A Cassone in Decameron VIII.8 (the novella of Zeppa and Spinelloccio)

The story of Zeppa di Mino, Spinelloccio Tavena, and their two wives (VIII.8) is centered around one of the most common themes in the Decameron-adultery. In this story, and in many others in the Decameron, adulterous relationships more closely resemble a normal romantic relationship by modern standards than do the marriages that we see in the work. This is because in the mid-fourteenth century, and throughout the entire early modern period, the majority of marriages were arranged as alliances between families. Therefore, spouses looked to extramarital lovers for emotional and, often, physical fufillment.

At the beginning of her novella, Fiammetta tells her readers that Spinelloccio and Zeppa were prosperous merchants and neighbors in Siena. They were very good friends, like brothers she says, and both had beautiful wives. Spinelloccio spent a lot of time at Zeppa's house and, before long, he began to have an affair with his friend's wife. One day, the two lovers begin to have their fun, thinking that Zeppa is out of the house. However, Zeppa witnessed their tryst, and like Prince Tancredi in Fiammetta's story of the fourth day (IV.1), he decides to keep quiet until he has devised a plan for revenge. After Spinelloccio leaves his house, Zeppa confronts his wife about her affair, and informs her what she must do to be forgiven. Zeppa decides to transform his wife's cassone, an essential household object, into a temporary prison cell for his friend while he sleeps with his wife.

The next day, Spinelloccio invents a reason to cut short his walk with Zeppa to go and meet his friend's wife. Shortly thereafter, Zeppa himself returns home and, according to the plan, his wife locks her lover in a cassone on the pretense that he must not be seen by her husband. Once his friend is locked securely in the chest, Zeppa tells his wife to invite her lover's wife to breakfast with them. When she arrives, Zeppa takes her into his bedroom and, locking the door behind him, tells her of the affair going on between his wife and her husband, and his plan for revenge. After questioning him to assure herself that he is telling the truth, and being promised a precious jewel, Spinelloccio's wife agrees to make love to Zeppa. The act takes place on the cassone where her husband is imprisoned, thus he becomes an unwilling witness to his own cuckolding. When Spinelloccio's wife asks for her jewel, Zeppa calls his own wife into the bedroom, instructing her to open her cassone. Keys are phallic symbols in Renaissance art, and the fact that Zeppa's wife holds the key to the cassone gives her power, sexual and otherwise, within this sequence of events that is seemingly out of her control. The story ends on a peaceful note, with the men remaining good friends, sharing their wives with one another for evermore.

This novella depicts the attitude, common within the Decameron, that adulterous affairs are a natural and expected part of marriage. Alfredo Bonadeo writes that, in the Decameron, adultery "is quite often an eminently successful and fulfilling experience."1 This is true because extramarital affairs allow Boccaccio's characters a way to be emotionally free, in contrast to their often constraining marriages. The almost happy-go-lucky attitude towards adultery that we see in the Decameron does not reflect the reality of early modern Italian society, where women were held to a strict moral code demanding virginity until marriage, and complete fidelity to their husbands once they married.

This novella does not provide details about the nature of the marriages of Zeppa or Spinelloccio. However, Fiammetta tells of Zeppa's wounded pride and honor at discovering his wife's betrayal, but he takes it lightly enough to respond in kind rather than in anger or rage. This response is in keeping with the theme of the eighth day, but differs from the drastic reactions of jealous spouses in other novelle.

  1. Bonadeo, Alfredo. "Marriage and Adultery in the Decameron." Philological Quarterly (summer 1981): 296.

(C. C.)