The Rubrics of the Decameron

The rubrics (or "titles", as Boccaccio refers to them in the conclusion of the work) which precede each novella constitute an important element of the multi-layered narrative structure of the Decameron. The fact that they seem to provide a condensed, essentialized version of the proceeding novelle has led several critics to attempt to buttress their interpretations of the novelle by analyzing the structural features of the rubrics. Others have seen the possibility of extracting from the rubrics the author's own interpretation of the novelle.

One of the chief methodological problems of structuralist criticism is that the summaries upon which analyses of the narrative are based are constructed by the critic, and their status as functionally 'objective' formulation is vitiated by the critic's irremediably subjective choices of what constitutes the essential structure of the narrative. Such choices are inevitably conditioned by certain historical models of narratives which may differ from those of the author. The rubrics of the Decameron, it would appear, provide a partial solution to these problems since they are written by the author himself.

Yet upon close examination the claim that the rubrics uniformly provide a condensed version of the novellas (i.e.; that they are essentially summaries of the novelle) becomes problematic. One of the major difficulties is that many rubrics omit events which are of central importance to the novella. Of the many examples, perhaps the most significant are the rubrics of the novella of Federigo degli Alberighi (V, 9) and that of Abram (I.2). The former makes no mention of monna Giovanna's son, and the latter omits any reference to Gianotto's attempts to dissuade Abram from going to Rome. Yet both of these elements are given much attention in the novelle, and are fundamental to any interpretation.

Just as the attempt to reduce all the rubrics to a uniform relation of summary-to-story is frustrated, so is the attempt to formalize their relation to the theme of the day. It is true that in many cases the rubrics focus on aspects of the novelle which highlight the reason for which they are told on a specific day. But this cannot be accepted as a general principle since many rubrics are ambiguous on this point. For example, in the novella of King Agilulf and his groom (III, 2) the rubric focuses on how the groom escapes from being identified by the King and omits an account of how the groom manages to lie with the king's wife. Yet the theme of the third day is "of those who, by means of industria obtained something greatly desired or gained something they had lost." The groom's industria in escaping from a dangerous situation, which the rubric does describe, seems closer to the theme of the second day, concerning "those who after passing through various adventures reach a happy ending they had not hoped for."

Thus the rubrics prove stubbornly resistant to any rigorous formulation which subordinates them, or connects them in a coherent and consistent manner, to other narrative layers (the novelle, the theme of the day, the storytellers' interpretations/commentary on the novelle). While many of the rubrics do contain important structural features (such as symmetries and contrasts) which may provide keys to interpreting the proceeding novella, as a whole they tend to function autonomously, as an independent narrative layer which complements the others.

An explanation of the autonomous nature of the rubrics may be provided by considering the literary tradition within which Boccaccio was working. The use of rubrics in narrative works is part of a tradition dating back to the fourth century B.C. and still influential during Boccaccio's time. Their composition was governed by specific stylistic models which adhered to the ideal of abbreviatio, a form of brevity and stylistic economy. The novelle conformed to the guidelines of amplificatio, which aimed for a broader, more detailed narrative. Thus the rubrics' omissions of certain elements important in the novelle can be explained by the fact that in their composition Boccaccio is following two different stylistic norms, each with its own divergent, indeed opposing, ideals. The rubrics remain faithful to a model of brevity and stylistic concision, even at the cost of sometimes sacrificing thematic material crucial to the novella itself.

The relation of the rubrics to other narrative layers yields insight into the overall structure of the Decameron, which may be described as polygenetic; a narrative construct which emerges from the complementary (sometimes conflicting) relationships among the rubrics, the novelle themselves, and the storytellers' own interpretations of them. There is thus a manifold of narrative layers in which no single one possesses a privileged status. Such an organization differs greatly from what may be called a monogenetic structure (sometimes attributed to the Comedy), which unfolds from a unitary base and thus imposes a more restricted basis for interpretation.

(A.T.) Adapted from: D'Andrea, Antonio. "Le Rubriche del Decameron". Yearbook of Italian Studies. 1973-1975: 41-67.

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