Book Review: The Decameron By Giovanni Boccaccio

I find that the longer ago a book was written, the more often it becomes attractive only to a niche crowd of readers, people who read it only out of specific interest or preference. It’s therefore rather sad that a book such as The Decameron will never make it onto a modern bestseller’s list. Written in 1351 (which, in the grand scope of things isn’t that old) by Giovanni Boccaccio, it’s a compilation of 100 stories. Think along the lines of The Heptaméron, One Thousand and One Nights or The Canterbury Tales (film fans of Pier Paolo Pasolini might especially appreciate my mention of the last two).

Imagine this scenario: three young men and seven young women are caught up in a plague infested Florence. Determined to spend some time away, they retreat to a villa in Fiesole for a fortnight. In order to entertain the company, each member of the party tells one story every night, with exceptions on specific days. What follows is not only a wide cornucopia of stories for the reader, but an interesting insight into the culture of the time.

I can understand why people might be put off books written in earlier times – the language, even if it is your own, is in some respects still foreign. The words, cadences, sentence structure etc. might be considered too foreign for readers to connect with it. Personally the differences draw me to such books but I would in fact vouch that The Decameron is more accessible than you might think. Firstly the language (again, the translation) is in fact easy to follow. There are writers in older periods whose writing is convoluted that Boccaccio.

I understand that in some ways, I’m being a little misleading by saying The Decameron is accessible. I’ve read (albeit slowly) the original in Italian, though I was of course hampered by the language and I don’t know enough about modern Italian to be able to assess how native Italians would approach it. In terms of an English translation, I’ve benefitted by reading the G. H. McWilliam translation, one which I think is well done and lively to the reader. Perhaps with a worser translation, the words of Boccaccio would once again be lost to inaccessibility.

However, the language aside, I still feel the stories are able to bring alive even the dullest of imaginations. Through these tales we are presented with the ideals what would come to take hold in the Italian Renaissance. The ideas of trade, commerce, prosperity and intellectualism. The wittiness of some of the characters is seen as a delight, the dullness of certain characters would usually lead to some kind of demise. The world of the Decameron is also not just confined to that of the Italian peninsula. As befits its country of origin, the the stories come from and are inspired by the many lands ‘Italians’ would have been in contact with during this period, especially the Arabic world.

Many of the characters are or were inspired by real people, the most of famous of which include Saladin or Giotto di Bondone. By the end of the compendium, it is clear that these stories are meant for the delight of the reader. This is not quite the same kettle of fish as, say On Famous Women, another (though no less interesting) work of his.

These days fantasy seems to have come back in a big way – through our TV screens and in cinemas. This has translated into renewed interest when it has come to corresponding books. I would almost go so far as to say that ‘older’ books such as The Decameron should be considered by people who have started to love such genres. For in the writing of men like Boccaccio, we are just as much transported to another world, one as fantastical and vibrant as Middle Earth or Westeros.


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