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Italian literature and pandemics: Part 2

Photo shows front cover of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron

In a joint collaboration between a team at The Open University and the Institute of English Studies, the latest annual History of Books and Reading seminar series (HOBAR) on the theme of ‘Reading and Wellbeing’ had just begun when the COVID-19 pandemic broke.

Dr Shafquat Towheed and Dr Edmund King, blog series organisers, write: "lives have been turned upside down and our most natural instincts suppressed. Pandemic social distancing rules have cut us off from participatory culture, sport and social life, and is causing a surging mental health crisis. Never has reading matter, specifically, having books at home, been of greater importance. Confined to our homes, many have turned to the printed books on our shelves and the eBooks on our digital devices for reassurance, reflection, or escape. Putting this seminar series together in the pre-Coronavirus world, we had never imagined that our research topic would be so close to home for so many people, including ourselves. This blog series will reflect on the HOBAR seminars, with organisers and speakers considering the relevance of reading and wellbeing in the current pandemic."

The Institute of English Studies has kindly allowed us to reproduce this work for inclusion in the OU's Arts and Humanities in the time of COVID-19 online series. In this article, we reproduce the work of ​Francesca Benatti, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities in the department of English and Creative Writing at The Open University. She has published on book history, Irish studies and comic books.

Like Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi/The Betrothed, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1349-1353) is set during a pandemic: the Black Death of 1348-49, which killed at least 50% of the Italian population. You can read Italian and English versions on Decameron Web.

Unlike my tortuous relationship with Manzoni, my encounters with the Decameron have never failed to bring me enjoyment and delight. Re-reading itallows me to reopen a window onto a world that has always fascinated me (I wanted to be a historian of medieval Italy before being swayed to English literature by another passion of mine, comic books). Reading during this pandemic, Manzoni provided me with a moral exhortation to be truthful and rational. What recipe would Boccaccio offer for coping with isolation and uncertainty?

The opening of the Decameron is anything but entertaining, focusing on the effects of the plague on Florence. Boccaccio witnessed them directly, and while he filters his account through literary antecedents, I can still sense his trauma after the loss of several family members and friends. Soon enough, however, Boccaccio comes to the true purpose of the Decameron: a story about telling stories.

The year is 1348. Seven young Florentine women find themselves alone, abandoned by their families through death or desertion. They meet in the church of Santa Maria Novella and decide to leave a city that has lost all semblance of civility. Together with three male companions, they move to the countryside, where they spend ten days telling one hundred short stories or novelle.

Constructed through his wonderfully inventive language, Boccaccio’s world is ruled by unstoppable, senseless fortuna (fortune), which shakes us through calamities such as the plague. At the same time, we are driven by nature, which pulls us in the form of sexual desire. Authorities such as family, church and law usually restrain us, but they have proven insufficient against the extraordinary circumstances of the plague. How can we avoid being overwhelmed under this twin onslaught?

Boccaccio and his narrators show us the power of stories to make sense of a time thrown out of joint. By telling stories, singing songs and engaging in dialogue, the ten members of the brigata (company) pull together in their storytelling circle the contents of the entire world and refashion it through the power of narrative. I find the breadth of Boccaccio’s narrative always amusing. High and low, saints and sinners, all are represented in this fictional world. Boccaccio uses all registers, from tragedy to comedy, from moral exhortation to frequent sexual puns (the latter content especially responsible for consigning the Decameron to the Index of Forbidden Books for centuries).

Where Boccaccio is most innovative, I find through this re-reading, is in claiming that the stories we use to rebuild the world can combine both utilità (utility) and diletto (enjoyment). Even more daringly, Boccaccio aims his entire book at female readers (see the Preface). Reading for enjoyment is dangerous in Italian literature, especially if you are a woman. Dante’s most tragic lover, my namesake Francesca, succumbs to uncontrollable passion when she is reading “per diletto”,for enjoyment, a chivalric romance with her brother-in-law Paolo. The act of reading leads the characters to enact their sexual desires and to their ultimate death (you see this translation of Inferno V).

The brigata’s stories, I find, do not advocate uncontrolled amusement and lust. They rebuild the world by defining shared values through conversation: onestà (honesty, honour) and gentilezza (nobility, courtesy). Exemplified in Dante’s sonnet Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare (you can read it in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation), these principles enable the characters, narrators and readers to overcome both the adversities of fortune and the tyranny of passion. Several novelle, for example, show how desire, combined with onestà and gentilezza, is capable of ennobling the giver and the receiver of love. A good example is one of my favourite novelle, that of spendthrift nobleman Federigo degli Alberighi (Decameron V, 9), who sacrifices his last remaining possession (his falcon), in order to show his beloved Giovanna the honour she deserves.

What Boccaccio suggests to me as a pandemic reader is to be conscious that, no matter how tragic the circumstances that fortune has sent us, no matter how compelling our passions, we can strive to build a better world and a better self by sharing words and stories. Indeed, it is our unique gift as humans to be ben parlanti, capable of speaking well, and it is through shared words that we can make sense of our world and conquer desire and fortune with wit and ingenuity. This journey can even result in much diletto for all involved, as is the case in another favourite of mine, the novella of Caterina, Ricciardo and the nightingale. But I have spoken enough for now, so I’ll have to leave it to the readers to discover the rest of their story (Decameron V, 4).

Works cited

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