The Decameron and Music by Eleonora M. Beck, Lewis and Clark College


After supper, instruments were sent for, and the queen decreed that a dance should begin, which Lauretta was to lead whilst Emilia was to sing a song, accompanied on the lute by Dioneo. No sooner did she hear the queen's command than Lauretta promptly began to dance and she was joined by the others, whilst Emilia sang the following song in amorous tones (Translation by G. H. McWilliam. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

Members of the ten-person brigata play music after breakfast and sing and dance before and after supper. A complete ballata text, sung by designated members of the brigata, is inserted at the end of each day of storytelling. Thousands of singing birds accompany the brigata to the Valley of the Ladies and bird songs awake Fiammetta on the day she rules. Even the famous passage describing plague-ridden Florence in the Introduction to Day I includes references to music.

Boccaccio makes music's importance crystal clear in the Preface, for after he diagrams the structure of his book (10 days multiplied by 10 people's stories) he says:

"And I shall also include some songs, which these seven ladies sang for their mutual agreement."

Meaning of Music in the Decameron

Music plays a central role in the construction of Boccaccio's idealized Trecento society. It serves to remind the brigata of propriety and temperance, since they learn to appreciate music and dance in a moderate fashion. Note that in the conclusion of Day V, Dioneo is thoroughly reprimanded for trying to sing "Lift up your skirt" among other ditties (see my: "Music in the Cornice of Boccaccio's Decameron"). Musical moderation in the Decameron is also an indication of good health.

The ballata texts set the appropriate mood for the following days stories. A clear example occurs in the song inserted at the conclusion of Day III. On previous days the ballata texts projected generally positive (at least not negative) emotions. The tone changes drastically at the conclusion of Day III, after Lauretta sings a sorrowful ballata: "None has need for lamentation / More than have I." Like the relationship of an overture to an opera, or a recitative to an aria, the song creates the appropriate atmosphere for the stories to follow. Those of Day IV, presided over by Filostrato whose name literally means vanquished by love, are the most heart-wrenching of the Decameron - beginning with the tale of Tancredi and Ghismonda.

Philosophical Underpinnings

Boccaccio's philosophy of music is thoroughly informed by texts that consider the role of music in society including, Aristotle's Politics, Book 8, Augustine's Confessions Book 10, XXXIII and Boethius' De institutione musicae. Boccaccio uses music as a metaphor for harmony and concord among the members of the brigata in his new make-shift government. (See the similarities to Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Buon Governo in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena.)

"The Decameron Players"

Dioneo and Fiammetta are the only members of the brigata described as playing instruments - lute and vielle, respectively. In addition to accompanying songs, dances, and Pampinea's ballata at the end of the first day, the duo amuses itself by singing songs during the periods of "pastimes" before and after the stories, while the others sleep, play chess, or throw dice. After the storytelling in Day III, Dioneo and Fiammetta sing a song about Messer Guglielmo and the Lady of Vergiù. Similarly in Day VII, while the rest of the brigata wades in cool waters, the duo sings a long song about Palamon and Arcite (characters from Boccaccio's Teseida). These are the only two songs in the cornice (in addition to the ten ballata texts) whose subject Boccaccio specifies. Otherwise, the author recounts in general only that the brigata  sings other "canzoni" or performs carols.

Dioneo, the lute player and most outspoken member of the brigata, makes it clear at the beginning of their retreat that unless the group firmly commits itself to merrymaking he will return to the city. Because of his impetuosity and the inability of the brigata to control his nature, Dioneo always tells the last story of each day "where he can do least harm." Dioneo's stories deal for the most part "unabashedly with sex" and he even tries to sing "sexy" tunes at the end of Day V, such as "Lift up your skirt."

Musical prowess is one of Fiammetta's most salient characteristics. She is, after all, the Decameron's vielle (fiddle) player. Music awakens her on the day that she rules, when Fiammetta was roused from sleep by the melodious songs of the birds in the trees, chanting their joyous greetings to the dawn.

