Boccaccio's Life and Works


Boccaccio is born (July or August) in Certaldo or in Florence to an unknown woman and Boccaccino di Chellino, a wealthy merchant who officially and without hesitation recognizes him: an official document, dated November 2, 1360  with which Pope Innocent VI confers to Giovanni, then a Florentine ambassador at his court, the canonicatus, in other words ordains him as a priest specifically mentions his "birth-defect" ("super defectu natalium"), i.e. the fact that he was born of "mother unknown." In 1313, the Boccacci are among the official residents of the San Pier Maggiore quarter, one of the centers of Florentine mercantile life. In the same year, it appears from some documents (the Parisian livre de la Taille, a sort of tax and fee ledger) that Boccaccino and his brother were in Paris for business, lodging near the church of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie. Biographers in the 19th-century gave some currency to the romantic tale of Giovanni's birth from his father's supposed affair with a king's daughter, in far away Paris. That his mother was most likely not a Parisian but a Florentine is indirectly confirmed by the fact that Boccaccino's trip to Paris happened in late 1313 and Giovanni was already born, in July or August of the same year.


Boccaccio spent his childhood in Florence, in the House of San Pier Maggiore -- with a few trips to the countryside, to Certaldo. Boccaccino marries Margherita de' Mardoli, noblewoman who gave him another son, Francesco, Giovanni's half-brother, born in 1320. Margherita's family boasted ancestral connection with the family of Dante's Beatrice, the beautiful daughter of Folco Portinari, a cousin of Lippa de' Mardoli, Margherita's mother, and thus Giovanni himself could claim to be a distant relative of the great poet he so admired and celebrated in his writings throughout his life.


Boccaccino is a consul (or main officer) of the Arte del Cambio (the influential Guild of the moneychangers and money lenders) and in the same year he is among the City Priors, the highest elective office of the commune, for the customary two-month term. As the scion (however illegitimate) of a prominent and prosperous citizen of Florence, Giovanni receives a sound education: by age six, he is taught to read and write, entrusted to a private tutor, Giovanni di Domenico Mazzuoli da Strada; our Giovanni also learns to spell from the children's psalm-book and already as a child, like his own characters Florio and Biancifiore, protagonists of Filocolo, he studies grammar (Latin) on Ovid. His education follows the standard curriculum of the times: the seven "liberal arts" or disciplines - divided by Boetius in the fifth-century in the arts of the "trivium" -- the three arts of the word -- grammar (Latin) the art of reading and speaking correctly -- rhetoric, or the art of speaking and writing elegantly and persuasively; dialectic (or the art of correct and effective arguing); and then the "quadrivium", the four arts or disciplines of the number: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  But also very important for the son of a merchant and businessman was the practical training in business and the study of law (canon law).


Boccaccio travels to Naples with his father, agent of the Bardi Bank. A fundamental turning point in the life of B. is his departure for Naples, in 1327, age thirteen, following his father who (as we said) became the "director" of the Bardi office at the court of their most important client, King Robert d'Anjou. The King was also Florence's most important political ally, in the first half of the 14th-century.In Naples, Giovanni's life was full and rich of opportunities: on the one hand he attended, as an apprentice, at the changing desk of his father's company; on the other, through his good friend Nicola Acciauoli, he mingled with the local aristocracy, gravitating around the Angevin court. In addition, he also perfected his literary education. As Thomas Bergin writes: "Between banking and schooling Giovanni spent thirteen years in Naples; they were the truly formative years of his life and the happiest as well.  In one of his letters (written in Latin), he tells us (Ep. XII**) that he lived in some elegance and the young bloods of the city were not unwilling to visit his quarters. Naples in fact gave him the triple experience of court life, the business world, and the kingdom of letters..."


