The Proem of the Decameron: Boccaccio between Ovid and Dante

In "The Proem of the Decameron: Boccaccio between Ovid and Dante," Robert Hollander seeks to redress the relatively scant critical attention that has been paid to the Proem in Decameron studies. As the true introduction to the work, it plays an essential role in the Decameron's overall structure and significance. While investigating the Dantean presence in the Proem, Hollander's main purpose is to demonstrate that the key antecedent text governing the Proem is Ovid's Remedia Amoris.

This work, often misread as an anti-erotic text, is actually an ironic palinode of Ovid's earlier Ars Amatoria, which had brought him charges of licentiousness. According to Hollander, Boccaccio found the idea of a love-treatise, which on the surface could be read as anti-erotic (providing a cure to love's maladies) but which subversively functions as a kind of instruction manual for lovers, germane to his purposes in the overall design of the Decameron.

Hollander's close analysis of the Proem and the opening of the Ars Amatoria reveals the following resemblances: 1) Both narrators have been and continue to be lovers; 2) Both texts have as their "medical" purpose the saving from death those who suffer from unhappiness in love; 3) Both texts promise to liberate those in bondage; 4) In both texts otium is seen as a cause of unhappy amorous feelings; 5) Both texts suggest that activities will counteract that sickness, jointly specifying, among others, hunting, birding, and fishing; 6) Both texts offer instruction to those who would avoid the pains of love in what to flee and what to seek; 7) Both authors, having offered themselves as preceptors in how to learn the art of "unloving," conclude by referring to the gratitude that will be owed them by their audience.

These similarities also provide strong evidence for identifying the amico, whose piacevoli ragionamenti saved Boccaccio's narrator from death, with the author of the Remedia Amoris. At the same time this allusion to an "amico" in the Proem establishes another intertextual connection, to the protagonist-author of the Commedia who is saved from a life-threatening situation by Virgil. Furthermore, in both works this situation is described as "noia" (cf. Inf. I. 76: "Ma tu perchè ritorni a tanta noia?").

The Dantean presence in the Decameron  is established at the outset by the work's subtitle, "Prencipe Galeotto," a clear reference to Francesca da Rimini's "Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse" (Inf. V. 137). The subtitle has traditionally received two kinds of readings: 1) a "naturalist" reading, which holds that Boccaccio's characterization of his book as pander presents the author as champion of a "new" morality, leading the way out of medieval (Dantean) darkness; and 2) a "moralist" reading, which maintains that Boccaccio intended his subtitle to be taken as a warning against the book's lustful proclivities. Hollander proposes a middle course between these two alternatives, one which views Boccaccio's opening gesture towards the Commedia as the establishment of a problematic textual link rather than as an attempt to "solve" a moral problem.

(A. T.) Hollander, Robert. "The Proem of the Decameron: Boccaccio between Ovid and Dante," in Miscellanea di Studi Danteschi in memoria di Silvio Pasquazi. Napoli: Federico & Ardia, 1993, pp. 423-438. See also: Hollander, Robert. Boccaccio's Two Venuses. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1977. pp. 102-107.

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