Giovanni Boccaccio’s DECAMERON: plot and story analysis

In this article we will talk about the most famous book in italian literature (second only to the Divine Comedy): Il Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio! The magnum opus of this author is feared among italians and foreigners, not only because of its significant length, but also for its outdated language… for this reason, we will briefly explain the work, focusing on the most important stories. Read the article to descover, or redescover, one of the most important pieces of literature in italian literature!

A summary of Boccaccio’s Decamerone:

What’s the most famous book in italian literature? Without a doubt, the Divine Comedy, but we have already talked about it. The second most famous book in italian literature? Hint: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Decameron. It’s most certainly a book that doesn’t go unnoticed… It has significant proportions!

In fact, its lenght is, together with the language it uses (which is an “older” version of italian) one of the reasons why Il Decameron scares a lot of people, be it italians or foreigners! But this is undoubtedly one of the most important books in italian literature, so much so that it is still read and studied in schools today. For this reason… today we will give you an easy but complete explanation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Decameron!

10 Young men and women, 10 Days, 100 Stories

Let’s start from the beginning! Boccaccio wrote this book between 1349 and 1353. Remember these dates because we are going to go back to them soon! But first… we have a question for you. This one is easy: the title! Do you know why this book is called “Decameron” (or Decamerone)?

The title has greek origins. Literally, it means “ten days” and that is not a coincidence. The story, infact, unfolds through the course of ten days. Ten is also the number of the protagonists of the book, all of them being very young (seven girls and three boys).

Remember when we told you to keep in mind the date the book was written? Well, you must know that in 1348, a year before Boccaccio began to write Il Decameron, there was a plague epidemic. So the ten young men and women fled from Florence to take shelter in a villa in the countryside to avoid the outbreak. They basically went under self-quarantine… This stylistic choice is called “cornice”, a base and starting situation for the rest of the work.

How did they spend their time there? They relaxed, played games, cooked, but during the hottest hours of the day they had to come up with something else so they decided to tell short stories, one at a time, every day. Ten stories a day for ten days gives a total of one hundred stories in the novel. Every day a king or queen is elected, and it will be he or her to decide the theme for the stories. What are the themes? We prepared a table to sum them up. Here it is!

First day: free theme. They just got to the villa… Relax a little, no pressure.

Second day: stories with a happy ending, despite the hardships.

Third day: reaching a goal.

Fourth day: ill-fated love.

Fifth day: good-fated love, despite the hardships.

Sixth day: witty replies (clever, sharp) that can free the character from embarassing or dangerous situations.

Seventh day: husbands fooled by their own wifes.

Eighth day: mockeries at the expense of anybody.

Ninth day: free theme… they got a little tired of it.

Tenth day: corteous and kind-hearted love stories.

Luckly, although the stories are a hundred, we can say the most important and recurrent subjects or themes are four.

  • Women. They are really important to Boccaccio. Infact, he dedicated the book to them! According to him, women suffer a lot for love and, unlike men, they would have no way to distract themselves, if it wasn’t for story telling! So Boccaccio sees women as the main target for his book, but also as constant protagonists! The interesting thing is that each and every female character is different, so as to represent all the little facets of femininity.
  • Of course, another major theme is love… where there are women, there is love! It also is represented from different points of view. But be cautious! Boccaccio’s is not the pure and simple spiritual love Dante writes about! The delicate, platonic, ideal one… No! Boccaccio focuses on the more physical and carnal aspect of this feeling. Infact, because of this, the book was considered immoral and scandalous and it was even censored!
  • Another recurring theme is fortune, chance, the unpredictability of human lifes, things that happen to men that they cannot control, but from which they can draw benefit if they have the right capabilities.
  • Connected to this, another theme is human cleverness, the abilities and intelligence of human beings, their creativity, with which they can (or at least try to) face adversities.

Generally, Boccaccio’s style swings from a high, cultured, elaborate and rich in latinisms florentine language (mostly the narrator’s, in the introduction and conclusion) to a more lively, authentic, and realistic language, that marks the stories told by charaters instead, in which it is possible to notice some regional and popular shades, and also some innuendos, to refer to the sexual sphere.

One hundred stories are a bit too much tell… so, we are going to see only the more famous and interesting ones…

SER CEPPARELLO DA PRATO (First day)

Ser Cepparello is a notary, an evil and immoral person. During a confession, however, he describes himself as a virtuous, kind and lovable man. So then, after his death, he is honored as such.

As we always say… In life, knowing how to talk helps a lot!

ANDREUCCIO DA PERUGIA (Second day)

Andreuccio is really clever young man that for the fist time in his life has to travel far from home. So he goes to Naples, to the horse market, and proudly shows everybody the money he brought with himself. Obviously, he gets fooled and robbed (DUH!) from a prostitute. To get his money back, he then joins a group of thieves. In the meantime, he got more cunning, so he fools the thieves and takes a ring from the loot, retrieving his money.

Our instincts often help us!

LISABETTA DA MESSINA (Fourth day)

Lisabetta lives with her brothers and falls in love with one of her brothers’ associates, Lorenzo. He reciprocates, but he’s from a poorer family. The brothers are opposed to the union, so they kill Lorenzo in secret. She dreams of Lorenzo telling her where he is buried. Lisabetta goes there, finds the body, cuts his head off and takes it home. But it doesn’t end there: she puts it in a basil pot, keeps it in her house and cries beside it every day. The brothers notice it, take the pot from her and she dies from the pain of her loss.

What a tragedy!

CHICHIBIO CUOCO (Sixth day)

Chichibio is a cook that works for a wealthy man. One day, Chichibio has to cook a crane for lunch, the woman he loves persuades him to give her one of its legs. The master notices the missing leg right away but Chichibio says that all cranes only have one. The following morning the master and Chichibio go to see the cranes, which are still asleep, and rest on a single leg. But the master then shouts, waking them up and they show the other leg. At this point Chichibio is cornered, but his wit doesn’t abandon him as he explains that if the master had shouted to the crane that he got served the previous evening, it would have showed the second leg.

What a sharp man!

FRIAR CIPOLLA (Sixth day)

Friar Cipolla gathers alms every year. On one occasion the friar declares that he posesses a precious relic, a feather left by the archangel Gabriel when he annunced to the Virgin Mary the birth of Christ. Two friends try to fool him: they swap the feather for some coal. Before showing the relic to his followers, friar Cipolla notices the exchange, but proceeds anyway. So, he declares once again to have many of these relics, but that day he took the wrong one, the coals used to burn Saint Laurence. The false relics gain a lot of success from the gullible believers, that hand out alms even more abundant than usual!

If you liked Il Decameron and want to know more about another great masterpiece of italian literature, don’t miss out on our article about The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.

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