Possibly attends lessons of Cino da Pistoia, jurist-poet and friend of Dante and Petrarch, and takes up the study of canon law. The Studio (Neapolitan university), founded in 1224 (for instance, more than a century before the studio in Florence, founded in 1349, but more than a couple of centuries after that of Bologna, founded in 988) was renowned in those days for its famous jurists -- specialists in the canon or ecclesiastical law. The most celebrated of them all was Cino da Pistoia,  also a representative of the new school of vernacular poetry known as "dolce stil novo" (sweet new style). Cino taught law at the studio in 1330-31, constantly quarreling with the canonists and lawyers and their aridity.


Boccaccino moves to Paris. Giovanni, with greater freedom, pursues his humanistic interests in literature as is attested by his first essays in Latin (the Elegia di Costanza and the Allegoria mitologica, both certainly composed before 1334) and his first vernacular poetry. Just twenty years old, Boccaccio was admitted to the circle of learned men who gathered in the famous Royal library, where he could find and read, along with the classical Latin literature (Ovid, Vergil etc.) Provençal and Old French romances, and scholarly compilations dealing with mythology, astrology, history, etc., even magic and alchemy, the source of his truly encyclopedic culture. His professors and companions in these cultural explorations were such famous learned men as Paolo da Perugia, Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, Barbato da Sulmona, Giovanni Barrili. Here lie the true foundations of Boccaccio.'s twofold culture, poetic in a Modern, humanistic, and encyclopedic, in a Medieval sense.


Boccaccio's first exposure to the poetry of Petrarch.


Composition of La caccia di Diana.


Boccaccio finishes the Filocolo, a long romance divided into five books: for the first time in Italian prose it recounts the adventures of Florio, son of the king of Marmorina, and Biancifiore, a poor girl received into that court without anyone knowing of her princely Roman origins.  It tells of their love from childhood, their cruel separation, the romantic quest of Florio to find his beloved, their splendid joyful wedding, their conversion to Christianity in Rome, and their victorious and joyous return home.  This legend of Byzantine origin (reworked in French as early as the 13th-century and later in an Italian cantare) is ornamented by B. with many learned digressions and autobiographical allusions. During this time, Giovanni ends his period of study. 


Giovanni writes the following Latin epistles: The Crepor celsitudinis, dedicated to Carlo, duke of Durazzo; the Mavortis milex, dedicated to Petrarch; the Nereus amphitribus and the Sacre famis, to unidentified friends.


Composition of the Teseida.


The Filostrato is completed (other scholars fix the date as circa 1335) between fall and winter.


Boccaccio returns to Florence. Most likely Giovanni left Naples in the winter of 1340-41, thus unable to witness the coronation, in 1341, of Petrarca as the king's poet laureate. Back in Florence, he found a city ravaged by the Plague of the year before, which (according to Giovanni Villani's Chronicle) killed a sixth of the population; he also found political turmoil, linked to the financial difficulties of the "compagnie," including his father's employer, the Bardi, and the other major, the Peruzzi. Both had lent enormous sums of money to the King of England (Edward III) to finance his military expedition against France (which, in 1336, started a war destined to last for more than a hundred years -- the hundred years war). When the king defaulted on his debt, they went bankrupt. In the attempt to stave off the bankruptcy, a group of prominent citizens of Florence arranged a coup: Walter of Brienne, a French military leader, was named signore of the city in 1342. His dictatorship lasted only a year and he was driven out of Florence in August 1343 by a coalition of magnates (the old aristocrats), popolani (the nouveaux riches) and artisans. Within weeks of this uprising, conflict broke out between the magnates and the popolani. The latter won and the regime established by them was broadly representative of the guild community. In the meantime, in the same year 1343, king Robert died in Naples and a struggle for succession began: B.'s hopes to quickly return to the city of his youth, with the help of his now powerful and influential friend Nicola Acciaiuoli, were repeatedly stifled.


Composition of the Comedia Ninfe (also known as the Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine and later with the uncertain title Ninfale d'Ameto) dedicated to Niccolò di Bartolo Del Buono. First draft of De vita et moribus domini Francisci Petracchi.


First version of the Amorosa visione.


Composition of the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta.


