I had the pleasure of reading this book in Boccaccio's native city Florence,
where the "framing story" (or cornice as it is called in Italian) is set. But my
experiences in Tuscany were happier than those of the characters in
Boccaccio's account, who need to flee the city to avoid the contagion of the
Black Death. They remove themselves to Fiesole (very near to where I was
living at the time I read Boccaccio), and wait out the plague. To amuse
themselves, they tell stories. Each of the ten characters must come up with
a story every day.
The idea of a collection of individual stories held together with an over-
arching narrative did not originate with Boccaccio. We find it, for instance, in
the Mahābhārata, the One Thousand and One Nights and Ovid's
Metamorphoses. But The Decameron held a particular fascination for later
writers. Chaucer clearly came under its sway, and no doubt brought back a
copy of Boccaccio's work from Italy. We can see the influence of the Italian
master in his Canterbury Tales, and we can see echoes of Boccaccio's work in
later French and Spanish works as well. Even modern writers, such as
Calvino, show the stamp of this illustrious predecessor.
But the heart and soul of this book comes not from its framing narrative or
its many imitators, but rather from the individual tales Boccaccio presents
(some one hundred in total). Many of these stories have also been
borrowed by later writers. We find direct or indirect connections to Molière,
Voltaire, even Shakespeare. Even today, theses stories retain their ability
to delight and instruct. No doubt their bawdiness helps draw an audience . .
. and will surprise many modern reader who may think that risqué material
of this sort was a recent invention. Indeed, it would be hard to find
another work from the fourteenth century quite so modern, and certainly
there is none half so entertaining. If Dante is the master of the heavenly
realms, than Boccaccio is the figure from Italian literature who has the most
developed sense of earthier subjects.