Birthday: June 16, 1313
Died At Age: 62
Sun Sign: Gemini
Born Country: Italy
Born in: Certaldo, Italy
Famous as: Writer
Spouse/Ex-: Margherita di Gian Donato de' Martoli
father: Boccaccino di Chellino
siblings: Francesco Boccaccio
children: Francesco Boccaccio, Giulio Boccaccio, Mario Boccaccio, Violante Boccaccio
Died on: December 21, 1375
place of death: Certaldo, Italy
Cause of Death: Heart Failure
education: University of Naples Federico II
Who was Giovanni Boccaccio?
Giovanni Boccaccio was a famed Italian writer and poet, who is also remembered as an important figure of Renaissance humanism. He was close to Italian scholar and poet Petrarch. Of Boccaccio’s works, the most prominent was ‘The Decameron.’ His other notable works were ‘On Famous Women,’ ‘On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles,’ and the ‘Teseida.’ He wrote most of his imaginative literature in Tuscan Italian, while most of his humanist works were written in Latin. He was known for re-inventing the ottava rima and for his realistic dialogues, as opposed to the set pattern of plots rampant in the works of medieval writers. He was inspired by Dante’s works. Though he was a literary genius, Boccaccio spent most of his later life struggling with financial issues. He had even thought of burning his works once. He breathed his last in Certaldo. His works have inspired many renowned writers and poets, including the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Childhood & Early Life
It is believed that Boccaccio was born sometime around 1313. However, the details regarding his birth are vague. He was born either in Florence or in a village near Certaldo, the place where his family was from.
His father, Boccaccino di Chellino, was a Florentine merchant. It is believed that his father went to Florence in 1312 and worked for the banking company of the Bardi and Peruzzi families. Not much is known about his biological mother, though it is known that his stepmother’s name was Margherita de' Mardoli. Boccaccio was most likely an illegitimate child.
Some sources claim that he was born to a noblewoman in Paris. This version originates from Boccaccio's early works, but its authenticity is disputed.
Boccaccio began learning Latin by 1321. However, his father discouraged him from pursuing his literary interests. Boccaccio attended a school in Florence and was initially taught by Giovanni Mazzuoli. He was introduced to Dante quite early.
However, he went to Naples in 1327 or 1328, where he learned commerce and business. He worked as an apprentice for 6 years but then quit commerce and reluctantly studied canon law for the next 6 years. Later, he regretted wasting his time studying these subjects.
Nevertheless, his efforts were not in vain. His father was a financial advisor of King Robert of Anjou, and through his contacts, Boccaccio was introduced to the refined society of Naples.
He came in touch with scientists, theologians, and other distinguished people. He studied mythology, astronomy, and Greek. He also read classical Latin, French, and Italian authors and poets. Thus, over the years, nurtured by this cultivated environment, he became a writer.
He befriended Niccolò Acciaioli. He then fell in love with a lady, who later became his muse. He named her “Fiammetta” and mentioned her in many of his works. Many claim “Fiammetta” was Maria, the married daughter of King Robert.
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In 1348, he went back to Florence, following the death of his father. Boccaccio then became the legal guardian of his younger brother. Some sources say he was called back to Florence by his father in 1340, after the failure of his banking company.
Boccaccio also went on diplomatic missions to Padua, the Romagna, Avignon, and other places. He became acquainted with Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in 1350. They became lifelong friends.
He had completed a few of his works by then. ‘La caccia di Diana’ (“Diana’s Hunt”), a short poem, was supposed to be his earliest work. He also wrote ‘Il filocolo’ (“The Love Afflicted”) in 1336. It consisted of prose in five books and revolved around the tales of ‘Florio’ and ‘Biancofiore.’ In 1338, he wrote ‘Il filostrato’ (“The Love Struck”), which was another short poem (in ottava rima). It narrated the tale of ‘Troilus’ and ‘Criseida.’
The ‘Teseida’ (1340–1341) was an epic of 12 cantos (in ottava rima). It narrated the wars of Theseus and the love of both ‘Arcita’ and ‘Palemone,’ for the same woman, ‘Emilia.’