Composition of the Ninfale fiesolano.


Eager to leave the paternal house in Florence (his stepmother Margherita had died and his father, Boccaccino, had remarried with Bice de' Bostichi) Giovanni tried to conquer financial independence in order to pursue a literary career. Perhaps looking for a patron, he went to Ravenna (guest of Ostagio da Polenta) in 1346, and Forlì (guest of Francesco Ordelaffi) between '47 and '48, where he exchanges sonnets and carmina with the grammarian Checco di Meletto Rossi. It is during this period that Boccaccio first learns news of Dante's last years, spent in Ravenna. Composition of the first eclogues which will later be collected in Buccolicum carmen.


Back in Florence, he eye-witnessed the devastating plague of 1348 (Black Death), in which tens of thousand of people died, at least three times  the number of those who died in 1340. Among the victims, Giovanni''s father and new stepmother. All of a sudden, Giovanni inherited what was left of the family fortune -- and a household to run and maintain.



Composition of the Decameron. These (1348-51) are in fact the years of the Decameron and we know very little about them. We know that Giovanni was briefly back in Ravenna in 1350, this time on a special mission from the compagnia of Or San Michele: to give suor Beatrice (Dante's daughter, a nun in the monastery of San Stefano in Ravenna) ten golden florins as a belated restitution to the heir of the great exiled poet who had died there, thirty years earlier.


First meeting with Petrarch in Florence. Work begins on the Genealogia deorum gentilium, a work which is not finished until 1374. On the way to Rome for the Jubilee of 1350, the most famous of 14th-century's litterati (Petrarch) was met and greeted just outside Florence by a delegation of Florentine intellectuals and scholars, led by Boccaccio. It's the beginning of a correspondence and a literary friendship that lasted until their death, a year apart from one another, in 1374 (Petrarca) and 1375 (Boccaccio). A friendship, renewed several times by Giovanni's visits to Petrarch., in his many residences: in Padua (1351), Milan (1359), Venice (1363), and again in Arquà, near Padua (1368). iovanni. devotedly called Petrarch. his magister, or teacher and continued to call him so, even after Petrarca, in 1351, frustrated Boccaccio's expectations and greatly disappointed his Florentine admirers by refusing to accept their invitation to come and teach at the newly founded Florentine Studio.


Boccaccio moves to Padua where he again meets Petrarch. He joins the court of Ludwig of Bavaria as embassador from the city-state of Florence. The first draft of the Trattatello in laude di Dante reaches completion.



Boccaccio attempts a return to Naples (always hopeful for the help of Nicola Acciaiuoli, now become chamberlain of the troubled kingdom). This time, he is hoping to replace Zanobi da Strada as Nicola's personal secretary and aid: it will be another bitter disappoinment (he will try again, with even worse results, in the winter of 1362-63) but the trip will give him the opportunity to stop at the famous abbey of Montecassino and explore one of the richest monastic libraries of the Western world. Earliest feasible date of the second draft of the Amorosa visione which is definitively completed in 1360. Work begins on the De casibus virorum illustrium and the De montibus, silvis, fontibus et de nominibus maris liber finished respectively in 1363 and 1364. 1355 is also the year of little Violante's death; she is one of at least five children of Boccaccio, all illegitimate (as far as we know, Boccaccio never married and, as we said, was ordained in 1360). Violante is the only child whose name (and a faint, affectionate memory) is recorded in her father's writings.


Boccaccio, in Ravenna, probably receives the Invective contra medicum from Petrarch.


Third meeting with Petrarch, this time in Milan. Boccaccio named ambassador to Lombardy, perhaps at the court of Bernabò Visconti.


