Framing the Decameron

In the 14th century Boccaccio began to grapple with conceptions of narrative which artists had not explored before. The Decameron's structure resembles a series of frames that digress within each other; the external narrator tells the reader about 10 internal narrators who in turn tell stories that occasionally contain characters who tell stories.

In the Renaissance, artists continued to confront concepts of narrative and perception. "Cartesian perspectivalism," born in the Renaissance, has become the "dominant, even totally hegemonic, visual model of the modern era" (Jay, p. 4). Today we take this visual model for granted. Historically, it is based on "Renaissance notions of perspective in the visual arts" as outlined in Alberti's De Pictura and "Cartesian ideas of subjective rationality in philosophy" (Jay, p. 4). Alberti's metaphor depicts a canvas as a transparent window that distances the artist from the subject. Alberti separates artistic form and content, by creating a realistic image separate from his emotional opinion of the image and the emotions the image may provoke (Jay, p. 8).

Stephen Heath discusses Leonardo da Vinci's concept of frame and perspective, which connects closely to Alberti's concepts. Da Vinci likens perspective to "nothing else than seeing a place (or objects) behind a pane of glass, quite transparent, on the surface of which the objects behind that glass are drawn..." Heath reflects that "(i)t is worth noting, indeed, in Renaissance (and post-Renaissance) painting the powerful attraction of the window as theme, the fascination with the rectangle of tamed light, the luminously defined space of vision" (Heath, p. 34). He immediately historicizes this comment: "before the fifteenth century, frames hardly exist, other than as the specific architectural setting that is to be decorated (wall, altarpiece, or whatever); it is during that century that frames begin to have an independent reality, this concomitant with the growth of the notion itself of 'a painting' (the first instance of the use of the word 'frame' in an artistic sense recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is c. 1600)" (Heath, p. 33-34).

Many interpreters have spoken of "narrative frames" within the Decameron. Clearly, however, this metaphor is layered with meaning. In the information-rich present day, analyzing the narrative complexity of the Decameron in terms of "frames" seems natural; spectators and readers are used to the story within the story format as well as to the notions of intertextuality and metatextuality. The Decameron appeals to our modern sensibilities which are accustomed to television and film. Our ability to appreciate the text's complexity intricately connects to terms used in recent theoretical discourse. Is the Decameron such a radically modern text or are we projecting our view back upon a text that was, in fact, quite consistent with the culture of its time? Analyzing the Decameron in terms of framing appears to be in fact retro-active. The frame model did not seem to exist in cultural discourse or artistic language when Boccaccio was formulating the appropriate structure for the Decameron. Analyses of the Decameron, made with the history of the "frames" model in mind, demands a more informed and complex (frame)work.

(C.M.) Martin Jay, "Scopic Regimes of Modernity" in Foster, Hal ed., Vision and Visuality. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988, pp. 4-8; Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space" Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981, pp. 33-34.

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