The book I can’t help thinking about right now is The Decameron. Penned by Giovanni Boccaccio at the dawn of the Renaissance, in street Italian rather than learned Latin, this doorstop tome incorporates 100 tales, or novelle, taken from a bewildering variety of far-flung sources, some dating back over a thousand years. Going forward, The Decameron would become a source in its own right. As retold by Boccaccio, the stories inspired greater and lesser lights for centuries, among them Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats.
The single best-known feature of The Decameron is its construction. The stories are told over the course of 10 days (as the title, from the Greek, implies). There are 10 narrators, seven women and three men collectively known as the brigata. Each day one of them presides as King or Queen, in which capacity all but two—Pampinea on Day I and Emilia on Day IX—dictate a narrative theme for all to follow.
The yield of good stories day to day is wildly uneven. Altogether too many—happily not all—are preoccupied with the recreational, guilt-free, extramarital sex that accounts for Boccaccio’s racy reputation. My list of keepers totals perhaps two dozen. The earliest, in order of appearance, is the so-called “Legend of the Three Rings,” told third on the first day. Symbolizing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the rings are impossible to tell apart, just as it is impossible to determine one “true” religion. The single richest day is the last, under the aegis of Panfilo. His theme of munificence triggers five winning entries (stories 3, 5, 7, 8, and 10). The very last of Boccaccio’s one hundred tales, told by Panfilo himself, fetishizes wifely obedience past the point of all understanding. Even wrapped in the ravishing melodies of Vivaldi’s Griselda four centuries later, the heroine’s infinite patience in the face of humiliation evokes the inscrutable—and, to many, infuriating—Book of Job.
As retold by Boccaccio, the stories inspired greater and lesser lights for centuries, among them Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Keats.
On Day IV, Filostrato calls for tragic love stories and elicits four for the anthologies (3, 5, 6, and 9). In his own, the ninth, a lord betrayed by his wife takes revenge over a grisly dinner. On Day V, Fiammetta parries with a request for love stories in which tragedy is averted. She, too, has an ace up her sleeve, involving a prize falcon and its noble owner, gone bankrupt in pursuit of an indifferent beauty (9). Apart from Fiammetta’s classic, three other of the day’s contributions hit the mark (1, 8, and 10).
Beset by breaking headlines from newsrooms worldwide, focusing the mind for the long hauls of Proust or Tolstoy or the latest Cromwelliana from Hilary Mantel is a tough ask. Boccaccio’s bits and bobs make gentler demands on the distracted attention span. But what propels The Decameron to the head of the queue today is not the entertainment value of this episode or that episode. It’s the Armageddon context. Filled as it is with pleasant walks, conviviality, dance, poetry, and birdsong, the brigata’s countryside idyll is no mere Tuscan holiday. This little Eden is their (perhaps not impregnable) safe haven from the Black Death that rages back home.
Above all, it’s the opening section of The Decameron that haunts me today. This Preface to the Ladies, as Boccacio calls it, takes place in his native Florence in the plague year of 1348 and is painted from life. Contagion strikes high and low, shredding the social fabric. Casualties are mounting by the day, the faint-hearted despair, quacks profiteer, the sainted render aid and comfort as they can, mindless hedonists carouse on the edge of the volcano. After mass, off in a shadowy corner beneath the vault of the virtually abandoned sanctuary of Santa Maria Novella, seven well-born ladies fall into conversation. Pampinea, the eldest, has an idea: why not self-isolate out of town? But won’t they need male protection? Presto, three likely gentlemen appear, and the die is cast. If only life were that easy in 2020. Our whole planet is Florence now.