Her association to music underscores her sensuous nature: she has long, golden coarse hair that flows over her shoulders, a round face the color of white lilies and red roses "mescolati tutto splendido", two eyes that gleam like a falcon's and a small mouth with two lips like rubies. Her musicianship reflects the influence of the planet Venus, who fosters music-making in the months of May and August. In a more high-minded fashion than Dioneo, her stories also focus on the power of love. Fiammetta is assigned to sing the last ballata before the brigata re-enters Florentine society. Her song literally sets the tone for their return.

Boccaccio associates Fiammetta and Dioneo with music to heighten their respective allegorical and symbolic meanings. According to Joan Ferrante in her article, "The Frame Characters of the Decameron: A Progression of Virtues", Dioneo and Fiammetta embody the sensual qualities of the group, namely sexuality and love, respectively, characterizations that have been traditionally connected with music.

Tindaro - Filostrato's servant - is the only other character in the entire Decameron cornice specifically designated as able to perform on an instrument. Tindaro plays the cornamusa (bagpipes) twice in the course of the narrative: after the ballata of Day VI and upon the brigata 's return from their journey to the Valley of the Ladies in Day VII. In each case, he accompanies the dancing of carols. Boccaccio's inclusion of Tindaro's music seems to underscore the character's lower-class status, and it appears significant that the first mention of Tindaro's bagpipe music occurs in the sixth day, the day on which the servants move to the forefront of the stories and engage in discussion with members of the brigata. Their heated argument disrupts the pastimes of the brigata and the queen asks them to quiet down.

Singing Birds

Birds also whoop it up in Boccaccio's landscape. Boccaccio's description of the journey to the Valley of the Ladies is saturated with references to singing birds. In the wee hours of the morning, with the help of the servants, the young Florentines transfer their belongings and food to the new resting spot. In a remarkable description, the brigata sings in chorus with the birds after lunch:

And when they had broken their fast with good wine and delicate sweetmeats, so as not to be outdone by the birds they too burst into song, whereupon the Valley joined forces with them, repeating every note that was uttered; and to these songs of theirs, sweet new notes were added by all the birds, as though they were determined not to be outmatched.

Lucia Marino has examined the songs of birds in detail in her monograph, The Decameron Cornice: Allusion, Allegory and Iconology (pp. 85-90). She writes, "He [Boccaccio] hits upon a very serviceable role for birds in his Decameron cornice, where he employs them as allusive signs and punctuation marks." According to L. Marino birds fulfill three basic functions in the cornice: 1) to announce the beginning of a new day; 2) to guide the brigata from one venue to another; and 3) to symbolize love and the relationship between nature and culture.

Musical Tales

The tale of Gianni Lotteringhi (VII.1) exhibits the most prominent musical theme of the hundred. Gianni, the proud captain of the Dominican society, conducts rehearsals of the singing group and takes part in other official duties. Gianni was also known to give money to the friars, who in turn taught him some prayers and sacred pieces. Gianni is tricked into performing a mock exorcism in order to chase away spirits that are tapping at their bedroom door. In reality, these spirits are Tessa's lover, Federigo di Neri Pegolotti. While her husband is working, Tessa teaches Federigo to sing a laude. This scene is significant because it provides evidence that the lauda repertory of the Trecento was transmitted orally. One learned the music from hearing it sung, as Gianni had from the friars, as Tessa had from Gianni and Federigo from Tessa.

Other stories that include a musical background are: IV.5; V.1; VII.1; VIII.2; IX.5; X.6 and X.7.

Extant Trecento Music

Indigenous Italian music experienced one of its most prolific periods in the Trecento. For an excellent introduction to the repertory, see Michael Long (1991). Francesco Landini, Giovanni da Firenze and Lorenzo Masini were among the greatest composers of the period. These composers wrote chiefly secular pieces such as ballatas, madrigals and caccias. Unlike the madrigal and the caccia, the ballatas of the Decameron were monophonic (i.e., they consisted of a single line of music). Interestingly, the ballatas from the Decameron were not set to music in the 14th century (see Bonaventura).

Related Bibliography

Other pages in Arts: Music