Book Review: Of Famous Women by Giovanni Bocaccio

A much lesser known book this week by one of the most famous Renaissance authors, Boccaccio. I’ve reviewed his famous and well loved Decameron some weeks past, and I thought I’d visit another book of his which is much less well known but just as enjoyable.

Unlike the firm fictional nature of The Decameron, Of Famous Women is much more a biographical venture by the Italian writer, who seeks to document the doings of some of the most famous women in history. That’s not to say that any history student should treat his work as historical fact, but the book is a fascinating and wonderful insight into not just the perception of women during the Renaissance, but also the human condition. Many of the women featured are famous names even today: the Biblical Eve, Thisbe of Pyramus and Thisbe, even Queen Joanna of Sicily and Jerusalem (in fact, Joanna is the most modern of all the women mentioned).

For people interested in ancient history and classics in particular the book is a treasure trove. Many of women featured are figures of antiquity and a firm demonstration of the significant part the Classics had in Renaissance education. The morality and actions of these women are called into question throughout – the extent to which these women act through ‘virtue’. After all, even though these women are famous, this does not mean they are not infamous.

Boccaccio writes in a style that is evidently enjoying the subject matter. Interested enough in these women to create this compendium in the first place, his enthusiasm is reflected in the storytelling prose which he uses to describe the lives and exploits of these women. Even for people not assuredly interested in women or history or classics, I would attest that this is still an enjoyable book as you explore with Boccaccio the many interesting figures who came before us.

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