I remember reading selections of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in my early high school years—and I remember reading them as light, bawdy tales about aristocrats in gardens. We were briefly introduced to the frame narrative, set amidst the 1348 outbreak of plague in Florence, which killed off half the city’s population. But the Black Death seemed almost mythological in scope—a phantom on the periphery. As Albert Camus writes in The Plague, a book also appearing on bestseller and recommended reading lists everywhere: “a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke.”
I don’t recall reading how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses.” The picture Boccaccio paints is so incredibly bleak, one is amazed we’ve come to “see the Decameron as a collection of entertaining stories to keep next to your bed,” as Andre Spicer writes at New Statesman. “This scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers,” Boccaccio writes, “uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers… fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their children.”
This is unimaginable, or so we thought, having never lived through any kind of plague ourselves. Made up of tales swapped by ten friends who escape Florence for a country villa to wait out the epidemic, telling 100 stories between them to pass the time in quarantine, the Decameron, if it has left schools since my time, will surely return with significant emphasis on what was previously given as background. Of course, Italians are revisiting with much renewed interest these tales “of life lessons and folly, of tragedy and happiness, of virtue and vice,” as the blog Tuscan Trends notes.
Read by actors from the Oranona Theatre, with musical accompaniment, a live production of the stories has been going on for a decade. But only now does it constitute a trend, offered as “entertainment for Italians who are confined to their homes escaping a plague seven centuries after Boccaccio wrote his masterpiece of early Italian prose.” (Hear these performances in Italian at the Oranona Facebook page here.) What does this story cycle communicate across 700 years?
“Over the centuries, during other outbreaks of epidemic illness,” says Professor Martin Marafioti in the video above, “the work has become relevant, over and over and over again.” The book offers what Marafioti calls “narrative prophylaxis,” a medicine prescribed by Italian theologian Nicolas of Burgo, another of the many literary voices in Italy’s “canon of contagion.” In a plague advice book, Burgo warns against “fear, anger, sadness, excessive anguish, heavy thoughts and similar things. And equally one should take care to be joyful, to be happy, to listen to lullabies, stories and melodies.”
This advice may be well and good for those who can decamp to well-provisioned houses for two weeks (or months). As Massimo Riva, chair of Brown University’s Italian Studies Department, says in a recent interview, in answer to a question about Boccaccio’s relevance:
I would point to the ethical dilemma the ten young protagonists face in their decision to (temporarily) abandon the city. This decision can be interpreted in two different and somewhat opposite ways: as an escape from the common destiny of those who can afford a luxurious shelter (similar to the doomsday bunkers that very rich people build for themselves today); and as the utopian desire to rebuild together a better, more ethical and harmoniously natural way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.
These two options need not be mutually exclusive, but they might very well rebuild the old exclusions in the new world. More positively, Spicer writes, in some TED-like language that might seem anachronistic in discussions of a 14th century text: Boccaccio “understood the importance of what we now call ‘wellbeing’”; he had “faith in the curative power of stories,” a fact “supported by dozens of studies”; and he “understood the crucial role of what we now call social networks in public health crises.”
I don’t remember any of that in the Boccaccio I read in high school. But I’m starting to see some of it now as I revisit these 700-year-old stories, dipping in and out as time allows and finding in them what Spicer calls the critical “importance of connection when we are socially isolated,” whether in comfortable vacation homes, cramped city apartments, or even more confining circumstances. We need stories to help us figure who we are when everything comes apart. And we need people who will listen to us tell ours. Read and download the full text of the Decameron here.