfect work, so too the serenity of mind which it represents was for him but a moment in the midst of a life singularly confused by moral problems with which he had not the strength of mind to deal. The timidity which had bewildered his youth returned as his vitality waned, and he fell once more into a perplexity, this time sorer yet than that which beset him in the days when he had struggled to interpret his passions in terms of Dantesque mysticism.
We have already seen with what difficulty his instincts won their victory over the formulated philosophy of the Church, and we have remarked that reason played no part in it. We must remember that the rational defense of skeptical materialism was yet to be formulated, and we must realize that the naturalism of the Decameron was rather a truancy than a rebellion. Boccaccio had never denied the authority of the Church and never questioned the ultimate validity of its value. In him the lust for life asserted itself and for the moment he cast off, without ever conquering, the mystical asceticism which was the orthodox doctrine, not only of the Church, but of art and scholarship as well. When he told the guide who conducted him in the Amorosa Visione that he would return in time to enter the narrow gate, he was not speaking in jest, for he had never dared to deny to himself that only through that gate could he be saved. He was free only so long as his vitality should endure; for, once the eager tumult of his sensibilities should subside sufficiently to allow him to hear once more the dictates of his conscious mind, it was inevitable that he should, with a sigh, resign once more the delights of this world in order that he might escape the torments of the next. And that moment had now arrived. An incident reminded him with cruel force that his youth was past, and with it there had passed also the Confidence which had enabled him to dismiss with youthful insouciance all the considerations whose absence makes the Decameron possible.
Boccaccio was about forty-one years old when he had the misfortune to fall once more in love. Taken by the charms of a widow of Florence, he addressed to her an amorous declaration, and she not only refused, but mocked him as well.
His indiscretion was whispered about the town, and, humiliated in the depths of his soul, he took his revenge in the ferocious satire known as Il Corbaccio and filled with denunciations of the whole female sex in the true mediæval vein. This incident shattered the glad confidence in life which had sustained him, and from that moment he began the descent which led him at last to a troubled old age.
If Boccaccio had possessed one ounce of what is commonly called spirituality. the new orientation of his thoughts would not have been for him so utter a calamity. He might, having accepted the flesh and celebrated its beauty as frankly and as fully as any man has ever done, have come at last to transcend it; but he was, however much his conscience might trouble him, forever incapable of becoming more than the natural man. His idea of felicity was purely pagan; he loved the life of the senses, and there was nothing in the Christian philosophy which was capable of either joying or fructifying his spirit. ‘Sin,’ ‘conversion,’ and ‘salvation’ were terrifying words whose meaning he sought in vain to comprehend, and he succeeded in doing no more than perplexing himself. Asceticism was for him no more than a denial without compensations, and religion no more than the shadow of fear. It froze the genial current of his soul and reduced him to a querulous frustration. He was one of those for whom the sense of sin can be only a degradation.
Nothing could be more surprising as coming from the author of the Decameron than Il Corbaccio proves to be. He who has described so often the beauty and charm of women turns to denounce them in unmeasured terms, and he who has but just completed the work which celebrates love as the summum bonum of life pronounces an anathema upon it. ‘Woman,’ he says, ‘is an imperfect animal’; and, after heaping upon the whole sex all the abuse which the ingenuity of thirteen centuries of asceticism had devised, he turns to denounce the monstrous illusion which leads men to suppose that good can come from the love of such creatures. Turning to the angelic visitor who has come to show him the error of his ways, he demands to know what he shall do in order to redeem himself from his errors, and the guide replies: ‘You have loved these creatures because they have seemed beautiful to you and because they appeared libidinously delightful. I want you to hate all such beauty, which has been or may be for you the occasion for much sin;
I want you to take revenge for the offenses you have committed, and in that will be salvation both for you and for them.’
Nothing in all the book is original with Boccaccio. In it he merely repeats the commonplaces of monkish satire, and it might quite as well have been written in a tenth-century cloister. Smarting under a personal humiliation, he not only loses his equilibrium, but relapses at once into the darkest abyss of the Middle Ages. The flesh in which he has trusted so much has betrayed him, and, naïf as he is, he has no philosophy which will enable him to digest his betrayal, no motive for denying any longer that man and the world are vile.
