Giovanni Boccaccio was the greatest writer of vernacular Italian prose of the Medieval period and was instrumental in creating works of reference that were invaluable for introducing the ancient word to the Renaissance. Known for his incomparable lyrics and romances, Boccaccio met his boyhood hero, the humanist Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) in 1350, just before completing his greatest work, The Decameron (1352). Under Petrarch’s influence he turned almost exclusively to scholarship. He became the first champion and apologist for Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and the author of works on ancient mythology and geography that became standard for centuries. Edward Gibbon credited him with “restoring in Italy the study of the Greek language.” It is with this latter part of his life that we are here principally interested.
Boccaccio grew up in Florence in a well-to-do family. His father, employed by the Florentine business and trading consortium, Compagna dei Bardi, married Margherita di Mardoli, of an affluent family, in the 1320s. Boccaccio was tutored at home until the age of nine, when he attended the school of the grammarian Giovanni di Domenico Mazzuoli da Strada, who taught his students the Latin of Ovid and Virgil, but also, as a promoter of vernacular Italian, he likely introduced Boccaccio to the works of Dante. Boccaccio’s family moved to Naples in 1326, when his father was made agent of the bank there specifically to provide financial services of the Bardi bank to the Neapolitan kingdom of Robert the Wise (1276-1343). Boccaccio was given an apprenticeship in the bank, which consequently afforded him an entrée to Roberto’s court. The young man was thus introduced to the intrigues of court life, the regimen of the business world, and the joys of the kingdom of letters. Boccaccio disliked his job with Bardi and began to study canon law at the Studium Generale in Naples where the jurist and poet Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336) was visiting. Cino may have provided Dante with three letters of Dante which the young student preserved in his notebooks. Cino also likely introduced Boccaccio to the poetry of Petrarch. Boccaccio had no taste for his religious studies and in 1332 he moved to Paris where he mingled with literati at the Royal Library and began writing essays in Latin. Thus were the two courses of his life established: the poetic and the encyclopedic.
Back in Naples in 1336, he fell in love with Maria d’Aquino (d.1382), Roberto’s married, natural daughter with the Countess of Aquino, Sibila Sabran (b. 1290). After a short affair with Boccaccio, Maria returned to her husband, but appeared repeatedly as “Fiammetta” in Filocolo(1338) Teseida (1340-1), Il Filostrato (1340), Ninfale d’Ameto (1342), Amorosa visione (1343), Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1344), Ninfale fiesolano (1345), ten times in The Decameron, and in four sonnets.
Boccaccio also made the acquaintance of Neapolitan scholars, particularly the king’s librarian, Paulo da Perugia (d. 1348), whose Collectiones, a collection of myths and genealogies of the gods, would influence Boccaccio’s later antiquarian works.
His father returned to Florence in 1338 and thanks to King Edward III of England not repaying a debt, Bardi and Boccaccio’s father went bankrupt in 1338. Margherita died shortly afterwards. Boccaccio was in Naples in 1340 but was called to a devastated Florence by his father one year after its plague. He devoted himself to his writing, lavishing descriptions of the Florentine countryside in Ninfale Fiesolano (1345). Now in need of income he moved to Ravenna in 1345-6 and Forli in 1347. He returned to Florence and witnessed the suffering of the Black Death of 1348, which killed his (second) stepmother, Bice di Bostichi, and his father. Having inherited enough money to live on, he was able to devote himself to writing and The Decameron, 100 tales told by three men and seven women secluded from the plague at an estate in Fiesole. The book was completed in 1352 and revised and re-written in 1370-1, but it was virtually the last of his creative work.
In 1350 Petrarch stopped in Florence on his way to the jubilee of 1350 in Rome. He was met at Florence by a delegation of dignitaries headed by Boccaccio. The two men would meet several times as friends, confidantes, and advisers for the rest of their lives. The initial meeting convinced Boccaccio, then in his late forties, to turn his focus away from creative fiction and toward humanistic scholarship. He turned his attention first to Dante, whom he had began to study under Cino in Naples and whom he would discuss in Naples with Graziolo de’ Bambaglioli (1291-1342), who wrote one of the first commentaries on the Comedy, or Matteo Frescobaldi (1297-1348) who imitated Dante in his own poetry. These men would have supplied important information and insights that Boccaccio would use in the Trattatello in laude di Dante (1355; also known as Vita de Dante Alighieri) and in his commentary on the Commedia (1373). Boccaccio also preserved all that we know of Dante’s Eclogues and, as mentioned above, some previously unknown letters.