First complete version of the De casibus and first abridged edition of the Trattatello. Pope Innocent VI inducts Boccaccio into the clergy. In an aborted coup d'état in Florence, several of Boccaccio's friends and acquaintances are implicated, some of whom (including Niccolò di Bartolo Del Buono and others) are subsequently executed. For the next four years, Boccaccio receives no further official Florentine appointments. The coup, as the chronicler Matteo Villani has it, was meant to overturn the iniquitous law imposed by "certain great and popular men [Albizzi and Ricci] for the evil purpose of becoming tyrants" (this is a refrain in Florentine political life, dominated by the factious Guelf party, the Parte Guelfa). Even the presence in Florence of B.'s ambivalent friend, powerful Nicola Acciaiuoli, in the last months of 1360, was considered suspicious by the ruling party.


Boccaccio withdraws to Certaldo. Work begins on De mulieribus claris.


Return, for unidentified reasons, to Ravenna. Here he collects information regarding San Pier Damiani for Petrarch who is working on De vita solitaria.


Definitive version of the De mulieribus. Composition of Vita sanctissimi patris Petri Damiani.


Following a serious crisis of faith, Boccaccio dedicates himself exclusively to spiritual pursuits. He travels again to Naples but stays there only for a relatively short period on account of his luke warm reception. After returning to Florence, he goes to Padua to see Petrarch but eventually meets him in Venice where the latter had moved. In July Boccaccio proceeds to Certaldo. The final version of the Genealogie is brought to its conclusion. The 1360s are indeed years of spiritual crisis for Giovanni.  In a famous episode (as V. Branca tells it in his biography of Boccaccio): upon receiving, in 1361, a message by the Sienese Blessed Pietro Petroni, admonishing him about his imminent death, Boccaccio rashly thought to abandon his studies and turn over his library to his magister, Petrarch. The latter wrote to him, nominally accepting the gift and yet encouraging his friend and disciple to continue his literary efforts, in the name of the very spiritual reasons adduced against them. And Boccaccio resumed his love's labors.


Boccaccio engages in an enduring epistolary debate with Petrarch on compositions in the vernacular.


Travels to the papal court of Urban V in Avignon as Florentine ambassador. Composition of the Corbaccio. Boccaccio dedicates himself to the second abridged edition of the Trattatello.


Visit to Venice where Boccaccio does not have the opportunity to meet with Petrarch but does find Petrarch's daughter and son-in-law. Boccaccio takes ambassadorship to the papal court in Rome.


Meeting with Petrarch in Padua around whom many intellectuals and literary figures have gathered.


Boccaccio oversees the publication of the Buccolicum carmen.


After a last trip to Naples, of which we have no information, Boccaccio (now a famous poet) retires to Certaldo: he is ill, very fat, almost obese, and yet still able to dedicate himself entirely to his studies.


Boccaccio is increasingly troubled by obesity, and also by a form of dropsy which impedes his movement, together with attacks of scabies and high fevers.


Dedication of the definitive version of the De casibus to Mainardo Cavalcanti. Continuation of revisions of the Genealogie. Boccaccio is entrusted by Florence to conduct a series of readings and lectures on the Divina Commedia, in the Church of Santo Stefano di Badia. The contract called for a cycle of lectures, lasting for a year, and a compensation of one hundred florins. He gives his first lecture on October 23d, 1373; after a few months, too ill to continue and among some opposition from the most factious of the Guelf extremists, who never forgave Dante his "ghibellin" (pro-Empire) ideas, and some mumbling from orthodox religious figures, the lectures are interrupted.


In a state of financial troubles and ailing health, Boccaccio returns to Certaldo where he learns of Petrarch's death. The passing of his long-time friend inspires the last sonnet of his mature poems. Work continues on the Genealogie.


Boccaccio dies on December 21 at his home in Certaldo. Giovanni will close his eyes for ever in the quiet of Certaldo, on December 21, 1375, a year after his worshipped magister, the second crown of Florence, Francesco Petrarca.

(G.M., M.P., M.R.) Adapted from: Muscetta, Carlo. "Giovanni Boccaccio". Letteratura italiana Laterza. Bari: Laterza, 1989. Ferroni, Giulio. Storia della letteratura italiana vol. I "Dalle origini al Quattrocento" Turin: Einaudi, 1991.