During the years which immediately followed he grew steadily more grave. He devoted himself to the scholarly pursuits which to his now troubled soul seemed relatively innocent, and at last, some eight years later, the final blow fell. He was living in the still hated Florence when he received a mysterious visit from a man who represented himself as a messenger from a certain Pietro Petroni who had recently died in the odor of sanctity after having been the recipient of certain visions. Boccaccio, he reported, had but a few years to live and it was time, if he valued the safety of his soul, to abandon the study of secular poetry. Oppressed as he had been with hardships and worry, Boccaccio was stricken with terror. Gone was the light-hearted skepticism which had led him in the Decameron to mock at priestly tricks, and in a panic he wrote to Petrarch of his intention to burn his manuscripts.
Fortunately the calm Petrarch, incapable alike of the full-blooded paganism which had once been Boccaccio’s and of the superstitious terror which now overcame his naïve soul, wrote him a long letter full of humanistic commonplaces. It would be best to take no extreme and sudden steps. Let Boccaccio prepare himself gradually to meet his Maker, and let him console himself with the thought that the piety of a learned man is more valuable than that of one who is ignorant.
Evidently Boccaccio resolved to follow the advice of his less impetuous friend, for he did not burn his papers; but the last vestige of rebellion was gone from his spirit and from now on he conformed to the learned conventions of his time. In his youth poetry had seemed to him the most glorious of human achievements because it celebrated and made immortal the deeds of men — because, in a word, it gave dignity to human life; but now he could only say: ‘I confess it would be far better to study the sacred waitings than these, even although they are good. I think such studies are more acceptable to God, to the Pope, and to the Church. But we are not all nor always led by the rare passion, and so sometimes are drawn to Poetry.
Sadder still is the letter which he wrote a year or two before his death to a friend who had remarked that he possessed Boccaccio’s works. The man of sixty looked back upon his maturest achievement without favor. Not only had he lost, with his ebbing vitality, the joyous acceptance of Nature which had made him the first of modern times to find Nature all-sufficient, but his soul, shrunk to a prudish timidity, could no longer understand the man he had been. He would not, he said, accuse his friend of wrongdoing if he should follow out his intention of reading these works when he had nothing better to do, but he begged him above all not to read the tales to the ladies of his household. He knew how likely they were to corrupt an honest heart, and he had no desire that respectable ladies should conceive of him as a licentious old man. He had written them in his youth and he blushed for his sin.
Two years later Boccaccio was dead, and as one surveys his career in retrospect one cannot but be struck with the fact that it is in certain aspects strangely simple and in others strangely complex. Nothing, for example, could exceed the naïveté with which he permitted the mere accidents of his own existence to determine the premises of what served him as a philosophy of life. He believed in love because love had made him happy and because, even when Fiammetta had betrayed him, he had sweet and dignified memories. But when the widow of Florence mocked as well as refused him he behaved as though he had never dreamed before that such a thing could happen, and he revised the universe in order to denounce the woman who had caused him this bitter humiliation.
Yet, naïve as his organization was, the vivacity of his nature was sufficient to make it possible for him to do as much as one man can do toward the creation of a new literature. A certain mere insouciance served him in an effort to throw off a philosophy which no mind had successfully combated, and in a moment of gayety he revealed the fourteenth-century Italian to himself. Moreover one cannot fail to note how the curve of his life anticipated that of the Renaissance as a whole. The conceptions which had nourished the genius of Dante were wholly alien to its nature and it could make no use of them, but religion, reduced to fear, hung as the shadow of a superstition over the whole epoch. A gloomy apprehension, ready at any moment to express itself in an outburst of fanatical penitence like that which broke over Florence under the influence of Savonarola, haunted its choicest spirits even as it haunted Boccaccio, and, like him, they had no philosophy capable of defending their instinctive naturalism.
Two centuries after Boccaccio’s death, all Italy, stricken by fear, allowed its new culture to decline into the gloomy formalism which supervened after the Council of Trent; and Boccaccio, who was, in a sense, the epitome of the age, anticipated its end when he prophetically relapsed into cheerless acquiescence to a dead tradition. The equilibrium of the Decameron, like that of the age which produced it, was unstable. Its premises had never been either reasoned out or completely comprehended by the man who assumed them, and they were lost to him as soon as the gay mood in which they had been generated passed away. Never robust enough to sustain the role of pioneer, he was frightened by his own temerity, and fears which belonged by rights only to others clouded in the end a spirit which was, in its own nature, as sunny as Naples itself.
- A discussion of Boccaccio’s earlier life and works appeared in the April number. — EDITOR↩