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UNESCO Cities Bookshelf: Giovanni Boccaccio The Decameron

On the bookshelf of UNESCO cities, we will meet many different authors from different parts of the world and their multifaceted works that have excited more than one generation of readers. Polina Nikolaeva, press secretary of the program, a young poet and writer from Ulyanovsk, will tell us about them.

Dear reader, today we will again continue to look for a book on the bookshelf of UNESCO cities that will receive the honorary title of your favorite literary work. Today, in our hands will be a collection of short stories by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio "The Decameron".


"It is better to sin and repent than not to sin and repent"
G. Boccaccio "The Decameron"

About the novel genre
First of all, let's talk about the short story as a genre of literary work. The novella, in its classical sense, appears at the turn of the 13th-14th centuries in Italy. This was due to the early liberation of the commune cities of Northern Italy from feudal dependence and the rapid growth of trade and industry. It would seem, how events that are not related to the world of art can affect this world in such a way? And the casket just opens: a person’s life changes, his attitude to the world around him also changes, as a result of which the spiritual dictatorship of the church begins to crumble. With the weakening of the latter, bourgeois relations are born, and dynamism and individualism are growing in all spheres of life, including private ones. This is what becomes the impetus for the authors, for the addition of new genres in literature.
So, among the epic genres, the short story stands out for its small volume, tense, sharp plot, and the spirit of freethinking. The short story grows out of anecdotes about a well-aimed, witty answer, from stories about the turbulent everyday life of urban republics. The living, figurative colloquial language of the novel comes from the oral tradition. Novels of the 13th century are still similar to the medieval genre of an impersonal moral “example” with its purely didactic task, but in the 14th century, as a new worldview grows, the short story begins to reproduce an individual speech consciousness that perceives culture in its entirety. Thus, the short story does not just appear already in the era of author's literature, but carries a new image of the world as a private world of an individual.
The early Italian short story is characterized by a frame construction, which implies the combination into cycles. Each of the first novelistic books has a “framing” narration, that is, a certain story is told that substantiates the very situation of storytelling, and in this framing situation, a wide variety of short stories are more or less organically introduced. It is this structure of the narrative that we will see in Giovanni Boccaccio.
It is not surprising, since Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), the great Italian humanist, who combined a writer and a philologist in one person, is considered the creator of the classic short story. The son of a wealthy Florentine merchant, he lived in various cities in Italy, but mainly in Florence, where he witnessed the great plague of 1348. Its description sets the framing narrative in his great novelistic book, The Decameron (1351). Boccaccio writes as an eyewitness: “The whole city was in deep despondency and despair, the halo that illuminated the laws of God and human faded ...”. Because of the fear of the plague, family and friendship ties fall apart, some indulge in a riotous lifestyle in anticipation of the near end, others flee the city, and chaos reigns in Florence. Surprisingly similar to today's coronavirus world, isn't it?

Decameron" as a collection of short stories
There is a gloomy beginning in the general construction of the collection, which we have already mentioned. It is perceived as a symbol of the collapse of the old, established world. In the middle of a deserted city in one of the churches, seven young women and three young men meet by chance. All of them are rich, pretty, well-bred, connected with each other by friendship, neighborhood, kinship. They decide to retire from the plague-ridden city to their country estates to wait there for the fate that the Lord has prepared for them. Since they are all educated, graceful, endowed with artistic taste, they decide, in order to pass the time, to tell each other one story every day, and every day they choose a queen or king. Thus, ten short stories are told within ten days, and in total there are one hundred short stories in the Decameron (Greek for “ten diary”). In eight days, the queen appoints a theme to be illustrated by the storytellers, but these themes are so generally formulated that they do not interfere with the diversity of the stories. In this frame narrative, according to Academician A. N. Veselovsky, “Boccaccio correctly grasped a psychologically true trait - a passion for life at the threshold of death.” In general, the collection is strikingly life-affirming, optimistic. To the anecdotal plot, spontaneity, to the glorification of wit and resourcefulness, Boccaccio added psychologism and conscious artistry, giving an example of the short story genre.
The novellas of the Decameron are surprisingly varied in content. Most of them are set in Florence and Naples. Boccaccio draws his real fellow citizens, painters Giotto, Bruno and Buffalmaco, the Bishop of Florence, nobles, adventurers, artisans, merchants, beggars - we actually see all the social strata of Italy in the 14th century. The heroes of each short story are named by name, it is almost always indicated where they come from, where they live - this abundance of details gives the story a special persuasiveness.


Dialogue with Giovanni Boccaccio

In the introduction to The Decameron, Boccaccio addresses his book to beautiful ladies for consolation and amusement. However, contrary to the setting of the introduction, The Decameron is not an entertaining book, it is didactic. Its morality grows out of an objective and, at the same time, aesthetic analysis of reality. In The Decameron, the art of living and being human is taught not by a spiritual mentor, not by God, but by nature itself, by the surrounding reality itself.

The plots of the Decameron novels were not new to the reader, Boccaccio drew plots from urban Florentine anecdotes (facets), stories heard on the streets of Naples, oriental tales, urban Italian short stories and French fablios, in the stories of his contemporaries. Boccaccio turns to short stories from Apuleius's Metamorphoses, to Pavel Deacon's History of the Lombards, to chivalric poems and novels, to tales from the Indian Panchatatra, already known in the Middle East. Old plots are comprehended in a new way; the main characters of the book were new ideas, a system of new moral and aesthetic assessments of human actions and the surrounding reality. Novels are told not for the sake of a moralistic example, but for the very fact of artistically objective consideration, analysis and evaluation of life and man.
Giovanni Boccaccio himself believed that his book should become an intermediary between lovers, and for those who suffer from unrequited love, it should give consolation, so the subtitle of the book "Prince Galeotto" pointed to a character from Arthurian novels, who acted as the organizer of dates between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere . The subtitle of the book was not invented by Boccaccio; Boccaccio did not refuse the subtitle, because he believed that his book should not only help lovers, but also teach a person to love life, becoming an intermediary ("procurer") between a person and reality. Florentine readers, in addition, remembered that the fall of Francesca di Rimini and her beloved Paolo took place over the pages of the opened novel, whom Dante places in the first circle of Hell (canto 5) as voluptuaries, although he expresses the warmest sympathy for their unfortunate fate. Recalling the book that the lovers read together, Francesca says about it this way: "And the book became our Geleot."



So we met with another author and another wonderful work from the shelf of UNESCO cities of literature. Share your opinion about the work and ask your questions in the comments, and the directorate of the Ulyanovsk - UNESCO City of Literature program will be happy to answer them.