It is immediately clear from Boccaccio’s stories that he delighted in bawdy humour, witty repartée and the feats of tricksters. Nuns sneak their lovers into the convent, noblewomen invent clever stories to fool their husbands and priests succeed in seducing local peasant girls. Yet one also finds tales of true love, nobility of spirit and sincere piety – Ghismonda drinks poison from the cup containing her lover’s heart rather than live without him, whilst Gualtieri’s foolishness and unjust treatment of his wife Griselda does not affect her steadfastness.
Boccaccio discovered the seeds for his tales in French, Italian, Latin and even oriental sources, and his stories went on to be hugely influential on other writers. Shakespeare borrowed plots from the Decameron, while writers as diverse as Molière, Lope de Vega, and Keats found inspiration within its pages. As a rich feast of visual imagery, the book’s settings, story-telling sessions and characters proved irresistible to artists in every age.
Born in 1313, the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker, Boccaccio studied banking and law before becoming a writer. He was a close friend of the poet Petrarch and the pair were seen as Dante’s successors – all were great writers who presided over literature’s emergence into new, modern forms.
Boccaccio wrote the first Italian novel and also pioneered a realistic style of writing in his poetry, being more interested in the foibles and weaknesses of his characters than archetypal tales of heroism or morality. His Decameron is the finest example of this, and many suspect that ‘Fiametta’ was modelled on Boccaccio’s great love, Maria D’Aquino, who died during the plague. In later years, after a crisis of faith, Boccaccio regretted his ‘licentious’ writings and might have burned them if Petrarch had not intervened. Boccaccio’s works were so popular that they spread quickly throughout Western Europe. Within his lifetime, Chaucer and others were borrowing heavily from his stories and poems for their own works.JOHN BUCKLAND-WRIGHT:
John Buckland-Wright, originally from New Zealand, began working as an engraver in Brussels, moving to Paris in 1929 and then to London on the outbreak of war. In Paris he helped run the print workshop Atélier 17, working with artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Today his work is housed in collections throughout the world, including
the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Gallery and British Museum in London. Buckland-Wright’s sensuous, elegant depictions of the female body and drapery combine an element of realism with the abstract rhythm he derived from surrealism. He was particularly associated with The Golden Cockerel Press, creating hauntingly beautiful illustrations.
He was commissioned by The Folio Society in 1954 to produce twenty aquatints to illustrate the Decameron. It was among his final commissions, for he died unexpectedly the same year. These lovely illustrations, revealing his ability to capture subtle and romantic eroticism, are truly a part of publishing history.THE BLACK DEATH:
In 1348, the plague came to Florence, brought from China along the trade routes to Europe. Boccaccio may or may not have been present in the city, but certainly he knew the details of what happened during that terrible time. His father, stepmother and the woman he loved all died of the plague. Boccaccio describes the healthy leaving the sick to their fate; corpses tumbled into any pit that could be dug. Revellers ate and drank in the empty houses of those who were dead or who had fled the city, while others spent their days praying that God’s wrath might be averted. Up to 100,000 died in the city, while across Europe, estimates put the death toll as high as 35% of the total population. The resulting lack of labour would enforce massive social and economic changes, including a new loss of respect for the Church, clearly evident in Boccaccio’s tales of corrupt clergymen.
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