Boccaccio thus elevated the ottava rima (which was earlier used by minstrels) to the level of the standard verse for Italian literary works. He then wrote ‘L'elegia de madonna Fiammetta’ (1343-1344) and ‘Ninfale fiesolano’ (1344-1346), which were quite different from the usual genre of allegory. ‘Fiammetta’ was a romance written in prose, while ‘Ninfale fiesolano’ was a narrative poem written in octaves.
In 1346, Boccaccio was at the court of Ostasio da Polenta, in Ravenna. The following year, he became a guest of Francesco degli Ordelaffi in Forli. By 1348, he was in Florence, where he witnessed the plague, which he later described in ‘The Decameron.’
Geoffrey Chaucer was inspired by ‘Il filostrato’ and wrote ‘Troilus and Criseyde.’ Boccaccio’s ‘Teseida’ inspired the ‘Knight’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ William Shakespeare later drew inspiration from Boccaccio to write ‘Troilus and Cressida.’
His greatest work, however, was ‘The Decameron.’ Completed in 1358 (some say it was written from 1349 to 1353), the book narrated 100 stories told by seven women and three men who stay in a country villa for a fortnight, after escaping the Black Death in Florence.
In the book, each day, a king or queen is elected to preside over the group and to suggest occupations and set a theme for the stories. The stories encompass the genres of comedy, adventure, and tragedy. The one constant theme, however, is that of the ways of the refined bourgeoisie. The title of the book suggests that the storytelling continued for 10 days. The rest of the fortnight was spent in other work.
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‘The Decameron’ inspired writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer and even poets such as George Eliot, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow and Swinburne.
Following ‘The Decameron,’ Boccaccio wrote very little in Italian, except ‘Il Corbaccio’ (1354–1355), which was a satire on a Florentine widow who had rejected his advances. He then turned his focus to Latin, spending time in humanist studies rather than in writing imaginative or poetic works. His ‘De genealogia deorum gentilium’ (“On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles”), was begun when he met Petrarch. It continued to be revised until his death.
Another work, ‘Bucolicum carmen’ (1351–1366), was a collection of short pastoral poems, following the styles of Dante and Petrarch. Two of his other Latin works were ‘De claris mulieribus’ (“Concerning Famous Women”), an anthology of the biographies of 104 well-known women (written in 1360–1374), and ‘De casibus virorum illustrium (“On the Fates of Famous Men”), written in 1355–1374.
He also wrote ‘De montibus, silvis, fluminibus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de nominibus maris liber,’ which was a dictionary of sorts, consisting of all the geographical names found in the works of classical authors. ‘Trattatello in laude di Dante,’ a biographical work, was written by him between 1357 and 1362.
Personal Life, Final Years, & Death
Although he had never married, Boccaccio had fathered three children. However, toward the end of his life, Boccaccio was mostly seen struggling with poverty. He also earned by transcribing his own works and those of others.
In 1362, a Carthusian monk named Gioacchino Ciani told Boccaccio that he would die unless he devoted himself to religion. Boccaccio then thought of burning his works, as a result of desperation, but was prevented from doing so by Petrarch.
Boccaccio traveled to Naples that year, to ask an influential friend to help him find a job, as he was in a financial mess. However, he left soon after and spent 3 months in Venice (1363), with Petrarch. He became the Florentine ambassador to Pope Urban V twice (1365 and 1367) and tried to establish himself in Naples once again but failed (1370).
Following this, he retired to Certaldo. In October 1373, he started public readings of ‘Divina Commedia’ by Dante, at the ‘Church of San Stefano di Badia’ in Florence.
Petrarch’s death in July 1374 and his own ill health crushed him. Boccaccio died on December 21, 1375, in Certaldo. He was buried in the church of ‘SS. Michele e Jacopo’ in Certaldo.
Following his death, Boccaccio’s literary manuscripts and belongings were handed over to the monastery of ‘Santo Spirito’ in Florence.