Decameron a Monument to Ingenuity Term Paper

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¶ … Mounument to Ingenuity

The Decameron - a Monument to Ingenuity

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Giovanni Boccaccio's masterpiece the Decameron, is one of the greatest literary works that follows the tradition of the frame narrative. Some of the one hundred stories that Boccaccio gathered in his work originate in ancient works that belong to the same tradition of the "story-within-story," like the Arabian Nights or the Sanskrit collection called Panchatantra. If in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales the story-tellers were gathered by a pilgrimage, in the Decameron the narrators are seven young women and three young men, who leave Florence in order escape the ruthless Plague that smote the country in 1348. Thus, the story-telling is a getaway from reality into a fantasy world. Although the stories told by Boccaccio are neither moral nor idealizing, they seem all the more fantastic or unreal because they are extremely naturalistic. As it has been many times noticed by the critics, the Decameron is in no way a didactic work and Boccaccio never pursues an ethical purpose. The most employed narrative device in almost all the stories is that of the farce or the trick that the characters play upon one another. The farce, besides being a very good source of humor represents an art in itself, the essence of ingenuity and playfulness. Thus, the stories have a highly aesthetic value precisely because of the creative farces which are included in each narrative and which confer them a special value. The characters who dupe other characters are often duped in their turn until a certain balance is obtained. Considering that there is no moral purpose behind the stories, the main quality of the stories lies in the story- telling itself and in Boccaccio's passion for action and adventure.

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Thus, as Francesco de Sanctis observes what Boccaccio writes is in fact a "human comedy," as opposed to Dante's "Divine Comedy." The author's main drive in the Decameron is to tell the stories themselves and to stay on the surface of action without stopping to analyze the facts or to find their moral. This is the main attraction of his stories, which, in spite of the obvious exaggerations and departures from reality, remain alive and very entertaining:

Boccaccio is not a superior soul, a writer who looks at society from a lofty height, sees the good and bad in it, exposes it impartially, and is perfectly conscious of it all; he is an artist who feels himself one with the society in which he lives, and he writes with that sort of semi-consciousness of men who are swayed by the shifting impressions of life without stopping to analyse them. And this is really the quality that divides him substantially from the ecstatic Dante and the ecstatic Petrarch. Boccaccio is all on the surface of life, among the pleasures and idlenesses and vicissitudes of everyday existence, and these are enough for him, he is busy and satisfied. He is not the type to turn his soul into himself and think deeply with knotted brow and pensive gaze [...]"

The farces played, no matter how cruel, and the general detail of the stories is what comes first for Boccaccio. As Alberto Moravia points out, even in the most tragic stories as that of Isabetta, whose lover is murdered by her own father, the psychological data are completely erased by the author of the Decameron, and all there is left is the unbridled imagination and the charm of story-telling:

Boccaccio hurries through love, its birth, the people, the facts, so as to get, we feel, to what concerns him most, the famous passage about the 'pot' in which Isabetta, after burying the head of her dead lover, plants 'some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno'. And about this pot, and the beauty of the plant and the way the brothers get to know that the pot contains the lover's head, Boccaccio spreads himself with a kind of tender cruelty. Once he has cleared the ground of the psychological and emotional data, he can, as usual, sit back and lavish all his care on the action and the objects on which it depends."

All through the Decameron thus, action and the environment in which it takes place are the most important purposes of the story itself. The games and farces played by the characters are, of course, the most important promoters of action and adventure. Thus, even from the first story the farce played by the main character is surprising, both through its audacity and unorthodoxy: Panfilo, the first story teller introduces us to the unlawful and extremely vicious character called Ciappelletto, who, after having lived a life full of sins and crimes, ends it with the falsest confession possible. He thereby dupes the friar that comes to give him his communion, feigning to be tortured by the remembrance of what he calls his greatest sin: cursing his mother once as a child. To all the other questions that the friar asks Ciappelletto answers with the greatest promptitude implying that he has never been guilty of the slightest transgression:

Convenevole cosa e, carissime donne, che ciascheduna cosa la quale l'uomo fa, dallo ammirabile e santo nome di Colui, il quale di tutte fu facitore, le dea principio. Per che, dovendo io al vostro novellare, s' come primo, dare cominciamento, intendo da una delle sue maravigliose cose incominciare, accio che, quella udita, la nostra speranza in Lui, s' come in cosa impermutabile, si fermi e sempre sia da noi il suo nome lodato. Manifesta cosa e che, s' come le cose temporali tutte sono transitorie e mortali, cos' in se e fuor di se esser piene di noia, d'angoscia e di fatica e an infiniti pericoli sogiacere; alle quali senza niuno fallo ne potremmo noi, che viviamo mescolati in esse e che siamo parte d'esse, durare ne ripararci, se spezial grazia di Dio forza e avvedimento non-ci prestasse."

The friar is rapidly fooled by the cunning Ciappelletto, and after his death, proclaims him a saint. The first farce in the Decameron is thus one of the most striking, as the author surprises us with an unexpected turn of things, given by the triumph of falseness over the truth. This event is all the more impressive as the farce is played in the form of a false confession before death, therefore pointing to an absolute freedom from moral restraints such as the fear of God. One of the purposes of the story is to introduce the reader into the immoral and corrupt world of Boccaccio's time, and to the ignorance of the priests and of the other religious officials. However, it is plain to see that Boccaccio's main concern does not lie with the immorality of the story. He simply calls Ciappelletto one of the worst men ever born and gives a list of his past crimes:

Testimonianze false con sommo diletto diceva, richesto e non-richesto; e dandosi a quei tempi in Francia a' saramenti grandissima fede, non-curandosi fargli falsi, tante quistioni malvagiamente vincea a quante a giurare di dire il vero sopra la sua fede era chiamato. Aveva oltre modo piacere, e forte vi studiava, in commettere tra amici e parenti e qualunque altra persona mali e inimicizie e scandali, de' quali quanto maggiori mali vedeva seguire tanto piu d'allegrezza prendea. Invitato a uno omicidio o a qualunque altra rea cosa, senza negarlo mai, volenterosamente v'andava, e piu volte a fedire e a uccidere uomini con le propie mani si ritrovo volentieri."

The insistence is however on the art with which he plays the trick on the friar. As in many other situations in the Decameron, the jester takes advantage of the fact that it is commonly believed that a dying man would not be able to lie, because of his fear for death:

Veggendo il frate non-essere altro restato a dire a ser Ciappelletto, gli fece l'absoluzione e diedegli la sua benedizione, avendolo per santissimo uomo, s' come colui che pienamente credeva esser vero cio che ser Ciappelletto avea detto: e chi sarebbe colui che nol credesse, veggendo uno uomo in caso di morte dir cos'?"

Thus, the first story that opens the Decameron already introduces the reader to Boccaccio's world, which is full of tricksters and liars. In this particular case the art of lying consist in the clever manipulation of the common attitude in front of death that men have, and in fact that any dissimulation at such a moment seems unthought-of.

The Decameron continues in the same way, with stories centered on unbelievable farces. The principal victims of the tricks are usually the stupid or the ignorant, or the ones blinded by love. In the tenth story of the second day for example, Dioneo tells the story of a young woman who marries an old man. After the wedding night, the husband discovers that he is not suited for lovemaking anymore, and so plans to lie to his wife and make her believe that it would be more proper for… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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