Boccaccio, Giovanni

Boccaccio, Giovanni
   One of the three great Italian authors of the 14th century (along with Dante and Petrarch) who established the Tuscan dialect as Italy's literary language. Born near Florence to a merchant employed by the Bardi bank and a woman whose name is unrecorded, Giovanni was legitimized and educated by his father, who sought to educate him as a banker and later as a canon lawyer. From an early age, however, the youth discovered his own interests in literature and classical studies. His father's transfer to the Naples branch of the Bardi bank brought Giovanni into the literary circles of the royal court there. He also was able to study classical literature at the local university.
   His own early writings reflect a combination of interests: in the medieval love poetry of the Neapolitan court, in the classical literature of ancient Rome, in the Bible, and in the encyclopedic compilations of the Middle Ages. Boccaccio wrote both verse romances (such as Filostrato, a source for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde) and lengthy prose fiction (such as the Filocolo, a popular tale of love and adventure).
   In 1341 his father's employer recalled him to Florence. The son found the shift from an elegant royal court to an austere republic devoted to money-making difficult, but in time he became a Florentine patriot and strove to glorify its greatest literary figures, Dante and Petrarch. One of the most enduring and influential of Boccaccio's early works was Fiametta (1343-1344), a prose tale sometmes called the first psychological novel. Contrary to custom, it had a female narrator. His masterpiece was the Decameron (1348-1351), a collection of prose tales supposedly told by ten wealthy young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Although many of the individual stories have become famous and influenced later writers, the work is not just a haphazard collection of tales but a unified book in which the character of the narrators and the interplay among members of the group are developed skillfully.
   Boccaccio was also strongly drawn to the classical interests of his fellow humanists and produced additional works in Latin. In 1350 he finally met Petrarch, whose works he had long admired. Petrarch encouraged him to write more scholarly books. Boccaccio responded by continuing his series of Latin eclogues (Bucolicum carmen). But he did not share Petrarch's disdain for popular literature. Where the two men agreed most fully was in defining the pursuit of literature as a goal worthy of a wise man's life. Boccaccio composed three works reflecting his own classical studies: Genealogia deorum gentilium / Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (1350-1373), which became a standard work of reference on Roman and Greek mythology, and two biographical collections, De casibus virorum illustrium / Fates of Illustrious Men (1355-1373) and a counterpart for the biographies of famous women, De mulieribus claris (1361). In addition, he wrote biographical sketches of both Dante and Petrarch and late in life delivered a series of public lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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