Why Look at Images?

The creation of a page on visual representations of Boccaccio's text hinges upon the assumption that looking at illustrations of any text can help us not only to enhance our understanding of the text itself, but also to clarify why such images were created in the first place. The Decameron is a particularly fertile source for illustrations that relate both directly and indirectly to the text.

At the most elementary level, illustrations are useful for the way in which they are capable of helping the reader to understand what has already been presented in the text. The Biblia Pauperum (ca. 1460-1470) is a rich example of how a complex text can be enhanced and clarified by illustrations. Two main functions were served in illustrating the Bible: explaining the text to the illiterate and creating an iconographic system for illustrating scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

Beyond the purely explanatory qualities of illustration, though, there is another reason why looking at visualizations of the Decameron is a rewarding endeavor. In his essay on visual interpretations of the Decameron, Vittore Branca touches upon the potential of illustrations to portray also what is not clearly delineated in the text, or perhaps what is not included at all. This stems from early attitudes toward the written word and the printed book as they together formed a new medium of communication at the end of the fifteenth century - that is, attitudes of suspicion, mistrust and ignorance. It seems hard to imagine now, at a time when the most frequently censored types of media are visual, from painting and photography to performance art, but five hundred years ago the printed word was a mysterious and oftentimes inaccessible phenomenon when compared to the proliferation of images as a trusted and well-known method of teaching and communicating religion.

While we would think that the text of the Decameron is the source and the illustrations present in many early manuscripts only visualize what is already there, this attitude of uncertainty towards the printed word points to another function: that which clarifies beyond what the text has been permitted to specify. At this point, an example as pointed out by Branca would be useful to understand the application of this theory.

In the fourth story of the first day (I. 4), Dioneo relates the tale of a young, lustful monk who, having been found cavorting behind closed doors with a local maiden, contrives to catch his abbot in the same situation, thereby negating any possibility of his own punishment. A monastery that permits such behavior is certainly one that would not like to be mentioned by name, and Boccaccio takes care not to so describe it, only specifying that it is located in the nearby country of Lunigiana. However, Boccaccio was a bit of an amateur artist, and Branca cites a small illustration, supposedly done by Boccaccio himself in an early manuscript, which illustrates further where this young monk came from. The monk's robes, according to Branca, look much like those of the Benedictine Pulsanese monks, who had only one monastery in the aforementioned region of Lunigiana. Evidently, knowledge of monastic robe typology in the fourteenth century was perhaps more pervasive than it is now; in any case this further illustration of the text is a compelling example of the way in which an illustration can go beyond the information presented in words.

Boccaccio's sketch in the margins is a highly specific example of how we can learn something from an illustration. Most of the illustrations presented in conjunction with this project do not boast the same kind of connection with the text, simply because they were not created by its author. These illustrations merit examination, however, for the kind of interpretive quality they contain and that enables us to understand the stories in more ways than one. They also provide insight into what kind of society and values the artists who created them came from. From putting a dress on the doomed damsel (in a French illuminated manuscript) in the story of Nastagio degli Onesti (V.8) when in the text she is very clearly meant to be nude, to omitting entire segments of stories by condensing the narrative into one frame (particularly in the woodcut prints), illustrators play the roles of both editors and censors.

(E.L.) Bibliography: Branca, Vittore. "Interpretazioni Visuali del Decameron", Studi sul Boccaccio 15 (1987): 87-119.

Other Pages in Arts: Visualizing The Text