Papal authorities were not keen to encourage the study of pagan literature, but Boccaccio and other scholars emphasized the ethical and moral wisdom inherent in the classics, in addition to the celebration of the natural world of the Creator. Still imbued with the judgements of Dante on famous figures, Boccaccio began a series of moralistic biographies of famous men from Adam to his own time, De casibus virorum illustrium (1360) and women from Eve to Giovanna, the queen of Naples, De mulieribus claris (1361).
Boccaccio plunged into scholarship on the ancient world and compiled his Genealogia deorum gentilium (1360) a catalogue of myths which Edward Gibbon called a work, “in that age, of stupendous erudition, and which he ostentatiously sprinkled with Greek characters and passages, to excite the wonder and applause of his more ignorant readers,” It was enormously popular and went into numerous editions. He continually revised his dictionary of ancient geography, De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, stagnis seu paludibus, et de diversis nominibus maris (1364) until his death. One biographer called them “The textbooks of the Renaissance” and they continued to be the essential references for four centuries and crucial to making the study and imitation of antiquity a key feature of the Renaissance
Boccaccio is responsible for the introduction of Homer to Western Europe. Petrarch did not know Greek but craved to read Homer. The Calabrian Barlaam of Seminara (ca. 1290-1348), in Gibbon’s words, “was the first who revived, beyond the Alps, the memory, or at least, the writings of Homer.” At the Court of Avignon and later in Naples, Balaam taught Petrarch some Greek but not enough to read Homer. After being given a copy of Homer in Greek by a Byzantine ambassador, Petrarch longed to be able to read it, but at age 50 and knowing only the smattering of Greek that Balaam had given him, Petrarch in the winter of 1358-9 engaged another ethnic Greek from Calabria named Leontius Pilatus (d. 1366), who was opposed the increasing use of Latin and Romance languages in his region and was eagerly proselytizing for the study of Greek in Western Europe. Petrarch was repelled by Pilatus’s gross appearance and worse manners and sent him to Florence to find manuscripts in June or July of 1360. There he met Boccaccio, who arranged for him to be named Professor of Greek at the University of Florence, the first appointment of a professor of Greek in Western Europe. Boccaccio nursed Pilatus through the translation into Latin prose of about five books of the Iliad in 1364 and presented it to Petrarch in 1366.
All the while Boccaccio was involved as a diplomat. In 1359 he was named ambassador to Lombardy, in 1360 he was ordained by Pope innocent VI, but a failed coup in Florence in 1361 caught up a number of Boccaccio’s friends, obliging him to move to Certaldo. There he received a deathbed letter from the monk Pietro Petroni, exhorting him to renounce his worldly studies. Boccaccio, who had been ordained by Pope Innocent VI in 1360, suffered a spiritual crisis, particularly about the worldly nature of The Decameron, which he continued to revise through his death, but through contact and correspondence Petrarch saw him through it, offering to buy his library and manuscripts. Boccaccio returned to Ravenna in 1361-2 and resumed his diplomatic duties in 1365, visiting Naples, Padua, and Venice, where he again met with Petrarch and as ambassador to Rome in 1367 when Pope Urban V (1310-70), toward the end of the first stage of the Avignon Papacy (1309-67) to congratulate the Pope on behalf of Florence for returning the papacy to its diocese. (Urban returned to Rome in September 1370 and died shortly thereafter.)
In his lonely, depressed, and poverty-stricken old age he was afflicted with obesity and dropsy. He continually revised The Decameron and his reference works. He returned to Dante and completed his commentary, Esposizioni sopra la commedia di Dante, in 1373. His friends arranged a Cathedra Dantesca for him and he gave his first lecture in the Church of San Stefano in October 1373 at age 60, but he soon fell ill and returned to Certaldo. In the summer of 1374 Petrarch died and Boccaccio wrote a poem in his memory, included in Rime. Boccaccio died in the next year. He had never married, but had fathered three children.