'Decameron' - an update translation; Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. The John Payne Translation, revised and annotated by Charles S. Singleton. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 3 vols. 952 pp. $145.
Although he was known to his contemporaries as a learned and serious poet, Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313-1375) is best remembered for a work notorious for its eroticism and cynicism. Only literary specialists are familiar with Boccaccio's large outpouring of lyrical and narrative poetry and prose fiction, much of which was genuinely innovative. Even the specialists pay comparatively little attention to the scholarly works in Latin to which he devoted his later years.Skip to next paragraph
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But the ''Decameron,'' written in Italian probably between 1351 and 1353, is one of Western literature's imperishable works. It stands beside the ''Divine Comedy'' of Boccaccio's countryman (and master) Dante Alighieri, and Geoffrey Chaucer's ''Canterbury Tales'' (which it surely influenced), as one of the seminal books of the Middle Ages. It was a work that broke with the classical tradition; its scheming, self-absorbed heroes and heroines in no way resemble the plaintive nymphs and piping shepherds of pastoral romance; its vigorous prose rhythms render the feel and flow of ordinary life with unforgettable, unheroic vividness.
In a way, this may be literature's first essentially democratic masterpiece: It reflects the recently achieved economic and social power of the merchant middle classes, and it implicitly (sometimes explicitly) mocks the traditional notion that the nobility and clergy are beings made of a finer clay than are ordinary mortals. The world of the ''Decameron'' is an arena of conflict in which ingenuity and perspicacity are the highest virtues, and in which those who have the courage to seek what they want often get it.
The ''Decameron,'' of course, consists of 100 tales told by seven women and three men during 10 days they spend in the country away from the city of Florence, then (the year is 1348) besieged by ''a death-dealing pestilence.'' The enormous work is skillfully unified, not just by the frame that encloses its stories, but by this further internal organizing device: The characters ''elect'' one of their number to ''rule'' each day of storytelling, and, except for the first and ninth days, when tellers are free to choose their subjects, each day is given a theme.
Thus, we hear stories of lovers outwitting adversity or succumbing to it, of ''the tricks that often women play men or men women or men one another,'' and, after numerous other permutations, ''of whoso has in any way wrought generously or magnificently in matters of love or otherwhat.'' The constant theme is the intricately adventurous nature of amorous desire, and the movement of the tales is toward a compassionate acceptance of human imperfection and frailty. To us, the attitude may seem perfectly common-sensical; in its time, it was revolutionary.
Small wonder, really, that the ''Decameron'' was beloved by the middle classes but snubbed by the aristocracy. Besides providing a vast, brilliantly detailed, realistic picture of Florentine life, these endlessly appealing stories confront, head-on, some ineluctably primary facts about human nature. They're like folk tales, in which people live by their wits and are never permanently affected by the misfortunes that befall them; they seem, rather, always to land on their feet. Deception and stratagem are all: Kings or nobles are frequently beset by commoners; ''the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders'' seldom goes unpunished; thieves profit by outwitting, not overpowering, their victims; seducers find ingenious ways to avoid paying for their offenses or manage to throw blame onto others.