And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 22. juli 2013

Travels in Tuscany, part 2 - Boccaccio's Birthplace

(...) if ever anyone required or appreciated comfort, or indeed derived pleasure therefrom, I was that person.
- The Decameron, preface, Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by G. H. Mcwilliam)

In the previous blogpost I gave a very brief summary of the Conference for Medieval and Renaissance Music held this year in Certaldo, July 4-7. Certaldo claims to be the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), and I believe it was for this reason it was chosen as the host of this year's conference, seeing as this year is the 700th anniversary for Boccaccio's birth. In this blogpost, therefore, I aim to show you how great a star Boccaccio truly is in his alleged birthplace.

It is, of course, no wonder that the Certaldese have pressed Giovanni Boccaccio to their collective bosom. He is one of the major literary figures in Italian and also world history, and his most famous work, The Decameron, is one of the most important pieces of secular literature to have come out of the Middle Ages. Despite Boccaccio's great renown, however, there are some important details missing from his biography, and particularly his place of birth has been a matter of some contention. Previously, there circulated a theory that his mother was French and that he himself had been born in Paris. G. H. McWilliam, translator of the Penguin Classics edition of The Decameron, dismisses this idea in the introduction to his 1972 translation.

Paris being discarded, there are currently two major candidates to the title of Boccaccio's birthplace. One is Florence, the other is Certaldo, and although McWilliams favours the former, the latter has spared no enthusiasm in commemmorating their potential native son, as will soon be quite evident. It should also be noted, however, that although Certaldo may not be Boccaccio's birthplace, he did spend his last thirteen years in this city, so their enthusiasm is not completely misplaced should it turn out he was born in Florence.

Regardless of precisely where Boccaccio entered this world, he was born of a well-off family. His father was a Florentine merchant-banker from the Compagnia dei Bardi, and in the mid-1320s Boccaccio was sent to Naples to learn the basics of trade and commerce. His time in Naples, and his mercantile background, can be seen reflected in several of his stories, in particular the fifth story of the second day. Eventually, it became clear that the young Tuscan was not cut out for the banking business, and was turned to the study of canon law. This attempt ended the same way as his banking career, and soon he dedicated himself to literary pursuits. At this time, Naples was a significant intellectual centre thanks to the court of King Robert of Anjou, where Boccaccio gained entrance through his family connections. His time in Naples was, in the words of G. H. McWilliam, "crucial to the development of his artistic sensibility".

In 1341 Boccaccio returned to Florence where, according to his introduction to The Decameron, he witnessed the ravages of the plague. To what degree this is true remains uncertain, and it may very well be that Boccaccio had himself done what his literary figures would later do and fled the town. Later, he was sent on several minor diplomatic missions, representing the commune of Florence, and these missions took him both to the Papal court of Avignon and Naples. He later settled in Certaldo, where he is said to have contracted the plague and died.

Casa Boccaccio, Certaldo Alto

The Certaldese take immense pride in their claim to fame in Italy's literary history, and this is reflectd in the numerous venues named after the great writer. The two most important and significant places of interest for Boccaccio enthusiasts are located in the old city, Certaldo Alto or High Certaldo, overlooking the river valley from its plateau. Here, pilgrims will find the house in which Boccaccio lived, Casa Boccaccio, a favourite motif for the local postcard industry, which is now a museum open to the public, and where the book presentations during the MedRen conference were held. Secondly, there is the Church of Saints James and Philip, located by Via Boccaccio, the main street of the old city, where the writer lies buried not far from the local saint Blessed Giulia. To a medievalist like myself, this is of course the two most tantalising targets for a literary pilgrimage.

Chiesa di Santi Jacopo e Filippo

Me posing with Boccaccio at the Pretorian palace, Certaldo Alto
Image credits: Danette Brink

For those more attentive to their stomachs than their minds, there are alternate venues in which to commemmorate Giovanni Boccaccio, namely restaurants and cafés, such as Bar Boccaccio or Enacoteca Boccaccio.

More venues of this kind - heaped under the general umbrella of gusteria, or pleasure - can be found in the new city, Certaldo Basso. Here is a pizzeria and a gelateria named after the author, and also a theatre of some kind, and of course, a white statue right outside the church of St. Thomas the Apostle and close to the cable-car going up to Certaldo Alto.

It was very clear that the city was engaged in the seventh centennial of Boccaccio's birth. Everywhere there were posters advertising a new play based on the ten storytellers of The Decameron, and in a local pastry shop this baked beauty could be found:

And what's more: even in the tiniest minutiae of public life, a nod to the great author could be spotted, such as this environmental advertisement fastened to one of the public litter bins, ostensibly making a pun on the Italian word boccaccia, which means grimace:

All in all, it is very evident that the Certaldese take immense pride in their connection with Giovanni Boccaccio, and that they exploit this aspect of their history to full effect. In some respects there is something charming and lovingly about this embrace, such as the statue in Certaldo Basso and his monument in Chiesa di Sancti Jacopo e Filippo, yet other nods are more clearly designed to draw a crowd rather than being done out of any love for the author. This is of course understandable, but it becomes wearisome in the end, and is a good reason for spending most of the time in Certaldo Alto, where such references are widespread but more natural.

All information concerning Boccaccio's life is taken from

Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 1972

1 kommentar:

  1. Your blog is showing up on my blog's home page and I don't know how to get rid of it! Maggie Ross